30 avril 2012

Disappearing Act I (European Exports to USA)

Disappearing Act IV is organized by the Czech Center, the Romanian Cultural Institute and the Group of European Cultural Institutes and Diplomatic Representations in New York. Sponsored by the EU Delegation to the UN. Curated and produced by Irena Kovarova.

(17 April 2009) 1h16'
With :
  • John Vanco, vice president and general manager of IFC Center 
  • Jytte Jensen, MoMA curator of film and member of selection committee of the New Directors/New Films festival
  • Richard Peña, director of the New York Film Festival, program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and professor of film at Columbia University
  • A.O. Scott, film critic of the New York Times
  • Florence Almozini, BAMcinématek program director
  • Eugene Hernandez, editor in chief and cofounder of indieWire.com
  • Moderated by Irena Kovarova, independent film programmer

My notes:

Branding "new waves" blah blah blah (see: Film Theory Branding / Neo-Neo)... it's not to "pigeonhole" these filmmakers, but in the end it is really pigeonholing them, to oversimplify, to vulgarize, to market them without the need to get into deeper considerations... Especially when it comes to speculating on a coin flip whether this or that wave will succeed or last, after seeing less than a dozen movies 2 years in a row... as if a summary judgment could determine the larger scope of long-term history in a whim, a catch-phrase and a wild prediction...

The phrase "European cinema" means "art cinema" to the American audience. And it denies the possibility that Europe could produce mainstream and commercial entertainment, therefore doesn't even consider distributing European titles in USA multiplexes... not only because they are subtitled, but because they are stigmatized as "obscure", "difficult", "challenging"... while there are lots of blockbuster formats made in Europe that could appeal to a mass audience anywhere in the world once translated. Yet they never get marketed, let alone seen by the American audience. The "foreign cinema" card is overplayed in America, it doesn't correspond to reality. 
The manichaean opposition between the popular entertainment made in USA and the rest of the world unable to produce popular entertainment is total bullshit. A brainwashing selling point that protects the isolationist mentality from a fair competition with foreign imports, which is sold by the studios and everyone directly profiting from an exclusive American-market and adopted, digested, regurgitated as it, uncritically by the American media, the American journalists, the American reviewers, the American critics, the American curators, American distributors, the American exhibitors, the American audience... All perpetuating this self-deceiving lie, just to remain in the comfort of their isolationist bubble. Without anyone in the USA ever imagining that maybe there is an alternate way to look at things, and that having non-American entertainment to a mass audience is not in the realm of impossible... 
If exporting Hollywood to foreign cultures is possible, if other countries like India or Hong Kong or Egypt or Turkey or Brazil or Nigeria or Korea or Spain or France CAN successfully export their idiosyncratic entertainment (not to mention artfilms eventually) to distant countries who don't speak the language... 
There are no justification, no exception, no excuse that could explain why the American market is physically, structurally, economically, culturally incapable to welcome the film production made outside their homeland, GREAT entertainment (as good or as average as their Hollywood counterparts), GREAT art films (of world-class fame and sometimes even commercially successful) that many people love in the world.
What is worse is that there is not a soul amongst the USA film community (critics, scholars and distributors alike) who would think otherwise and dare say it out loud and find something constructive to do to get things changed and done. Are they all useless? 
The American market is not a deadlock enforced by a brutal totalitarian regime... it's only an economic monopoly in a democratic country that could easily be unlocked. 
If it was about the American critics, we'd still be waiting for them to praise Hollywood Westerns and open film departments in universities... It wasn't easy to support the "Studio system" (when its corruption didn't completely subdue any form of creativity), but a group of French critics believed in it and fought for it for years before it got recognition (against the better judgement of the establishment defending European cinema). 
The Young Turks didn't sit around at panels finding excuses, evading any blames to anyone or clinging to the so easy patriotic, chauvinistic bandwagon of domestic cinema veneration...
When will American culture pays its cultural dept ???? and put some efforts into securing a DECENT niche within the American market??? WHEN? Fucking useless... ungrateful bunch of fanatic self-serving DVD collectors.

John Vanco : "It's not like there is a shortage of good films [..] Some would say there is a shortage of adventurous distributors who are willing to take a plunge. [..] It's hard to blame the distributor, it's hard to blame the exhibitor... [..] It's hard not to point finger at audiences. On the other hand there are so many distractions, so many options..."
Basically nobody is to blame... it just doesn't work and there is nothing we can do about it! 
If the mainstream audience was defecting the multiplexes in favour of DVDs, VoD, or online piracy... I would consider the claim that the multitude of offers is making theatrical screens more competitive. It's not true. It was wrong in 2009, it is still wrong in 2012, 3 years later. The global theatrical attendance in the USA just about maintains its level. There is no dramatic drop that would translate the substitution of the theatrical experience by the mobile device experience. This is bullshit. Hollywood movies keep the same audience. It's only the foreign cinema that struggles in the margin. This is a very targeted competition, that looks every way like protectionism, even if there is no official or legal regulations in place. Hollywood studios get as many screens they need, and as much audience they want. It's only foreign films that are treated like second-class citizens, cornered in such a position of invisibility that becoming profitable is out of the question. The distribution system makes sure to keep foreign films away from American audiences, to avoid the risk that their taste evolve and giving their admission fee to foreign cinema.

Richard Peña : "I don't think I would necessarily blame the audience, but I wanna blame Reagan-Bush that led to 28 years of conservative mindset which took over the USA, which was a negation of the time before that. Which was decades of openness in the USA, higher education [..]"
Yeah, yeah, yeah. In a democratic country, when there is political partisanship alternance, it goes from all white to all black overnight. Even if the election result was 51-49%, with half of the country (only) being conservative... the simple presence of Republicans in power obviously make 100% of the people to stop liking and watching foreign cinema... What a fine political analysis... you're not living in Soviet Russia dude! And your federal government doesn't even provide financial aid to the private movie sector... so how would a government change would affect how the media, the journalists, the critics, the curators, the distributors, the exhibitors do their job, and how the audience consume cultural goods??? I don't think democratic elections have that much leverage on individual taste! 
If arthouse exhibition is sustainable in countries with a lesser economy than the USA, chances are the USA could succeed too if they tried! It's just that you suck at this job and give up too easily, or you don't have the full commitment that other countries show. The USA is the IDEAL market in many ways. It is also a very profit-oriented market, alright, but at least you start from a place where there is money, and all you have to do is to educate the audience's taste. Other countries start lower than that, without money or even a movie industry or an exhibition infrastructure. They have to build up everything. EVERYTHING! So stop complaining from your undisputed number 1 rank of world economies. 

Richard Peña : "The rise of the American independent film is a factor, in the sense that it was attractive to the American audiences about foreign films were sex and politics. These were things that foreign films gave Americans which Americans gave reluctantly. American independent films filled some of that gap."
The rise of the American Indies of the 90ies since Stranger Than Paradise, might explain the physical saturation of the screens. Sure. Although studios could have slowed down their mainstream output if the specialty divisions worked so well (since they bank on both sides)... without increasing the total number of titles distributed, which is what makes competition for visibility so much harder. This should shrink the marginal share for imports. And if the mainstream audience developed an interest in indies, it's certainly easier to drag them from this middle ground toward world cinema, it shouldn't make them less open to an alternative choice to the typical Hollywood genres. The indie "boom" should have been a stepping stone into a more open minded culture! 

Richard Peña : "Even now, you think of the economics of the market, if you're a distributor you're gonna buy either a foreign-language film or an American film. If you buy both of them and put them in the movie theatre, and both make say $500,000. Well that's just the beginning of what that American independent film will make (video, cable, airplanes...) Whereas the foreign film it's done, that's really it."
Why? WHY? WHY??? 
Who says it's the end? The market tells you they don't want to risk investments in ancillary, cross-platforms, long-run career for a foreign film... and you take them at their words? 
It's just a cultural good to be sold on a free market. There is no fatality about it. It works in other countries so YOU CAN MAKE IT WORK in the USA too. TRY HARDER. Try at all, that would be a good start... Who says a 1 week run on 6 screens top is all a foreign film can expect??? It only happens because American distributors/exhibitors are pussies! Seeking the most profitable products to sell is one thing, and giving visibility to cultural goods that deserve financial risks, and long-term commitment is another. Don't say you're not in it for the money if you only market products that are already in demand (or pre-ordered). The job of a responsible distributor is to put its money where its taste is, and make it work somehow, by diversifying, by negociating with exhibitors, by trusting the audience (provided they are given a chance to see the film at all), by relying on social media power to form spontaneous mobs of fans around a mutual interest, by organising cine-club debates around a film... By slowly building up a cinephile appetite and culture that will prove to become profitable the next time you show these people another foreign film. By being patient and giving more screening time to marginal films. If you give up on world cinema because they don't bank 1 million dollar on the opening weekend, like every easy-sale Hollywood products... you don't know what is the job of an independent distributor! 
That's the problem of Americans... they only know 2 ways to sell a movie : the blockbuster way, or the one-off screening just to get listed in the NYT. Can you think about it for a second? Of course, the movies which systematically get the privileged treatment will continue to be successful again and again. And of course, the marginal films rendered virtually invisible will continue to stay obscured in American culture. 
So you only invest in foreign cinema when there is an automatic appeal to the crowd, by chance, when the interest is ALREADY there, like with neo-realism or Bergman (or foreign mainstream entertainment that is labeled "artfilm" for its subtitles)? How about when it's not easy? 

Eugene Hernandez (indieWIRE) : the undistributed list on the year-end critics' poll (2011) 
Yeah, it's nice effort to publish once a year a list of (favourite) title not yet acquired by American distributors... At least I used to think so. Now, since it has had a decisive impact on the distribution diversity. I wonder if it isn't a way to forget about it and feel good about having done something positive. If only they revisited it regularly and kept track of the shelf-life of each title... (more on that later)

A.O.Scott (NYT) : "I think it's possible to make too much of that category. I mean... "foreign films"... I'm not sure even... I don't know. I get frustrated with that kind of sorting out. I'm sort of a maybe utopian. I think that there are films. There are good ones and bad ones. I prefer the good ones."
What a coward cop out when invited on a panel ABOUT the lackluster distribution of FOREIGN FILMS in your country!!! So do you approve the release of foreign films on the American market on only 1% of the available screens? Does that correspond to what you deem "good film" amongst the 5000 foreign films made each year? Is that your position on the issue? If they aren't given any visibility in the USA it's because they aren't good enough to American standards? Are you fucking kidding me? 

Why American "critics" are always apologetic or evading about this central issue of their distribution market?  If there were competent film critics in the USA they would come up with solutions instead of excuses at these kind of debates... Where is the plan of action? What are you gonna do about it rather than sticking your head in the sand and keep doing your daily assembly line job of reviewing the system-approved batch of titles every week? It's not with such a lack of motivation and initiative (let alone any grasp of the problematics) that a culture is to move ahead and adapt to a difficult situation, overcome it and start breaking the downward slope. 


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