I consider the closing of Wellspring's theatrical distribution arm to be a death knell for foreign film distribution in America. There are already far too few opportunities for foreign films to be seen on our theatrical screens, but I consider this to be a complicated problem. The first is obviously political; we are living in a time when internationalism, connections to other cultures, diverse perspectives and ideas are considered to be culturally irrelevant. Not only is Hollywood killing foreign film abroad, but it has already decisively won the war on the home front and the politics of hegemony, isolationism, and the lowest common denominator are certainly reflected in the cinematic marketplace. In addition, in so far as most foreign film in America is dedicated to the idea that art should challenge audiences to examine their assumptions, well, there is no domestic cultural network that supports art, challenging ideas, or foreign perspectives. Where is the cinema culture in America? Even our most non-commercial, independent outlets have dedicated more time to the ascension of the mini-majors than they ever do for the films that a company like Wellspring was interested in bringing to American audiences; Red Lights, In The Realms Of The Unreal, Kings and Queen, Unknown White Male, Girlhood, Seducing Dr. Lewis, Wild Side, Reel Paradise. These are tremendous films, and as I programmer, I have programmed and championed all of them (and have loved so many more) because this is the cinema in which I truly believe; the cinema of ideas.
Don't Look Back: Claire Denis' L'Intrus, one of Wellspring's recent acquisitions
The second problem I see is economic; we are talking about the slimmest of margins for these companies. The idea that a film company is migrating its entire foreign film distribution business to DVD and firing its entire theatrical distribution staff in order to save a mere $1 million dollars in overhead tells me that this has nothing to do with Wellspring as a business or movies at all; it is about Wellspring as an asset. Reading the statement from Genius CEO Trevor Drinkwater, he himself apparently no genius, is a chilling experience and one that should disturb all lovers of film:
"This realignment supports an aggressive acquisition campaign to build on the Wellspring brand with critically acclaimed films that celebrate intelligent cinema, while at the same time, supporting our strategy of leveraging our core competency by focusing on the sales and distribution of higher margin, packaged entertainment products at retail," said Genius Products CEO Trevor Drinkwater in a statement today. "Genius remains committed to the independent film industry and we are moving forward with indie releases. We're just going to handle them in a different manner than we did before."
Clearly, a man who loves movies. Let me translate that for you:
"We want to make more money, and these films don't make enough, so we're going to withhold them from the theatrical marketplace in order to drive up demand for DVDs, where we can charge $20 plus per unit and spend about $1 of overhead. Thanks for acquiring so many films over the past few years, Wellspringers... I am sure Harvey and Bob will make something from them as now they have the infrastructure for their own DVD label!"
Note to Jacques Audiard: Try next time to create art that can be leveraged as part of a core competency of selling higher margin entertainment products at retail. Even a relative hit like The Beat That My Heart Skipped didn't help Wellspring.
Next up was this hum-dinger:
"We celebrate the members of our theatrical distribution team for their inspired and dedicated efforts, which have made the 700-title Wellspring library what it is today. Genius will continue to position this world-class catalog and any new acquisitions as the ultimate destination for original independent and art-related films."
Yes, Genius CEO Trevor Drinkwater, whenever I look online for show times and tickets to the now absent-from-the-marketplace foreign titles that Wellspring (and pretty much Wellspring alone) handled, I will think to myself "Which company has the positioned the best catalogue of exploitable properties? I certainly hope that the latest foreign title which has played in Cannes and Toronto and now has no theatrical outlet in America has chosen Wellspring as its destination so that at least I can sit home alone with my DVD player and watch the film on my television." Oh, and P.S. how does an idea like 'world class catalogue and any new acquisitions' going straight to DVD jibe with your 'aggressive acquisition strategy?' I can see the lines for Palindromes forming at the Wal-Mart now. And I can't wait to download and watch five minute clips of L'Intrus on my iPod. Whatever could be next?
Unexploitable asset: Marina de Van's brutally powerful In My Skin
This is the complete undermining of the collective, theatrical experience which, as a film festival programmer, is something that I consider to be THE essential component of cinematic pleasure. The idea that art will be relegated solely to a private financial transaction between an individual, isolated multimedia buyer and a smaller and smaller batch of media owners completely goes against the nature of what going to the movies has always meant. Most disturbingly, the idea that trying to save one's own bottom line by gutting your business and then passing it off as 'marketplace innovation' is absurd; just because you can make more money on a DVD than you can on a film ticket doesn't make this strategy innovative. Instead, it is ideas like these, where shortsighted profit taking eviscerates the long term business and the PRINCIPLE of the business, that usually signals the beginning of the end. If cinema is reduced to iPod screens and television monitors, well, maybe it isn't worth participating in. Sometimes, making large profits isn't the point. Gasp.
It is certainly a savvy business decision for The Weinstein Company to have a distribution system for their own DVDs as well as a catalogue of films from which they and can profit. But at what cost to moviegoers? Anyone in their right mind looking at the Weinstein Company slate for 2006/2007 can see that there is not a single title on there that reflects the kind of film that Wellspring would have brought to places like The Film Forum, The Cinema Village, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, etc. And while I expect nothing but big numbers when Scary Movie 4 opens in theaters next month, I am not so sure how I'll feel about seeing it released via Wellspring DVD. There is now a void, and while wonderful companies like Magnolia, Tartan and THINKFilm have all of my support in the hopes that they will continue to provide challenging, engaging titles, I can't say I'm overly optimistic about the future of challenging and foreign film in America.
Let' be honest, foreign titles need all the help they can get. Domestic film festivals are being priced out of the marketplace for most foreign product by foreign rights holders seeking €1000 and beyond for a single film. Tiny domestic distributors have clearly learned this game; many are now using non-profit festivals as a profit center in order to recoup money on tiny films that have traditionally benfited from playing festivals. Audiences, growing more indifferent as media saturates every aspect of their lives, can't even find peace in the movie theater, as exhibitors have infantilized the movies and based their business on becoming a public space for 15 to 18 year olds. Besides, multiplexes themselves have never been a harbor for difficult films. Art house theaters are being offered more profitable choices from mini-majors who have brought some terrific films to the marketplace, but most of these are domestic independents or foreign action films. Without reversals in all of these key areas-- not changes, reversals-- I don't expect that foreign film will ever build a grassroots following in America. Without little companies like Wellspring who put quality above money in order to make these films available to even the most marginal of audiences, I really can't hold much hope that a great re-flowering of the 1950's and 60's foreign film boom will ever occur.
I'll leave you with a final word from Wellspring itself. I remember reading Anthony Kaufman's article on foreign film in indieWIRE just over a year ago, and there was a paragraph describing how Ryan Werner, then at Wellspring, was personally handling the entire marketing campaign for Goodbye, Dragon Inn (one of my personal favorites):
"We didn't expect these films to make huge amounts of money," says Ryan Werner, head of distribution for Wellspring, which released both Goodbye Dragon Inn and Notre Musique. "But I think we're going to have to be more careful about doing smaller films, like Goodbye Dragon Inn in the future. It's not like we can't make them work, but I had to do everything in-house. Was it worth it at the end of the day? I guess it is."
Yes, it certainly is.