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Posts from September 2015

Toronto International Film Festival: Simon's blog part 1

Posted Thursday 24 September 2015 by Simon Ward

Let Them Come
Let Them Come was a very pleasant surprise for Simon at TIFF; a hidden gem about the creep of Jihadism

This year, the Toronto International Film Festival celebrates its fortieth birthday. It has become the largest, and most pre-eminent, festival in the Americas. Where Sundance has carved out an identity as home of the independent (and largely North American) filmmaker, and both New York and Tribeca field impressive line-ups, it is to Toronto that the industry looks for the serious business of buying and selling films and showcasing the leading Oscar contenders each year. Toronto is second only to Cannes as a professional market place and between the two, it's possible to cover pretty much all the key international titles emerging in any one year. The official programme showcases close to 300 films drawn from 73 countries. What I’m getting at here is it is a behemoth of the festival circuit. The choice on offer can be bewildering but richly rewarding too. 

Arriving late on the opening night, Thursday 10th, I managed to sort out my accreditation and get something to eat before trying to get some sleep (my body clock telling me it was 3AM UK time!).

Despite a fantastic performance by Christopher Plummer, Atom Egoyan's Remember had trouble mounting its morally complex subject matter

The festival started in earnest with my first screening at 8.30AM the following morning. Atom Egoyan, one of the most established and revered filmmakers in Canada, is showing his latest feature, Remember, a kind of Nazi Holocaust Death Wish revenge film starring Christopher Plummer (in an excellent performance) as an ageing camp survivor faced with impending death and suffering dementia which has all but wiped out his short term memory, attempting to search for and kill the Nazi commandant who murdered his family during the Holocaust. It’s undoubtedly an intriguing premise, and I heard one festival-goer describe it as being like Christopher Nolan’s Memento crossed with Schindler’s List. If that degree of flippancy sits a little uneasily with you alongside such a weighty and horrendous piece of history, then you have the measure of this unsettling piece of entertainment. I love many Egoyan films, but creating an at times far fetched fictional thriller out of such historically profound suffering left me feeling very uneasy indeed.

Right Now Wrong Then
ICO fave Hong Sangsoo lands another success with Right Now, Wrong Then

Thankfully, Hong Sangsoo’s Right Now, Wrong Then came up next for me, hot off winning the Golden Leopard at the recent Locarno Film Festival, and provided another of Hong’s trademark puzzle narratives centred around the relationships between men and women, and more accurately a male film director and young female student. It’s a familiar conceit for Hong (and I’m hoping many of you will be familiar with his work after the ICO toured both the man himself, and 12 of his films around the UK a few years back) but, as ever, it’s all in the detail as a wry exploration of masculinity and hubris unfolds from multiple perspectives. A must see at this year’s London Film Festival if you can make the trip.

If Hong delivered a bitter sweet melancholy that frequently tickled my funny bone, then Michael Moore took his trademark wide-eyed-politically-naive-American abroad schtick into laugh-out-loud and jaw-dropping cringe with his acerbic, but ultimately optimistic Where to Invade Next. I am confident it will eventually get UK distribution, although at the time it had no US or UK distributor and had been funded out of Michael Moore’s own pocket. The film posits Moore as an American ‘invading’ countries around the world in order to steal their best ideas in fields like education and welfare and take them back to the USA. Even if it is, as ever, rather partisan and doesn’t deal in subtlety, it manages to be very funny and very serious at the same time, which is a rare feat Moore appears to accomplish with ease. It should be box office gold for the indie exhibition sector when it eventually makes its way to a UK release.

Where to Invade Next
Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore's tour of the world's policies that the United States could learn from, proved both funny and informative 

Let Them Come was one of those films which just happened to work out timetable-wise for me at the festival, and even though I had heard nothing about it whatsoever, it was one of the strongest films I saw at TIFF. With a somewhat similar story to Timbuktu, this Algerian film focused on a middle-class government clerk and his family as they try to maintain a sense of normalcy under the impending shadow of radical Islamic fundamentalism. As the clerk tries to ignore what is happening all around him and lead a decent life, violence and ignorance rule the day and soon he finds himself and his family desperately trying to survive against an implacable and totally alien mindset which pits neighbour against neighbour. It’s riveting, tense and deeply humanist in its approach to a now familiar narrative of War on Terror. I saw three films this festival which involved drone warfare and Islamic Fundamentalism and, despite their larger budgets and starrier casts, none of them had anything like the gut-wrenching power of this small Algerian film.

Mustang, already tagged as 'Turkey's The Virgin Suicides', continued to win fans in the ICO office following its Cannes debut

Next up for me was Mustang, a film which everyone seems to love (including at least two other ICO staff and Europa Cinemas who awarded it a prize in Cannes). I was no exception and found myself completely beguiled by this tale of a dominating Turkish father and his attempts to keep his daughters ‘pure’ and untainted by the outside world until he can marry them off in ‘respectable’ fashion. The film is a more accessible and female focused version of films like Dogtooth or indeed the recent doc The Wolfpack, looking at how a petty father figure all but destroys his own family through his inability to trust in his own children’s ability to navigate the world around them. As a political metaphor it’s powerful and presumably why we see this story being played out time and time again from around the world (Room at TIFF is another variant, as is Miss Violence, Bad Boy Bubby and even The Virgin Suicides to some extent). It’s a lively, idiosyncratic, wry and heartfelt film which should prove a substantial arthouse hit when it eventually gets a UK theatrical release later in the year.

Evolution is the much anticipated new film from Lucile Hadžihalilovic, bringing another brilliant unsettling horror to match her Innocence

It’s been over 10 years since Lucile Hadžihalilovic gave us the truly singular and disturbing Innocence. Like that stunning feature debut, Evolution, her sophomore feature, is an at once breathtakingly beautifully constructed piece of art cinema, and a disturbing exploration of a hermetically sealed and sexually perverse world. On a mysterious Island (well Lanzarote actually) a community of boys live with their mothers (or so it seems) and participate in a series of medical experiments. When one boy shows a little too much curiosity bad things happen… This was perhaps the most anticipated film of the festival for me and while it didn’t quite deliver as I had hoped, it absolutely is like nothing else in cinema and for that alone deserves to be seen. But I suspect its audience is compact to say the least… It might help orientate people to know that Hadžihalilovic is Gaspar Noe’s partner and they clearly share a love of challenging cinema, which is a plus in my book, but certainly not to everyone’s taste.

After Evolution I started in on a run of the big hitters gearing up for the Awards season and all jostling for critical buzz… Next up Eye in the Sky, Anomalisa, Black Mass, High Rise, Sunset Song, Room, The Danish Girl and a whole lot more…

10 Years of Second Run: the UK's best DVD distributor?

Posted Thursday 10 September 2015 by Duncan Carson in Film Releases

Second Run montage

This Friday sees the first theatrical release from one of the UK’s best DVD labels, Second Run. Horse Money is the latest film from Portugal’s Pedro Costa, lauded at festivals worldwide for its amazing use of light and deep dive into the world of Ventura, a Cape Verdean living in Lisbon. We sat down with Mehelli Modi to talk about what makes a Second Run film, refusing to eat unless shown cinema and what films he’s been proudest to be part of.

Did you always have an interest in film?
My father and my mother were both in filmmaking. Almost from the time I was born I remember the bits of 35mm film lying everywhere. I’m told when I was two years old I would never eat my food unless I had a film to watch. It was part of my DNA when I was growing up. Televisions and cinemas would show amazing films when we would travel. They would have seasons of Bresson and Antonioni. All that has disappeared now. All of that taught me about people and cultures.

I came to England to do my chartered accountancy and eventually ended up in the music business. Over the years that business changed and it became much more marketing orientated and then artists were no longer given the time to develop properly. So I moved away from there to go back to my first love, the cinema.

How does Second Run select its titles?
They’re all films I’ve seen and they’re all films I’d like other people to see. Second Run began life in September 2005. I was an avid DVD collector. The advent of DVD was great for me as you could see films in pretty good condition and in the right aspect ratio. You could order DVDs from all over the world. But many of the films I wanted to see were just not available anywhere on DVD. Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s early films for example.

We started with Classic cinema. To bring back things that needed to breathe again. Central and East European cinema especially: Hungarian, Czech and Polish films that had been completely lost from view. Strangely, I had seen a lot of these films when I was growing up in India, which was then a non-aligned nation. The Americans greatly influenced my country through exporting Hollywood cinema. So the Soviet bloc tried to do the same. As a result, films from the Soviet bloc countries would come to India but no one would see them except me! Even here in the UK only the big names made it over, like Andrzej Wajda. So that was a big focus for me, to get those into view again. We cannot stop releasing DVDs: some of these films will never be HD mastered, 35mm projection is gone, and so DVD remains one of the only ways for them to be in circulation.

Land of the Deaf
In the Land of the Deaf, an influential documentary from Nicolas Philibert, was one of Second Run's earliest titles

We release the films we love. It could have died within a year without any positive reaction. We weren’t expecting too much and they were curated without an expectation of big sales. We launched with twenty films, including Nicolas Philibert’s In the Land of the Deaf and Ron Peck’s Nighthawks, as I wanted Second Run to be seen to be as broad as possible, very much world cinema rather than any particular theme.

Few tend to know these films. It keeps our ethic evident and makes sure people work with us for the right reasons. Doing just one release a month also means you can be very clear and not put anything out just for the sake of it. We still release one film a month and sometimes supplement that with a box set. We also feel that adding context to these films is really essential. People need to understand why we think these films are worth championing and where they come from. The booklets and on-disc interviews are important for that.

Is there such a thing as a ‘Second Run type of film’?
People definitely feel there is! That’s the most amazing feedback I get, that people understand who we are.  Because there are now people and other filmmakers saying, ‘Have you seen this? Would you release this?’ I feel we’ve got across to people what we were trying to do. One of the things I’m struck by is that, unlike in my previous industry, almost everyone we meet in film is actually really kind and generous to us. We’re not a threat to the studios! There’s a camadarie and respect between the UK’s other excellent specialist labels: Arrow, BFI and the Masters of Cinema.

Daisies, now becoming a cult classic, is one of Second Run's bestselling titles

Have any films become much larger than you would have guessed?
Věra Chytilová’s Daisies is a good example. When we first released it, no one really came to watch it. We were dragging people into see it, with maybe 10 or 12 people in the audience. Last year we did Wilton's Music Hall for Scalarama and it was completely packed out. Now there's a whole new audience for it, many between 15 and 25 years old.

It’s a slow build with our films and you have to keep working at it all the time. Not many companies have that time to devote to each release. In the ‘70s music business, artist development was so important and I follow that model. You take time and build a catalogue that lets you do that. No one thing in particular keeps you afloat.

Are there particular films that have been highlights for you?
One film is František Vlácil's Marketa Lazarova.  It had never even been released on home video in its own country. It’s almost three hours long, in black and white, widescreen, Czech language, set in the snow and the director was no longer alive. How do you promote a film like that? But I have always wanted to release it and it surprised me the most. People reacted to this amazing film. It slowly became one of our better sellers. Now even Criterion and the Czechs have released it on home video. 

Apitchatpong too, of course. We released Blissfully Yours, which had never been released theatrically in the UK. And his Tropical Malady had also not been released on home video here. The films of Miklós Jancsó were a definite highlight. A major filmmaker, whose work was no longer seen in the UK. Curzon cinemas did a weekend of his films and we brought Mr Jancsó over and went with him from London to Edinburgh screening his films. We’ve now released five of his films and I was very happy that his work began to be seen again before he passed away at the age of 92 last year.

Marketa Lazarova
Marketa Lazarova: denied a release in its country of origin, Second Run have led the way for its resurgence in recent years

It’s your tenth year as a distributor. Was it a conscious decision to do your first theatrical film release now?
It wasn’t a planned thing. With Second Run DVD, the idea was to also release the work of great contemporary filmmakers whose films were not seen in the UK. Now there are many contemporary filmmakers whose great work is never seen even in the cinema, where it should be seen. We wanted to see if we could bring the same kind of ethos to selecting a film and releasing it theatrically. It happened organically. Horse Money hadn’t been picked up at the time and Pedro Costa was very happy to experiment with us and he’s prepared a lot of materials for us. Our approach is curatorial and it’s in the hands of the filmmakers. If there is a response to this, there are many other filmmakers that I’d like to release theatrically. Even renowned filmmakers have problems now with releasing the next film they make!

And what’s your relationship with Pedro Costa?
I met Pedro Costa because I met Apichatpong and he put me in touch with Pedro, who has now put me in touch with Víctor Erice and Lav Diaz. First of all though, Pedro is for me one of contemporary cinema’s most important filmmakers. And it’s not just his own films, but his knowledge of cinema from around the world. He has the history of cinema in his head. He’s also been shooting his later films on digital and shows you what can be done using digital.

Horse Money
Ventura, star of Horse Money and many other Pedro Costa films, which is released in UK cinemas on 18th September

Why does the specific space of the cinema matter to you?
I grew up watching films with people. Whatever you do in the first fifteen years of life ends up being very important in what you do! Films were made for people to watch together. I am a 35mm purist I must say, but have learnt to accept and move with technology.

Is there anything you’re desperate to release that’s yet to see the light of day?
Many of things that I thought would never see the light of day are now out there! Rivette’s Out 1 is now being released here thanks to Arrow. Aleksei Gherman’s early films I would love to release now that Hard to be a God is out. Kira Muratova, whose work is totally unseen in the UK. Her early work is stunning. We were moving ahead with her films but then the Russians walked into the Ukraine! Barbara Loden’s Wanda is another. The list doesn’t get any smaller!

Khrustalyov, My Car!
Khrustalyov, My Car!: One of the late Aleksei German's films that Second Run would be keen to distribute

What’s the team like at Second Run?
Well, there’s two and a half people, myself included! We’re only there because the filmmakers made these wonderful things and because of the response we get from people, the complete help and love we’ve had from people over time. If we took funds from outside investors, the agenda would inevitably change. And so we have to do it ourselves somehow. People react to what we do because it’s not cynical. It means we remain at a boutique level from choice.

And finally, what effect has Second Run and cinema had on you?
It’s made me into a more empathetic person. It’s brought me amazing friends. It’s kept me happy. I’ve been incredibly lucky to do something I love. I don’t mind working all the hours in a day. I find that as the world gets more conscious of money, as a reaction, there’s another group who keeps things alive because they love them.

How a distributor acquires a film: Attica's blog

Posted Tuesday 8 September 2015 by Duncan Carson in Cinema Careers, FEDS scheme, General, Training & Conferences

Attica Dakhil

This year we're running our Film FEDS scheme, aimed at giving young trainees an opportunity to learn on the job in film distribution, exhibition and international sales. Here, one of our trainees, Attica Dakhil, working at StudioCanal, gives her impressions of the experience.

Script reading
Script reading is the first opportunity in the long chain of acquisition

Script reading considering an audience and a market

My role is at StudioCanal as a trainee assisting the Production and Acquisitions teams in assessing submissions, helping with daily administrative tasks and pre-festival and market organization. Being placed in the Acquisitions and Production department means that there is a lot of reading of scripts, books or pitches; watching of screeners; and getting invitations to sales screenings: all submissions that will be assessed and eventually bought, marketed and distributed.

The decision making process that leads to a film being acquired is fascinating (in my opinion!). There are many factors to be considered. For example, the tastes and the slate of the company, box office and DVD sales prediction, as well as comparative titles or also marketing considerations.

An additional part of my trainee placement consists of script reading, watching screeners or attending sales screenings and learning to assess them considering an audience. What I had to learn is imagining a target audience for the film and finding comparative titles. Personally, I haven’t lived in the UK for long, so I am learning to roughly understand and get a feel for UK audiences’ tastes and its market.

Having studied literature I read quite a lot, and also had film exams and developed analytical skills, which turned out to be quite useful for the script reading. But of course, yes, you will consider the script as a potential piece of literary/cinematographic art, analysing and assessing it, but you must also keep in mind the business, and thus consider the audience and where and how it could find a space in the market. It is really here that I understood how much art and business intermix in the film industry.

Dheepan was a recent acquisition in Cannes for StudioCanal, as well as the Palme D'Or

Working with film festivals and markets

This is a very exciting and busy time. I helped with Berlin and Cannes festivals so far and I am now working on Toronto, Venice and MIPCOM at the moment.

What I really love and find exciting is when the line up is announced (e.g. on industry magazines as Variety). I find it very interesting to read all the loglines and watch the first trailers or stills that will premiere at the festivals, and for Cannes it was also really exciting to work for a company that had five films competing there: Dheepan, Carol, Macbeth, Youth and Mon Roi.

I got a glimpse into the busy pre-festival organisation during Berlin and then actively helped with Cannes by doing, listening and observing. Organisation skills, priority setting and attention to detail are fundamental. To organise the trip for the acquisitions team is quite a lot of work, and it involves flight bookings, setting meetings, finding out availabilities for films in countries of interest, using industry websites as Cinando or IMDBpro and searching for sales agents contacts, paying for the festival accreditations and also reading scripts.

Now Toronto and Venice lie ahead and I hope to make best use of what I have learned during Cannes and Berlin and look forward to discovering new films and learning as much as I can in the last months of my placement.

Admin skills, especially attention to detail and prioritising

During the first months of the traineeship I soon realized how vital it is to master administrative skills and also how important they are, functioning as a sustaining structure of the entire office. Thus so far I really had to strengthen those organising, prioritising and time management skills, as well as Excel (very important!) and having a problem-solving orientated approach.

Starting the job as a graduate I had little experience in administrative work in an office, and especially in a very busy office. Yes, I learned all those skills during my university, since, for example, managing my time and setting priorities was fundamental to organising my workload and passing exams. So, those skills were really useful transferable skills, but it is different if you have to use them in an office, where the team relies on you getting things right, and the pressure is much more intense!

Mon Roi
French-owned StudioCanal has a strong portfolio of French-language releases, such as Cannes titlesMon Roi

Therefore, I really had to enhance those skills (and I am still learning). In particular, I learned to prioritise and pay attention to detail. For example, pre-festival times are crucial and these skills turn out to be necessary. When I helped with the preparation for Cannes, we had to create a schedule with loads of meetings and screenings, and here it was fundamental to pay extreme attention to details, as for example the location or time of a meeting or a screening or if it was a market or a public screening. We did double-check it many times, but the films were so many that mistakes could really happen. So, on location the team will rely on the schedule you created and timings are tight during the market, so if they end up in a wrong location (e.g. cinema 3 instead of 4) that could be a waste of time and, in the worst case, a missed opportunity to buy the film.

During pre-film festivals preparation I also learned that prioritising, being organised and managing your time well are essential. For instance, emails might increase a lot compared to a normal working day and therefore they have to be read and dealt with in order of importance and urgency. It was really useful to write down notes or lists or create Excel tables in order to organise all the new information. It is very easy otherwise to lose the focus and forget things, because of the bombardment of new information, tasks or meetings to set and also the time pressure.

Finally, problem solving. If something goes wrong, or a problem arises, it’s best to think of a solution in the most creative manner possible, even if it is very easy to panic…


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