Foreign films a tough sell in America, but remakes thrive

AFP , Sunday 7 Sep 2014

Subtle cultural differences and subtitles often make the business of selling foreign-language films in the North American marketplace a challenge, but demand for remakes in English is strong.

Several filmmakers and buyers told AFP on the sidelines of the Toronto International Film Festival that a North American distribution deal requires patience and determination.

"Distributors have become timid, and so-so films just won't do anymore," a French seller said.

"Your film and your pitch have to be excellent," added Stine Oppegaard of the Norwegian film institute.

A niche American audience will always go see a film with subtitles at art house cinemas, but "beyond that, to reach the general public is a problem," commented Adeline Monzier, Unifrance's New York-based rep.

French filmmakers have managed to secure a foothold, with a more than 0.5 percent share of box office receipts that peaked at 2.5 percent with the success of "The Artist" and "Intouchables" in 2011, she recalled.

"It seems small but we are the country that has done the best by far," she said.

"There is a certain American audience for art house films. Just look at the success of the Indian film 'The Lunchbox,' which earned $5 million at the box office, or Poland's 'Ida' -- close to $4 million," explains Louis Balsan of the French firm Funny Balloons.

He's in Toronto trying to secure distribution for "Near Death Experience," an offbeat film by Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kerven, starring actor-writer Michel Houellebecq.

He says it should be an easy sell, because the two directors "have their fans" and Houellebecq "is the most published French writer abroad, no?"

Also in his bag is the French production "Pasolini," which premiered in Venice before being screened in Toronto. Making it a bit more saleable in Canada and the United States, it is directed by and stars Americans Abel Ferrara and Willem Dafoe, respectively.

Toronto is not only a great place to find distribution deals for finished works, attracting a massive media and industry grouping, but is also "a perfect place to launch international projects," said Gilles Sousa, Bac sales director.

Bac Films announced in Toronto Nicolas Saada's new film "Taj Mahal," which will feature "Nymphomaniac" star Stacy Martin. The thriller will be set against the backdrop of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Bac is also keen on a remake of Thomas Cailley's film "Les combattants", a story of young people that would resonate well with audiences in other countries, according to Sousa.

Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks are adapting the Japanese film "Like Father, Like Son" by Hirokazu Koreeda, which won the top prize at Cannes in 2013, he noted.

A hindrance for Japan generally, however, according to Kenta Fudesaka, international relations director for UniJapan, which promotes Japanese films abroad, is that "people often think of action films or anime when you mention Japanese films."

Coincidentally Japanese animation film studio Ghibli has managed to get a US distribution deal for its "Tale of Princess Kaguya" but it will be redubbed by known actors Chloe Grace Moretz, Beau Bridges and James Caan, he said.

He recalled also Yojiro Takita not having North American box office success with his "Departures," despite winning a best foreign language film Oscar in 2009.

"Normally that type of Oscar leads to commercial success but this one didn't," he noted.

CFPI, China's film promotion organization, is making its first appearance at the Toronto film festival this year, with a thriller, a romantic comedy and an animated film.

But its Fen Yue acknowledges "cultural differences (in films) are sometimes difficult to understand" by foreign audiences.

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