If I can, I want address some of the issues regarding distribution that were raised in earlier posts, as well as the comments section.
As we all know, the distribution landscape has changed tremendously over the past year or so. DVD sales of arthouse/independent titles are down, and speculation abounds as to which distribution solution will dominate — downloads, streaming, set-top boxes, Blu-ray, PPV/VOD, etc. It seems that every fortnight I receive another press release about a new site offering streaming content, either for free or purchase, yet none have proven to be terribly successful yet. (iTunes of course is doing well, but primarily for Hollywood and TV titles.) Digital rights aggregators are aggressively signing deals with filmmakers left and right, in hopes of having a monopoly on content that providers will have to turn to for content. Their model is quantity over quality—strictly Long Tail economics —and from what I've seen the terms of the deal aren't always in the filmmakers' favor.
In terms of foreign films, things are getting increasingly difficult, and not just for small companies such as Benten, but even for the established distributors who have specialized in such films for decades. In a press release that went out earlier this week, IFC announced that they have acquired a handful of films for their Festival Direct line, including Gerardo Naranjo’s I'm Gonna Explode, Francois Ozon’s Angel, Denys Arcand’s Days of Darkness, Phillipe Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn, Amos Gitai’s Disengagement, Christophe Honore’s La Belle personne, Bela Tarr's The Man From London, and Hong Sang Soo’s Night and Day, to name but a few. For those unfamiliar, Festival Direct titles do not receive theatrical distribution, but are rather made available on IFC's video-on-demand channel (which, as of November 2008, is available in 32 million households nationwide) followed by a DVD release.
I'm of two minds about IFC. On the one hand, you have to give them credit for their taste. There's genuine curation going on, and a look at their complete list of titles reveals a quality consistency that can't be denied. There is also something to be said about the democratization of the VOD format — where once only people in major cities could see the latest Chabrol film, now cinephiles all across the country can see it immediately, and not have to wait for a possible rollout that may never come.
The downside to all this is that people in this country will never get to experience these films on a big screen, which is a shame. The Ozon and Tarr films are both visually stunning, and I can't help but think a fair amount is lost when viewing at home. However, from an economic perspective their decision makes complete sense, as theatrical audiences for such films are dwindling, and the chances of recouping costs associated with a theatrical run are slim.
Benten Films was extremely interested in two of the above-mentioned titles, and we did what we could to acquire them, but we just can't compete with what IFC has to offer. (Other companies are also feeling the pinch as a result.) IFC does release DVDs of their Festival Direct titles, but in my opinion there's not a huge emphasis on quality or collectability, which raises bigger questions about what cinephiles want and/or expect from DVD releases, and that's something I'd like to throw out for discussion. Our approach at Benten is to create releases that are worth owning, with an attention to quality, design, and supplementary features that justify the price. Yet there are many companies putting little effort (read: dollars) in their releases of long-anticipated titles, and people are buying them nonetheless.
In terms of other foreign films (i.e., those that IFC leaves for the rest of us), it's been my experience that there's still a gross misconception about the American market. Foreign sales agents are looking for unreasonable cash advances, citing the sheer size of the US market, without realizing the moderate size of the audience for such titles. It's frustrating to say the least. Producers and sales companies would rather these films go undistributed than to give them up for a price they deem unworthy. As a result, there are films that people want to see, but can't. This has given rise to fan subtitling, and there are a plenty of websites with fairly extensive databases of subtitle files to download free of charge.
Expectations all around need to change — from producers, sales companies, and distributors. Of course nobody wants to lose money, but the flourishing grey and black markets for such titles indicate that there is an audience out there. Greed shouldn't be a factor in the equation.
Kevin — what have been your experiences with dGenerate and the acquisition of Chinese independent titles?