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Foreign Affairs

5 Oct, 2002 By: Dan Bennett

Hey, it's nothing personal. The use of the title is simply to make a point: Foreign and art-house films have in many ways gone mainstream, often earning the same word-of-mouth once reserved for the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

The Mexican film named above, a theatrical winner now scheduled for release as a special edition DVD from MGM Home Entertainment, is a prime example.

The genre has changed drastically over the years, with a growing base of fans who would never have admitted frequenting an art-house film theater a few years earlier. Foreign-language and loosely labeled “art-house” films are now a big part of the moviegoing consciousness, and the success they enjoy theatrically means better word-of-mouth when the titles hit video.

That's why films such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a current surprise hit in theaters that no doubt will soon make its way to home video, have genre supporters in the video industry abuzz.

“These titles are selling well for us and renting well, also,” said Jeremiah Wehler, rental video buyer for retail chain Hastings Entertainment of Amarillo, Texas. “Am?lie was fairly successful for us. This market is increasing for us, especially on DVD. DVD helped this category early on, where the early adopters seemed to have more artsy tastes in film.”

The chain has devised special sections for the titles.

“We have a foreign section in both rental and sellthrough,” Wehler said. “We give sale prices to some of the bigger new releases. The studios recognize the potential for this ever-increasing category and have been soliciting it as such.”

Vanguard Cinema has been one of the most aggressive purveyors of foreign-language and art-house film fare. The company distributes product in three lines: independent, international and Latino.

“Right now, we're ranging from seven to nine new titles a month,” said Vanguard Cinema marketing manager Joe Hatch. “Before, U.S. viewers would only see many of these titles from bootleg versions that crossed the border.

“We've worked hard to acquire rights and present the titles as they should be seen.”

Another area of success for Vanguard is classic European releases.

“These films are either in French or Italian with English subtitles, and stem from the 1960s, '70s and '80s,” Hatch said. “They account for a significant portion of our release slate and do especially well on Web sites and in catalogs.”

Two of these will be released Nov. 26: Une Ravissante Idiote, starring Brigitte Bardot and Anthony Perkins, and Maria Callas in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Medea.

Both retailers and consumers are paying more attention to possibilities in these genres, Hatch said.

“Larger chains are finally paying attention, especially with the Latino stuff,” Hatch said. “With retail, it took some time. I think a couple of big breaks for our industry came with Amores Perros and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Companies like Wellspring Media have also played a role in this surging interest in foreign and art-house fare. Wellspring for years has been a leader in the genre and is now in the midst of a much-anticipated Rainer Werner Fassbinder series, featuring the films of the legendary German director.

Wellspring's thriving theatrical arm allows for a smooth transition to home video, as evidenced by the quick turnaround for the art-house theatrical hit Notorious C.H.O., featuring the stand-up act of comedian Margaret Cho.

“Our theatrical division allows us a strategic handoff, providing theatrical exposure and PR to pass right along to home video,” said Wellspring VP Dan Gurlitz. “This gives titles more sales potential.”

Wellspring's “Masterworks” line, featuring accomplished directors and special edition DVDs, combines name power with branding.

“DVD totally helped our ability to distribute product nationally,” Gurlitz said. “The market for foreign-language and art titles started to mature because of DVD. The early DVD adopters came in two flavors: consumers looking for action and the real cinebuffs, film enthusiasts who were traditionally interested in new technological developments and who enjoyed watching films as they were originally intended.”

Directors' intentions truly matter in this genre, as evidenced by Tuvalu, a whimsical comedic fantasy just released by First Run Features Home Video, another longtime supplier of foreign-language and art-house film titles.

“It's a unique foreign film with very little dialogue,” said First Run sales executive Matt Kiernan. “It's silent with a lot of music, and particularly happy, really funny.”

In December, First Run will release a British comedy, Secret Society, which Kiernan describes as a “Full Monty-type of film about a group of British women who are sumo wrestlers.”

First Run also has Virgil Bliss, a stark realism piece about an ex-con in the style of John Cassavettes.

“It just shows the diversity going on in this genre,” Kiernan said of First Run's upcoming release slate.

Retailers are willing to try such adventurous titles on DVD, while the VHS rental market in this arena is actually slowing down, Kiernan said.

“The supplemental features are a big plus for selling these titles,” he said. “With the success of art-house titles for online retailers, the traditional retailer seems to have rediscovered an audience that they hadn't necessarily ignored, but maybe forgotten about.”

Industry people are watching the theatrical success of such titles as Y Tu Mamá Tambi?n with interest.

“Retailers respond to that success and will look for similar types of material,” Kiernan said. “Any film that comes out of nowhere and enjoys surprising success is good for independent distributors.”

First Run is eyeing similar success for the new Claude Chabrol film Merci Pour le Chocolat, starring Isabelle Huppert, now earning rave reviews in theaters.

“We gladly took it on,” Kiernan said. “We have very high expectations, as there are French film fanatics all over the place. We'll continue to place great emphasis on foreign-language titles. They will always have a home here.”

Other suppliers also are enjoying success with foreign and art-house films, using theatrical releases to create increased awareness and taking advantage of mainstream consumers' new fascination with the art-house film genre.

“The combined strength of theatrical and video marketing can be very important to titles like this,” said Bill Bromiley, SVP of First Look Pictures. “Some of our theatrical releases supplement video releases, where we know the titles will do very well.”

Meanwhile, classic art-house film titles, like those released for years by Image Entertainment, Anchor Bay and Home Vision -- home of the famed Criterion Collection -- earn word-of-mouth from the increasing number of DVD users attracted to such titles.

Using a combination of brick-and-mortar and online retail strategies, the companies also aggressively market to intended audiences with brochures and mailers.

The success of the genre has paved the way for new kids on the block, such as the Accent division of Facets Media, the Eclectic division of Music Video Distributors and the new Choices Select, whose two October debuts -- Fellini's Intervista and the John Lennon speculative drama The Hours and Times -- earn instant respect from aficionados.

The wide representation of suppliers means that new fare, such as the hit theatrical titles mentioned above, the classics by Fellini and Francois Truffaut, and the long-overlooked titles from smaller countries and lesser-known but important filmmakers, all have a shot.

“Certain groups of films established over the last 30 or 40 years are seen as thoroughly representing the genre,” said Ray Privett, coordinator for Facets Video.

“But these groups aren't always broad enough. We're willing to fight for films that for some reason weren't always included in these discussions.”

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