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High-Brow Discs

8 Feb, 2003 By: Dan Bennett

The perception that foreign-language and art-house films are all about old-school moviemaking is quickly disappearing.

Certainly the classics -- reworked for pristine DVD presentation -- still play a major role in these genres. But witness all of the successful suppliers starting sublabels, and realize that they must know something -- namely, that quality titles in these genres sell when presented correctly to the film-hungry consumer.

Philadelphia-based TLA Releasing has for many years enjoyed success as a supplier and retailer of such fare. Now, the company has started a new “TLA International Series,” taking a deeper leap into an active market.

“It's a concept that's exciting to us,” said TLA Releasing director Richard Ross. “We're looking at employing festival-like themes that really attract attention.”

The new initiative begins April 22 with Chronically Unfeasible from Brazil and Amor de Hombre from Spain. In May comes The Debt, from Poland.

“We're extremely excited, because this kind of thing is the main reason TLA got into the business of video,” Ross said. “There is a whole wealth of material not picked up by anyone, and we didn't want those films to be neglected. There are so many amazing films out there, it's a struggle to narrow it down.”

On the way in TLA's new series is the romantic thriller Between Your Legs, starring director Pedro Almod?var film regular Victoria Abril.

As a retailer, TLA has seen steady growth in this genre.

“The time has been right for international films for some time, and will remain so,” Ross said. “We are, of course, a specialized company, and these titles are mainstays at our locations.”

Wellspring Media is another longtime genre leader.

“People get in the mood for certain types of films,” said Wellspring VP Dan Gurlitz. “That's why we've done so well with certain themes, like promoting the recent French collection, and what we expect with our upcoming Italian collection.”

Gurlitz names two countries long considered prime “go-to” places for quality cinema. Celebrating the country where film was invented, Wellspring last week released the “Vive la France!” collection, including the titles La Vie De Chateau, Las Liaisons Dangereuses, Cesar & Rosalie and Therese. The titles feature such luminaries as Catherine Deneuve, Philippe Noiret and Jeanne Moreau.

“France makes films at the pace of Hollywood, certainly some of the best,” Gurlitz said.

Wellspring also has two art-house winners in the family drama-mystery Alias Betty and the quirky Eastern European title 101 Reykjavik, along with its ongoing releases in the “Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection.”

“Our sales in this area have done nothing but increase during the past five years,” Gurlitz said. “Since our return to self-distribution, those numbers have been strong.” He gives much credit for this sales boost to DVD. “The early adopter was a fan of films like these, and newer adopters are getting more exposure at theatrical,” Gurlitz said.

The thriving theatrical arm of Wellspring has also served as an effective tool, with consumers recognizing the titles by the time they hit retail shelves. Then there are the choice acquisitions, such as Wellspring's digital release of the Akira Kurosawa masterpiece Ran, part of the company's “Masterworks Collection.”

“It's one of the best and biggest things we've ever done,” Gurlitz said. “The film finally looks the way it should.”

Meanwhile, DVD and special editions allow Wellspring to repromote its sizable and eclectic catalog.

“Retailers like to see the repromotion of strong, recognizable catalog titles that have done well for them in the past,” Gurlitz said. “Add something to them and they enjoy a new life all over again.”

Vanguard Cinema is another supplier that has dedicated itself to foreign-language and art-house fare.

“Spanish, French and Italian, with English subtitles, are the main language groups we release,” said Thor Vilhjalmsson, marketing director for Vanguard Cinema. “We have also released films in everything from Polish to the Inuit language of Greenland. Most of our customers prefer subtitles so they can experience the original, authentic version of the film.”

Demographics lean toward metro areas, college cities and upper- and middle-class communities for Vanguard.

“Vanguard has a great core of loyal retailers that buy our product line,” Vilhjalmsson said. “Retailers are buying and stocking more DVDs because of the lower costs and trends in their marketplace. We'll continue to release at least two or three foreign and art-house titles every month on both VHS and DVD.”

Paramount Home Entertainment, with its Paramount Classics division, has illustrated how studios have capitalized on the genre over the past several years by releasing high-quality foreign-language and art-house films. During the next few months, the studio will release three bonafide winners in Mostly Martha, Just a Kiss and Bloody Sunday, the third of which made several Top 10 lists among film critics in 2002.

“Some of the most dynamic and interesting filmmaking today comes from foreign films and art-house films,” said Martin Blythe, VP of publicity for Paramount Home Entertainment. “The challenge for us is to broaden the audience beyond the art-house moviegoers. Word-of-mouth is critical to bringing these films to new audiences.”

Mostly Martha has earned that, now heading toward the $5 million mark at the box office.

“That's proof that a moving, feel-good film, especially one with a romantic, happy ending and a good food theme, can bring in a much broader audience than usual,” Blythe said.

In the past, Paramount has fared well with such entries as The Gift and The Virgin Suicides.

“Traditionally, these kinds of titles fared better at rental, but that's changing, and we're always looking for ways to encourage success at sellthrough,” Blythe said. “Those retailers that have specialized in art-house and foreign fare have realized there is good business there. All of us are always hoping that such a movie will break out of the pack and astonish you.”

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