Film Fund-amentals: Nyet! There Is No Tarkovsky!

The mainstream Hollywood film industry dominates the global market. The reason is best summed up at the beginning of a report from 2001 (Why Hollywood Rules the World, and Whether We Should Care). Back then, Hollywood still had “…the largest single home market for cinema in dollar terms …,” which gave it a huge base from which to operate.

That was then, this is now. That home field advantage is gone, replaced by a desperate need for the foreign marketplace. Today, a major Hollywood movie makes the majority of its box office overseas: between a 2-to-1 to even a 3-to-1 split. Without the foreign market, the typical Hollywood producer would be begging for lunch money at various street corners across Los Angeles.

You would think that this would make the foreign productions from the overseas marketplace of interest to Hollywood. Nah. Heck, everybody in Hollywood is busting a gut to get into the Chinese film biz but they have shown no particular interest in learning anything about the Chinese cinema. I can assure you that some of the folks in the industry are not even aware that there is a Chinese cinema (outside of a few Bruce Lee movies).

Privately, I have always suspected that this “trade deficit” in knowledge will become the Achilles Heel of the system. Unfortunately, the ignorance of Hollywood is strongly mirrored by the American audience, many of whom are also unaware of the Chinese cinema. Despite certain recent successes such as The Artist, foreign film distribution is basically dead in the United States, at the commercial level.

Which is why American film viewers have to seek out alternative venues for the foreign movie screen.

Sure, there are still a few theaters that specialize in foreign movies, and not all of them are in New York. A few are in Chicago. Some are hidden away in strange out of the way locations like the legendary Little Art Theater  in Yellow Springs, Ohio. But they are very few and extremely far between. This lack of outlet is a major reason for the sizable drop in distributors who will even deal with foreign movies.

Many art museums used to provide a range of ambitious film programs. Unfortunately, many of these programs got cut during the 1990s as part of an austerity move during that recession. (As opposed to all of the other recessions – by the way, when were we not having a recession?) But some still exist, and a few are even notable for actually doing the job of presenting movies that would otherwise be unavailable. Take for example the periodic movie programs offered by the Muskegon Museum of Art in Michigan. I recently discovered this series during a Google search for a particular foreign title and was pleasantly surprise to discover that someone up there is doing a solid job of programming.

With the basic collapse of any extensive distribution system in the States for foreign movies, alternative means have become incredibly important. Various private organizations devoted to the study and appreciation of various national cultures are extremely important in this regard.

One of the most prestigious and important examples of this is the Japan Society. Their current program, Japan Cuts 2012, offers a well curated presentation of the best in recent Japanese movie productions. They also maintain a regular series of touring film programs for American colleges and museums that provides a critically vital view of Japanese film history.

Likewise, the Goethe Institute in Washington, DC provides a similar service for contemporary German cinema. Also from the European scene, the cultural Services of the French Embassy in the US are currently hosting selected titles from the Tournées Festival. The program is making the rounds of over 80 campuses across the US and is a must for anyone lucky enough to be near one of the scheduled stops.

Foreign embassies have long been a source for international movies. Back in the 1980s, the only source in the US for most of the founding films of the Chinese Fifth Generation movement was the Office of Cultural Affairs at the Embassy of the People’s Republic in San Francisco. Likewise, the Netherlands Embassy distributes various programs on the Dutch cinema such as Dutch Voices: Jos De Putter and Peter Delpeut.

I should add a few personal notes about dealing with embassies to any ambitious film programmers. Language problems are pretty marginal since most embassies will have a staff that speaks English quite well. (Heck, at the Dutch embassy, they speak it better than we do!)  However, problems can sometimes occur. I gave up trying to correct the staff at the Italian Embassy, who kept insisting that my name was Denise Toast.

Geo-political issues should not intrude in your dealings with the staff of any embassy. Likewise, there should be no such thing as authentic imitation leather. You really don’t want to get into politics with the embassy staff but you also should be aware of any “issues” that might be going on with the country in question. Back in 1982, I contacted the Soviet embassy in Washington in hopes of gaining access to several films they were handling by Andrei Tarkovsky. It was a very cooperative conversation and everything seemed like a go. A week later, I called my contact at the embassy to finalize the details. I was slightly surprised to discover that he couldn’t recall talking with me; claimed to have no knowledge of any such movies; practically told me “Nyet! There is no Tarkovsky!” It seemed a tad odd.

The next day I got the news. Tarkovsky had just defected while in Italy. And I had probably just been on the phone with the KGB.