Foreign films play the distribution game

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) showed its last film Sunday night, but the films have already left an impression on critics. Indiewire states that “it was a solid year for acquisitions.”  The article mentions the top winning film “12 Years a Slave,” a pre-Civil War drama about a free black man who is abducted and sold into slavery. Fox Searchlight, a film distribution company, snatched this film up immediately.

What about the international and foreign-language films? Where do these films fit into the mix? How do they compete with the American dramas that seem to dominate the industry? The starting points often are film festivals like TIFF. Locally, Dallas Video Fest and the Austin Film Festival will bring a batch of foreign films.

Crystal Decker is the Emerging Media and Film Exhibition Manager for Well Go USA Entertainment.  Her job is to create and manage the company’s social media accounts. But her work goes beyond Tweets and Facebook posts. Decker is the public relations contact for Well Go USA’s theatrical releases as well as a former Asian Film Festival Dallas board member. Decker understands the ins and outs of the distribution business and the foreign film market.

According to Decker, Doris Pfardrescher, Well Go USA president and head of film acquisitions, evaluates about 5 to 10 movies a week. This year they had nine theatrical releases and 28 that went straight to “home media.” The market has becomes extremely competitive. And filmmakers must be creative to catch the eyes and ears of acquisition reps.

“What do we look for? Wow. I wish I could tell you we have some kind of checklist. A magical worksheet we could plug into,” Decker says. “But it’s just not like that.”

Decker goes on to explain the uniqueness of each film that adds to the complexity of the selection process.

“Every film really is a unique snowflake. And for every film, we have to line it up with what else is in the marketplace, globally and in North America,” Decker says.

She says their “secret sauce” is taking that and matching it with what the audience wants to see.

But there are challenges, the language barrier being at the top of the list.

“I think it’s amazing that people still resist subtitles,” Decker says.

Variety reported that some studios avoid foreign-language films because “they can’t rely on their usual DVD formulas.” The article goes on to explain that these films “deliver 50%  or less box office, rather than the usual 70% or more on DVD returns.”

But the tide may be turning with streaming services like Netflix. And film festivals continue to be an option for both distributors and new filmmakers. However, Decker says that, in Well Go USA’s case, a lot of deals are done before the films reach the festivals.

“And while film festivals are great,” Decker says, “it’s film markets that are the thing.”

Meaning, film festivals play more of a role for marketing strategy than acquisitions.

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