Monday, July 07, 2008

A few weeks ago, the Guardian’s Paul Julian Smith took a bizarre stand with his article titled The curse of Almodovar. This is how he started his article:

The Spanish film industry churns out up to 100 features a year. Of these we in the UK get to see perhaps four or five. And as far as famous Spanish directors go - well, there's really just the one: Pedro Almodóvar, currently in Lanzarote shooting his 17th feature.

For the great majority of films that don't come trailing the seductive slogan "Un film de Almodóvar", foreign distribution is a tough sell. Ironically, it seems, one super-sized name can capsize a national film industry by monopolising international interest.

This is why the London Spanish Film Festival, which comes to an end this Friday at the Cine Lumiere, is important. Along with Manchester's longer established Viva festival, it gives a flavour of what lies beyond planet Pedro.

What a strange way to promote a Spanish film festival. Thankfully, Pedro Almodóvar responded:

It is deeply unfair, and also rather silly, to blame me for an absence of Spanish films at UK cinemas. It is unfair towards me and reality. The reality is, according to figures published by the UK Film Council (Research and Statistics Bulletin, October 2007), that 96.3% of box office earnings between January and August 2007 went to English-language films. And 1.3% was the grand total taken by films in other languages from continental Europe.

These are the hard facts, Mr Smith! A 1.3% market share for cinema from Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Belgium ... Spain. The UK market leaves no room for the British public to discover films being made in other languages. Do you seriously believe I can be held accountable for that!?

While the film website editor, Catherine Shoard, acknowledged "We never intended to abuse Mr Almodóvar or to blame him for the lack of distribution of Spanish films in the UK", she still chose to defend the article:

By writing that "one supersized name can capsize a national film industry by monopolising international interest" it seems to me implicit that we're not accusing Mr Almodóvar of purposefully acting to suppress other Spanish filmmakers, simply that his name is better known in Britain than that of any other Spanish director, and that distributors have understandably chosen to exploit this fact.

The only crime I believe the article accused Mr Almodóvar of was excellence. If the piece had a target, it was intended to be UK audiences for a degree of insularity and UK distributors for a level of timidity.

I disagree with Catherine Shoard's defense. If an article is titled The curse of Almodovar and starts off the way it does in Paul Julian Smith's piece, then I can only take it as blaming Almodóvar for laziness on part of distributors and even theatre owners. On the other hand, if Paul Julian Smith truly wanted to showcase the "excellence" of Almodóvar, then the piece would have had a different title (something like Looking for the next Almodóvar) and flavour.

Yes distributors are lazy not only in the UK but elsewhere around the world in not picking up enough worthy foreign titles or showcasing new directors. But who is to blame more? A film-maker for making great movies, audiences or distributors? One can blame film-makers for making garbage movies but blaming talented film-makers is quite silly. Blaming audiences completely is also an incorrect stand. I am tired of reading excuses from distributors in North America that they are only giving what audiences want; they incorrectly state that audiences only want big blockbuster Hollywood films and do not want foreign/indie films. This is the same nonsense that has been used by Bollywood for decades to completely erode any cinematic value on Indian screens. While a certain section of audiences might only prefer commercial films, another section might be interested in seeing a different brand of films, regardless of where they are from. But since none of these foreign movies ever make it to their cinema screen, then how would they see it? Almodóvar's success does illustrate that the market can respond positively to an international film-maker. More than a decade ago, most of Almodóvar's films were restricted to film festivals. But when people saw the quality of his work, distributors jumped on board and his films started playing in art house theatres around the world. Now distributors freely pick his films up like they would with other commercial fare without thinking, because they know he can deliver. The difference is Almodóvar's films are excellent while most of the other commercial cinema is still stuck in clichéd and formula driven tales.

Almodóvar is a prime example of a film-maker that emerged from a film festival circuit into a broader arena. Shouldn't distributors be looking for the next big film-maker on their own? But as it is often repeated, film making and distribution is a business. Distributors are hesitant to change their money making business model. So how would this business model change? This is where I believe film festivals still play a big part, no matter what some film critics and magazines say every year. Film festivals can give voice to emerging film-makers from different parts of the world and can be a platform to properly highlight the range of cinematic works that exist. And films that garner enough attention at festivals are grabbed for distribution. But for the last 2-3 years, an article shows up on a website or even in a film magazine talking about the irrelevance of film festivals. Now, what these critics are attacking is the quality of films shown at some film festivals. That problem is down to the specific festival (and the programmers) decisions in picking a narrow range of films, or even some commercial titles. But trying to dismiss film festivals in general is incorrect. Yes some festivals may be headed in an incorrect direction but for a majority of film fans around the world, film festivals are still an important way (or only way in some cases) to see some foreign films. As it stands, there are only few cities around the world (like New York, London, Toronto, Vancouver) that have theaters that showcase some quality international titles. But in a majority of other cities, even if the independent or art-house cinema picks up a foreign or an indie title, it is because the film did well at a film festival or got an award elsewhere.

In the end, Paul Julian Smith should have focused on the wider problem of film distribution. But to use Pedro’s name like that is unbelievable. Unless Mr. Paul Julian Smith was looking for attention because how many people can say that Pedro Almodóvar responded to their writing?


Joe Yang - foreign film reviewer said...

Great article! As a foreign film fan (and regular guy) I can definitely attest to the fact that audiences will generally respond positively to a movie (foreign-made or otherwise) that challenges rather than talks down to them. And blaming Alodovar? You're right about the ridiculousness of the article which you criticized. When it's so hard for foreign (non-English) films to reach a Hollywood-dominated playing field, creating that sort of negativity right of the bat with a Curse of Almodovar headline is definitely the wrong approach.

Pacze Moj said...

Looking at the report Almodovar cites, I count (just in my head, so could be off by a few) 108 foreign-language films released in UK cinemas in the period Jan-Aug 2007. Another 24 are films that are partly in English and partly in a foreign language; and 194 strictly English-language productions.

So, while English-language films do hold the huge advantage in box-office earnings, foreign-language films are being released. If 108 films earn a tiny percent of the market: they're either being released in obscure art house theaters in big cities, or people don't want to watch them.

Couldn't we suppose the second is true, then, and come to the possible double conclusion that:

(1) The UK provides plenty of room for British audiences to discover foreign-language films; and

(2) British audiences don't want to see those foreign-language films.

I don't think Smith was insulting Almodovar, however. He was merely pointing out an unsupported observation about Almodovar that has nothing to do with what Almodovar wants or doesn't want. And Almodovar's popularity probably does make his films easier sells than non-Almodovar Spanish films.

Would it be an insult to Apple to say that it's hard for MP3 players that don't carry the name "iPod" to break into the MP3 player market?

Sachin said...

Thanks for your comment Joe Yang.

Good to see you back Pacze.

I do remember there used to be a good selection of foreign films that opened in London but I doubt if they opened elsewhere outside the major cities. But if they didn't earn as much, then yeah some of the blame goes to the audiences.

Although I still think that Smith could have gone with a better title than The Curse of Almodovar. The title bothers me more than anything. While Almodovar films are probably easier sells, it does not mean that he holds a curse over the box-office.

Pacze Moj said...

You are right in that it wasn't the best title. I just don't think there was any ill-will in it.

The editor's "apology" is the strangest thing about the whole episode.