The art of distribution: Rams at the Opera Plaza and other case studies

I’m puzzled.

I’m puzzled because I just cannot understand why Rams, a film that garnered large acclaim at film festivals around the world is ONLY being released to the Opera Plaza Cinema here in San Francisco this week. I love the Opera Plaza, and in no way mean to diminish a local theatre, but this film has much more reach than the small capacity of those screens.

Here’s the trailer:

The film follows brothers Gummi and Kiddi, who live side by side in a secluded valley in Iceland tending to their sheep. Although they share the land and a way of life, Gummi and Kiddi have not spoken to each other in four decades. When a lethal disease suddenly infects Kiddi’s sheep, the entire valley comes under threat. The authorities decide to cull all the animals in the area to contain the outbreak. But Gummi and Kiddi don’t give up so easily – and each brother tries to stave off the disaster in his own fashion: Kiddi by using his rifle and Gummi by using his wits. As the authorities close in the brothers will need to come together to save the special breed passed down for generations, and themselves, from extinction.

Not only is this film extremely relatable, funny, and resonant but it’s the kind of quirky awesomeness that San Francisco audiences seem to click with when it comes to foreign films. It can be seen in the vein of dry comedies but the human aspect in relationship to the brother’s devotions remains in your mind long after the credits roll. Rams deserves a bigger screen and more support from distributor Cohen Media Group who seems to be off pumping up Mustang’s Oscar campaign and Hitchcock/Truffaut instead.

I can’t stop there.

I did some reading and maybe this is partly due to Rams not making the final Academy Awards shortlist for whatever reason. I still can’t full understand how Mustang came out on top (unless Cohen made some arrangement with France that they wouldn’t promote it much, my conspiracy theory) but I haven’t seen Embrace of the Serpent just yet so I’m one movie behind in having the right to an opinion. Right now the specialty film circuit is in high Oscar mode for foreign features with Theeb having played at the 4Star, A War & Embrace of the Serpent opening at Landmark, and Mustang having played the circuit a few weeks back. The Oscar shorts program are/were on the list at both Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema and the Roxie. So it feels like Rams has been pushed to the wayside to make room for Oscar heavyweights that are truly past their hype dates. It seems much more apt that Carol or Brooklyn or 45 Years be at the Opera Plaza this week. Some of the films on the lineup at Embarcadero Center Cinema have been out for months. I realize a nomination can help boost ticket sales but I feel a deep sense of skepticism that those seats are filling up. One viewing of Son of Saul is enough for one year. I once helped run a one-screen theatre in the Colorado mountains and I know what it’s like when you open Avengers vs art house in terms of tickets and concessions but this isn’t that extreme. Place Rams against 45 Years or Son of Saul even and I just have that feeling that audiences would choose the disgruntled Icelandic sheep men. There’s just something about Iceland, I’m telling you.

Again, completely perplexed.

Rams is so far one of the most commercially successful films yet to come from the Nordic countries, and Iceland’s largest international film to date in terms of box office so why isn’t the Landmark betting on these men to carry on their bigger screens. If it were me I’d open Rams at the Clay theatre. No offense to Dame Maggie Smith (can’t wait for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Mostly British Film Festival btw) but this movie is inches away from digital release at this point so why not give Rams a better chance in the San Francisco market?

I don’t have an answer and it’s unlikely that if I reach out I’ll get one but I’m still disappointed this film isn’t getting the love it deserves in this city. I’ve seen this film surely but I’m going again and bringing friends to the Opera Plaza anyway, because that’s still a great theatre and I think this film should be shared with as many people as possible.

This brings me to another thought that’s been on my mind for a while…

Art of Delayed Distribution

The deluge of the oscar nominees on screen today illuminate much more than the academy’s lack of diversity. What they also reveal is a system of delayed, rushed, and lackluster releases or really just the compromise of cinema distribution.

Take the 2014 pre-oscar film festival race for instance and in this case study, the film Tracks.

Tracks tells the incredible true story of Robyn Davidson, a young woman who in 1977 undertook a perilous solo trek across 1,700 miles of stunning Australian outback. Abandoning city life, Robyn arrives in Alice Springs and declares her ambition to cross the desert to the Indian Ocean to the amusement of the locals. With only her dog and four unpredictable camels for company (sometimes Adam Driver shows up), she embarks on an inspiring and life-changing journey.

The film rounded the festival circuit in the fall of 2013, playing some of the major festivals worldwide including Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. At each, Tracks garnered rave reviews not only for the film but also for actress Mia Wasikowska and supporting actor Adam Driver. Most films seeking an Oscar campaign follow their Toronto releases with a strong December release to pique academy member interest at the sweet spot before they cast their votes. However, The Weinstein Company (TWC) didn’t release the film to American theaters until September the following year. Why is that? Again, the Oscars seem to hold sway.

Mia’s performance was most likely her first truly encompassing starring role and felt worthy of a nod. The actresses Mia would have been up against in the 2014 awards were Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Cate Blancett in Blue Jasmine, Judi Dench in Philomena, Amy Adams in American Hustle, and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County. Sure, it was a tough slate with some of Hollywood’s strongest leading ladies but it’s this reviewers opinion that it would have been a better gamble to bet on Wasikowska than it was to hold on, release much later after all the reviews were history, and hope that the next slate of nominees wouldn’t be as strong. The truth may be more troubling. Seemingly, it looked like TWC just didn’t see this film as a winner in any slot.

The Weinstein Company decided to put their combined weight behind their other slated films Philomena and August: Osage County, choosing to go with heavyweights Judi Dench and Meryl Streep rather than a budding young talent of immense variety. The gamble didn’t pay off as TWC came away with no best actress award and medium box office return on either three films. In retrospect it’s easy to wonder if TWC should have instead taken the plunge by releasing Tracks over the 2013 holiday season post it’s festival run and put some serious promotional weight behind Mia Wasikowska to showcase their willingness to take chances on films with less bait-like qualities. We’ll never know what conversations were leading to their strategy.

“I think Tracks is a superior film and a much bigger audience pleaser,” I would have said. “Maybe but Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts get butts in seats and Judi Dench will get mom’s to cry the world over,” says faceless TWC representative. “Yes but both of those films are bombs in the making. August: Osage County is petty Peyton Place material and Philomena doesn’t resonate. Tracks makes you feel great when you watch it. Independent kick-ass women is what we should put our weight behind,” I’d punch back. “Nah, we’re going with Meryl.” I’d cross my legs under the table and hang over the desk in sadness.

Tracks seemed challenging on the surface but as Sandra Bullock pulled off one woman in space, Mia Wasikowska was wonderful in her turn as a determined young woman alone in the desert. However, by the time the film reached theaters in 2014 its buzz had died down and the heavy lifters were going full swing into voting season. Tracks blurred into Wild in 2014 and TWC started hemorrhaging executives. Now we’re left with Tracks on Netflix in the hopes it turns up on as many feeds as possible. We’ll never know.

However, sometimes the gambles pay off like in the case of Poland’s own Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski.

This film first made an appearance at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend in 2013 where it swept the festival into a fury. No one could get enough of this film and I watched as hoards of film festival attendees were turned away at the door. It was amazing to see people lose their cool over getting into see a black and white polish film about a young Catholic convent girl. Sure, they’re makeup was mostly a friendly film-lover crowd and Peter Debruge gave it a scary review for most distributors, calling it appealing to no one “but the most rarefied cineastes … the sort of joyless art film one might expect Polish nuns living under the clutches of 1960s communism to appreciate.” However distributor Music Box Films acquired domestic distribution rights, determined that this film would be a success. The distributor put some real thought into this release and held the film back from the December 2013 race. Why?

Possibly because that year it would have been competing with other foreign film crowd favorites such as The Missing Picture (Cambodia), Belgian family drama The Broken Circle Breakdown, Denmark’s challenging The Hunt, and the political Omar (Palestine). The winner, Italy’s own The Great Beauty was a monolith to be up against. It had Oscar bait all over it with it’s grand excess and America’s love affair with Paolo Sorrentino and Italy in general. Oddly enough foreign film heavyweight distributor Sony Pictures Classics wasn’t in the run that year but the films above might have played a role. Another factor may have been that Music Box realized that Ida was a film that would be a slow build. A surprise hit. They chose to release the film in May 2014 with a wise advertising strategy, keeping up the energy for promotion, word of mouth, and rural excitement. Local ads were classy and placed all around. The film had a long run in Bay Area theatres and became the darling of the season. By waiting a year to release, come Oscar season the film was up against a different crowd with its biggest competition being Leviathan (Russia), which had the full support of big player Sony Pictures Classics. Both were amazing and it was really a toss up that no one could truly come away from that upset. Tangerines (Estonia), Wild Tales (Argentina), and Timbuktu (Mauritania) were the other nominees but other than raucous audience favorite Wild Tales, most weren’t taken all-too seriously as contenders and seemed happy enough to be nominated.

Ida went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and Pawel Pawlikowski won hearts by calling the ceremony the “center of noise” and outlasting the Oscar wrap-it-up music so long that they turned it off and let him keep going. Music Box succeeded with box office revenues of about 3.7 million, their take being roughly $1.5 million. Minus their advertising and distribution expenses, they still took in nearly a million in profit which is great for a smaller distributor with a new Oscar on their roster.

So sometimes the delayed release can really pay off. Sometimes they implode. Should Rams have been held back? Too hard to tell right now. What role does a Cannes ovation and film festival strategy play in acquisition strategy and distribution? More investigation is needed. As viewers and film lovers we can only hope that gems don’t get buried just because a company acquired more films than it has attention for.

Until next time,

SF Open City