The editor of easternKicks pays tribute to two massive Asian film distributors, reflecting on the turbulent state of the distribution scene

It’s doubtful you could ask for a clearer sign of the changing shape of cinema. Last week, on Tuesday 17th August 2016, the Hong Kong and Amsterdam-based sales agent Fortissimo Films filed for voluntary bankruptcy in the Netherlands. Its future uncertain, Dutch authorities have appointed an administrator to decide what the company could face, from refinancing to selling off, or even just its breakup. The same day it was announced that UK film distributor Metrodome entered administration, all their staff laid off with immediate effect. What both companies had in common was the support for a slice of cinema that seems increasingly to have little place in our multiplexes and on demand streaming libraries, that of edgy, largely independent and Asian cinema.

Founded in 1991 in Amsterdam by festival programmers and producers Wouter Barendrecht and Helen Loveridge, Fortissimo Films played a pivotal role in bringing independent and adventurous cinema to screens across the globe. Distributing the work of directors like Hal Hartley, Peter Greenaway and Jim Jarmusch, as well as Asian auteurs like Wong Kar-wai, Tsai Ming-liang, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Shunji Iwai, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsui Hark, Kore-eda Hirokazu, Park Chan-wook and many others. The essential part they played in bringing films like In The Mood For Love, Chungking Express, The Blue Kite, Bwakaw and many more to wider, Western audiences can not be underestimated. They quickly entered production, with titles including Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Nymph and Zhang Yang’s Little Red Flowers. They added the revival of documentaries in the early 2000s with hits like Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans.

Picture for Features, Sunday Review. Film Lead. Daniel Jonathan Victor (executive producer of Black Coal, Thin Ice), Michael J. Werner(chairman of Fortissimo Films) and Wan Juan (producer of Black Coal, Thin Ice). Photographer credit: Theodore Wood. [25MAY2014 REVIEW FILM LEAD]

When chairman Michael J. Werner took control of the company in 2009, after founder Barendrecht suddenly died, the company had long moved its base of operations to Hong Kong. Staying true to its roots of cutting edge cinema and continuing that fruitful relationship with Asian filmmakers, resulting in recent triumphs such as Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice. But competitors had been turning to more commercial fare, while Fortissimo was said to have struggled for years to find support in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-8. Finding increased funding available in the Chinese film industry was focused on domestic and mainstream audiences, much like the rest of the world.

Launched in 1995, Metrodome occupied similar territory, finding a name for itself releasing the work of arthouse directors such as Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Lukas Moodysson. They continued this focus, from Ben Wheatley’s debut feature Down Terrace to Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love and Noah Baumbach’s critically acclaimed Frances Ha, while also expanding into genre film. These included horrors like The Innkeepers and House Of The Devil, to war films like Saints & Soldiers, to wonderfully ridiculous monster/disaster mash ups like the 80s pop star Debbie Gibson-starring Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus, and of course Asian films like The Warlords, Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate, Let The Bullets Fly and Rigor Mortis. Some of their major Asian releases suffered from them having to accept Weinstein cuts of their films, such as those for Peter Chan’s Wuxia (Dragon) and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, despite rumoured discussions with the US giant to do otherwise.

Such a seemingly scattergun approach led to some success with titles like Monster, The Counterfeiters and The Secret In Their Eyes, but gave the impression of an overall lack of direction that only the big distributors can get away with. Just this March, the company had revealed to Screen Daily they were seeking new owners or significant strategic investment, citing the downturn in DVD sales as a major factor.

The biggest irony was that the company really seemed to be turning things around, buoyed by success such as Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s cult hit What We Do In The Shadows. Making some brave choices such as Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader, due for release just days after the announcement, and Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper. Perhaps boldest of all was a home entertainment release for Tetsuya Nakashima’s The World Of Kanako – a film so misunderstood that the original distributor, UK Asian specialist Third Window Films, decided in the midst of scathing reviews and Cinema indifference to sell the film on rather than have it bankrupt them, even though they’d presented it at the London Film Festival. Metrodome had even negotiated an uncut release with the BBFC, who also did not appreciate the purpose of Kanako’s deeply unpleasant violence. But sadly, that release won’t happen now.

While the catalogue of both companies remains an uncertainty, both maintaining libraries of 300+ films each, the fact remains that the landscape of cinema has changed forever. The fates of Metrodome and Fortissimo are not unusual; they are not the first and sadly I doubt they will be the last. Box office sales remain the only real way to secure profits, with digital on-demand portals still not gaining any traction, so the scope for cinema beyond multiplex-packing blockbusters becomes slimmer and slimmer. Particularly in the UK, where any physical releases beyond limited edition are set for failure, and consumer expectation in our post-Fopp world fall to £5 or below. There may be opportunities to see independent cinema (even if the major film festivals turn increasingly towards mainstream releases) but without the opportunity to sell those films afterwards, and at least to make some of that investment back, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll get made in the first place. Can digital distribution really be turned into viable method to make profits? Only the future will tell…

Further reading: Stephen Follows looks at the numbers behind Metrodome Distribution.

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