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Filmfest DC is underway and celebrating 25 years. Since it’s inception foreign films have gone from 7% of US Box Office sales to 0.75% of sales. Meanwhile, Hollywood films make up 63% of global box office. We’ll explore foreign and independent films, and where they fall in the movie ecosystem
- Ann Hornaday Movie critic for The Washington Post
- Anthony Gittens Tony Gittens, Founder and Festival Director, Filmfest DC
MR. KOJO NNAMDITwenty-five years ago, "Three Men and a Baby," was the hot movie in U.S. theaters. What you may not know is that the popular comedy was, in fact, a remake of a French film released two years earlier. Back in 1986, nearly one of every 10 movies Americans went to see were foreign films. Today, it's more like one in 100. Living in the greater Washington region, however, we have more opportunities than most Americans to take in foreign and independent films with over 70 film festivals each year, offering an abundance of alternative fare.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWith the 25th anniversary celebration of Filmfest D.C. underway, we take a look at changes in the international and independent film industry since it began. And joining us in studio is Ann Hornaday, chief film critic at the Washington Post and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism in 2008. First time visitor, Ann Hornaday, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. ANN HORNADAYThank you for having me.
NNAMDII think Tony Gittens is with us by phone. He is the founder and festival director of Filmfest D.C. He will be joining us very shortly. So I'll start with you, Ann. In a recent article on Filmfest D.C., you remarked on Washington's singular cinematic ecosystem. What do you mean by that?
HORNADAYIndeed, well, you know, we do have -- I didn't want to use unique because unique is a unique word. And you have to...
HORNADAY…and I'm -- I can't be -- I haven't researched it that assiduously to...
NNAMDICan't say very used.
HORNADAYCan't say -- exactly. But we do have a distinctive film going called, "Trahedrid (sp?) ," that is a product of having the usual multiplexes that most American cities have, a smattering of art houses, both the Landmark chain and also independent art houses like the Avalon and the new Westend Cinema. And then we have this wonderful network of cultural institutions, like, the National Gallery of Art and the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Hirschhorn and the diplomatic community that often will play host to film screenings at embassies.
HORNADAYSo we really have this very rich film culture here, that I did use the word ecosystem to describe because it seems like everyone -- and then, as you mentioned this dozens and dozens of film festivals, that occur at those venues. So between all of that, you know, between the festivals and also just the daily programming at all these other outlets, I think, Washington audiences really do have a great many more options than many of our counterparts around the country.
NNAMDIThat clearly makes us a destination for film festivals in general. What makes us a destination for film festivals featuring foreign films in particular?
HORNADAYWell, again, you know, just -- I think, anecdotally, it would be our strong diplomatic community here. It would have to have something to do with the academic community, the policy community. The fact that we just, you know, we -- it's a really international city on a certain level. And so I would -- I dare say that that presents the distributors of foreign language films with a pretty reliable market.
NNAMDIYou've been covering movies for a long time. Not necessarily as long as 1986 but how has film making as a whole changed since around 1986?
HORNADAYOh my goodness, that's a huge question. Well, you know, it's so linked to economic issues and to the fact that so many studios are now part of larger corporate conglomerates with those exigencies having to be met so that things have to make sense from a bottom line point of view. Which is why we're getting more, you know, some -- most of the big budget, sort of, mass market movies that we see come down the pike are adaptations of things like a successful franchises or video games or even TV shows.
HORNADAYBecause more and more, they want to guarantee an audience. You know, they don't want to take big risks with these huge budgets and they are costing more to make and especially more to market. So, again, that's the sort of niche that...
NNAMDIWhy has Hollywood become some dominant globally, even as Americans are seeing less and less and foreign films? Is it that our interest in foreign films generally is flagging or are there less foreign films available as a whole? Why are these two things both happening at the same time?
HORNADAYWell, that's a really good question. I mean, we're very good at exporting our culture and marketing our culture. And, I think, it -- you know, there's -- it's sort of -- and when Hollywood, especially with the big action spectacles that don't rely on dialogue, they're easy to -- they're literally easy to see in any -- you know, they transcend culture. I mean...
NNAMDIHadn't thought of that.
HORNADAY...you know, gun play is gun play in any country and you don't need subtitles for that. And that's -- to a large degree, that is what we have been exporting. But, you know, it's interesting, I asked one of the researchers at the Post to help me out with some statistics and she -- the MP -- according to the MPA, last year, almost 25 percent of the market in this country was foreign language films, which surprised me that it was that it was that -- so in another words, they are getting here.
HORNADAYThey just account for a tiny, tiny percent, like a one percent of the actual box office.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking about film in general and international and independent films in particular with Ann Hornaday. She is chief film critic at the Washington Post. 800-433-8850 or you can send us a tweet at kojoshow, e-mail to email@example.com or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Joining us in the conversation now is Tony Gittens, founder and Festival director of Filmfest D.C.
NNAMDITony Gittens spent 11 years as executive director of the D.C. commission on the arts and humanities. He left that job in 2008. Tony, how are you?
MR. ANTHONY GITTENSHow are you, Kojo? How are you?
NNAMDII am well. A lot has happened since this festival got started. How different is the job you have to do these days?
GITTENSFundamentally it's the same. We go out, scour the world as best we can to find great films to bring to Washington for our festival. I guess the difference is, we're showing a lot more digital film this year, than we have shown in the past in general, and that's because making film is a pretty expensive process, and because of advances in technology. A number of filmmakers who might not have the budget to make a large print to put a lot into the production of their film can do it now with digital technology and that's a very good thing. It makes the whole thing much more diplomatic, democratic -- democratic.
NNAMDII want to get back to the -- I want to get back to that in a second, but as Ann has pointed out, there are over 70 film festivals in this area each year. Each one seems to target a specific audience. Remind our listeners about what the focus of Filmfest DC is. It really hasn't changed since the beginning. What is your mission?
GITTENSWell, the mission is to bring quality films to Washington D.C. that normally would not be seen, and to present them in the spirit of cooperation and celebration. That's always been our mission. We think that film is the art of the 21st century, and that - as Ann was talking about, there is a lot of opportunity here to see these films. But we think that we've been the first, and continue to be the largest, in doing so, and we hope to continue for another 25 years.
NNAMDIAnn Hornaday, I'm so glad that Tony brought up the issue of technology, because it's evolved so much that there are movies in this year's festival that probably couldn't have been made 25 years ago.
NNAMDII'm thinking of one of your highlights in particular, "The Green Wave."
NNAMDITalk about that.
HORNADAYOh, this was -- I think this might be my favorite so far in the festival. This is a documentary that came out of Iran, and it's a documentary about the 2009 uprising after the elections there. And as we all remember, so much of what we were getting from that event came through people's Facebook updates and cell phone footage that made it over that awful murder in the streets of the young woman named Nada on the cell phone.
HORNADAYAnd this filmmaker has used -- he's used live action, sort of talking head witnesses to the event, but also illustrated people's blog updates and Facebook updates with animated sequences. He's used the cell phone footage, he's included -- I think there's some Twitter feeds in there. So in other words, it's this -- he's created almost a new visual language to capture that event in terms of how it unfolded, and it's an absolutely beautiful work of art. I mean, just it almost plays like a collage with densely layered meanings, and it's just a beautiful piece of work.
NNAMDITony and I go back to a time when we used to run off newsletters on mimeograph machines.
NNAMDIRemember that -- remember that, Tony?
GITTENSOh, yes I do.
HORNADAYItself an emerging technology at one time.
NNAMDIExactly. So Tony, it must be really an opportunity -- you mentioned how democratic it is -- for young filmmakers to be able to make presumably more films independently because you can frankly make one with a cell phone.
GITTENSThat's absolutely true. It's just made it much more accessible for a lot of people who, as Ann was saying, you know, aren't interested in the big explosions that we find in a lot of Hollywood films. And also, as has been mentioned, the film like "The Green Wave" will not be released commercially here in the United States, unless something happens that I'd be very surprised. And so festivals are ways for these films to be seen.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Tony Gittens and Ann Hornaday about international and independent films, and about Filmfest DC in particular. Do you have a favorite foreign or independent film? Is there one that changed your attitude towards foreign films in general? Call and share with us. 800-433-8850. Here is Larry Guillemette, in Washington, D.C. Larry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. LARRY GUILLEMETTEHi Kojo. Yeah. I applaud you for your show and for this particular topic, and I want to congratulate Tony. I'm the chair of Real Affirmations, which is Washington's gay and lesbian film festival, one of the top five gay and lesbian festivals in the nation. And I applaud Filmfest DC and its gay and lesbian programming. This year we co-presented an important documentary with them. We were here last Saturday.
MR. LARRY GUILLEMETTEAnd we are, you know, we have more film festivals per capita than any city in the country, and I think that has a lot to do with the presence of the embassies. We have very closely with the embassies of Canada, Ireland, France, Italy, and a number of others over the years. We're about to celebrate our 20th anniversary this fall, and we, you know, we promote gay and lesbian independent films, which is becoming harder and harder to do given the fact that in today's world the access to those is much, much greater than it was in 1990 when we started at the long-departed Biograph.
NNAMDIYeah. We remember the long-departed Biograph. Larry, thank you so much for calling.
NNAMDIYou too can call us 800-433-8850. Ann Hornaday, films about geopolitical hotspots, Iran, Egypt, are part of Filmfest DC this year. Are films from countries making headlines a draw for audiences?
HORNADAYWell, yes. And especially -- again, I think they've done quite well in D.C. in recent months. Some successes and Landmark Cinema. Of course, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is probably the most obvious success, As well as a wonderful Argentinean film called "The Secret in Their Eyes," which was -- oh, I want to say nominated. I'm not sure if it won the Oscar for foreign language film last year. And then a Pedro Almodovar movie called "Broken Embraces."
HORNADAYAnd at the West End Cinema, they did quite well with a wonderful documentary called "Budrus," about a non-violent peace activist on the West Bank. And a delightful kind of hybrid documentary fiction feature called "Alamar," about a father and a son on a coral reef in the Mexican Caribbean. So -- but, you know, the -- I think -- and then in recent years, you know, we've seen the success of "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon," "Passion of the Christ," "Pan's Labyrinth."
HORNADAYOften though, you know, especially with something like "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," you're talking about films, you know, I spoke earlier about those presold audiences, you know, the fans of the book or the TV show. These are dedicated audiences as well. You know, they kind of come often with either fans of a particular director like an Almodovar, or fans of that book, the Stieg Larsson book, which is one way I think for these things to kind of break through the marketplace.
NNAMDIThat's how "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" got me. I read the book by Stieg Larsson...
HORNADAYThere you go.
NNAMDI...and therefore had to see the movie. Tony Gittens, are you sensitive to political issues when you go out looking for movies? I know of your interest in politics over the last 40 years or so, but is that something you consciously and deliberately look for when you're looking for films for Filmfest DC?
GITTENSWell, the first criteria is, is it a quality film?
GITTENSIs it an interesting film? And it has to start there, and then perhaps, you know, if it deals with politics or any other subject matter, than we'd seriously think about bringing it in. But we also have a, what we call justice matters, and that's a segment of our festival where we do look for social justice issues, films that look at international questions of democracy, expression, and because we think that Washington is particularly sensitive to these kinds of issues, that this is a place where democracy is discussed and always struggled with. And so we do look for some films that do have those kinds of concerns.
NNAMDIWe should mention that Filmfest DC runs April 7 through the 17th. The opening night gala featured the Washington D.C. premier of "Potiche," a French farce starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. Closing night features a Swedish comedy, "Sound of Noise," which will be a treat for the eyes and ears. You can find all show times and locations at FilmfestDC.org, and there's a link to that at our website.
NNAMDIAnn Hornaday, a film on Scientology may not immediately appeal to most people, so how do filmmakers balance a desire to appeal to niche audiences with hopes for broader success?
HORNADAYWell, I think they -- I think the smart filmmaker will know that going in. In other words, if they have a subject that is a niche subject, they won't overreach and assume or kind of misguidedly try to reach for a broader audience. I mean, I think, you know, and this is part of the story of social media and new technology. It's really all about these dedicated audiences and knowing your audience, and being able to target them in whatever way that they are best communicated with.
HORNADAYAnd I think filmmakers -- gone are the days when you could make, you know, as an independent filmmaker, you could make your movie and be done with it. I mean, now they have to be really savvy marketers about reaching, you know, knowing that audience going in, and the making sure to reach them when they come out the other side, which I think for artists is daunting, because they don't want to do, you know, that isn't what they got into this for.
HORNADAYI mean, often they're -- they don't know about how to do it. They're not equipped for it. That's not what they got into the art form to do, but it is, I think, a fact of life. But the scientology film, it's a really, you know, fascinating portrait of this very enigmatic organization, mostly as it plays out in France and Denmark. I mean, it doesn't really have that much to do with the Los Angeles arm that we're most familiar with from movie stars being involved. But still, it has a lot of really interesting sort of true life stories of people who got involved with it and then tried to get out.
NNAMDIHot potato though, Tony Gittens. What made you want to touch it by the way, "Scientology: The Truth About A Lie" has already played at Filmfest DC. Tony Gittens, what made you want to include that?
GITTENSWell, again, because I saw it and I thought it was just fascinating. I thought it was a great story, you know, we're looking for great stories. And the stories that these folks tell, and you know these are folks like you and I, and then some of them do happen to be very wealthy and wind up being involved in -- to the point where they've given hundreds of thousands of dollars to this organization. And I must say that we selected this film before the New York Times article on the subject.
GITTENSSo in our sort of going around and trying to find films, we do find that we tend to have our finger on the pulse of what's going on, and the Scientology film is just one example.
NNAMDIAnn, is it possible, are we seeing signs of a stronger African-American independent film scene emerging?
HORNADAYWell, you know, it's interesting. The timing of that question is felicitous because there is a -- there's a movie opening at the West End this very weekend called I will follow that is an example of just exactly what you're talking about. It's very small, modest, independent, African-American film with a, to me, unknown cast. I didn't know any -- Blair Underwood has a cameo role.
HORNADAYBut it's about a young woman who loses her aunt, and she's sort of cleaning out her aunt's home during the course of one day, and it's just about her interactions with the people that kind of come in and out, her family members, and friends, strangers, you know, the people that kind of come in and out, and her coping with this loss.
HORNADAYThere was a lovely movie that came out a couple years ago called, "Medicine for Melancholy" by Barry Jenkins, that, you know, had I think -- it made me very optimistic that we'll be seeing a more diverse number and type of stories coming out of the, you know, coming out of the African-American community, and directed for the African-American community. Because, you know, I don't know if you remember when "Precious" came out.
HORNADAYThere was a lot of controversy about that film in terms of the way it portrayed black life, and the, you know, and the way it played into stereotypes of pathology. And while I didn't -- I'm sensitive to that issue, I didn't particularly -- I thought it transcended those for me, you know, the -- the characters were real enough and rounded enough. But I understood -- you know, there is so much pressure put on those movies because we don't have enough of them.
HORNADAYSo with luck we will be seeing -- you know, and then we had "Night Catches Us" a couple of months ago, so...
NNAMDIThe novel on which "Precious" was based, "Push," by Sapphire was equally controversial, but Tony Gittens, I'm wondering if you have -- you find reasons for optimism about independent African-American film?
GITTENSOh, yes, I do. Yes, I do. I think that I see more young people going into filmmaking. And again, as we talked about, the technology then has become a lot more accessible for folks. So I'm very hopeful, and very optimistic. Now, black filmmakers though are also making white films. In other words...
GITTENS...they're getting jobs now in Hollywood and working with television shows. So a lot of their focus tends to be there, and not necessarily on making films about their own personal community experience, but I also think that's a good thing.
NNAMDITony Gittens is the founder and festival director of Filmfest DC. Tony spent 11 years as executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, from which he retired in 2008. Filmfest DC, April 7 through the 17th. All show times and locations, FilmfestDC.org. Tony, thank you so much for joining us.
GITTENSThank you, Kojo. Good talking to you. Always a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd Ann Hornaday, here's an e-mail we got from Marsha in Alexandria, Va. "I have heard," writes Marsha, "that after World War II a deal was made with various European countries, that if they were going to accept American dollars for post-war reconstruction, then there would be a legal restriction on the number of films they could export to the United States, but there would be no restrictions on the number of films the U.S. could export to Europe. The point was, that if they wanted American money, they will have to accept American culture.
NNAMDII think Alexander Coburn once wrote about this. Does your guest know if there is any truth to this?"
HORNADAYOh, that's -- I'm just writing this down. Something to follow up, thank you for that. No. I was not aware of that.
NNAMDIYes. I had no knowledge of it.
HORNADAYSo I would absolutely -- but, you know, I always wanted to bring up something else, which was that, you know, we're talking here about mostly foreign language films. But there's also, I think in recent years, an encouraging trend of films that may not be classic, you know, sort of -- those subtitled art house movies that we're used to, but movies like "District 9" or "Slumdog Millionaire," or even "Avatar" or this new thriller "Hanna" that just came out last week, that are -- that I would argue have a global consciousness.
HORNADAYYou know, that they transpire in countries other than this one. That they represent points of view other than the white western one, that often -- and in the case of "Slumdog," you know, they feature a whole cast of non-white western actors. So I think you know, we can kind of broaden our definition of what constitutes a foreign film to sort of maybe understand it more as an issue of point of view and global consciousness.
NNAMDIWhy do Hollywood studios it seems love to remake foreign films?
HORNADAYWell, I think it's probably, again, that presold audience phenomenon. If they see that "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" did well, then how much better will it do with stars? Now, I can't remember who is going to play the detective in that.
NNAMDIYeah. Frankly, I couldn't see the point of that, but yes.
HORNADAYRight. But, you know, it happens, you know, but it's sort of, again, it's their aversion to risk. And anything that comes with any kind of pre-determined outcome is going to be more likely, you know, for them to glom onto. And I think foreign language films are definitely fodder for that. You know, there's a movie that's out now called, "In A Better World" by a Danish director named Susanne Bier, and she's had two films remade in America.
HORNADAYOne called "Brothers," which was remade with Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman, and I can't remember the -- Tobey Maguire. And the -- oh, boy...
NNAMDIDo we have an issue with subtitles you think?
HORNADAYI do. Yeah. I do think we do have an issue with subtitles.
NNAMDIHere's an e-mail we got from David from Baltimore. "A film that had a huge impact on my early childhood in the early 1960s was the 'The Red Balloon,' a French film with little to no dialogue. That film left a huge impression on me."
HORNADAYOh, I love that. You know, as a matter of fact, I just Tivo'd that for my own nine-year-old daughter to watch, because that's just one of those magical transporting -- do you know about it? Have you seen it, Kojo?
NNAMDINot familiar with it.
HORNADAYOh, it's fantastic.
NNAMDII'm gonna get it for my grandchildren though.
HORNADAYIt's a perfect thing to share with your -- the younger people in your midst. It's very lyrical, poetic, whimsical.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned "Hanna." Have you seen it?
NNAMDIOh, do you like it?
HORNADAYYeah. It's interesting. I mean, it's extremely well made. It's by Joe Wright, who did the wonderful film "Atonement." He's a really fantastic visual director, with Saoirse Ronan plays the young girl.
NNAMDIHave you already reviewed it?
HORNADAYI was not able to review it because...
NNAMDII thought not, because I haven't read that review.
HORNADAY...I'm trying to remember why. It -- we had a screening pileup that night, you know. We kind of live and die by the preview -- of the preview schedule, so I wasn't -- I think we had a -- we had a problem with scheduling, but...
NNAMDIDo you ever go to the movies just for fun?
HORNADAYSure. Absolutely, yeah.
NNAMDIWhat was the last movie you saw just for fun?
HORNADAYOh, my goodness, you are catching me out. You are catching me out.
NNAMDIHow can you distinguish between which ones you saw for fun, and which ones you saw for work?
HORNADAYIt's the ones I take my husband too, because, you know, he's -- he used to be able to come to the screenings with me, but now, you know, if I see something that I think will just not -- like I remember, this isn't the last one I saw, but, when I saw "Michael Clayton," I said, we've gotta, you know, we have got to go see this in the big theater, and we did, and we had a ball.
NNAMDIAnd "Michael Clayton" didn't do that well. I could never understand that.
HORNADAYYou know, I just...
NNAMDIWho knows? Ann Hornaday is the chief film critic at the Washington Post, my personal film critic. She was the (word?) for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism in 2008. Ann Hornaday, thank you so much for joining us.
HORNADAYThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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