International Film Distribution: Straight Face Test



WSG Pictures director international projects and Asia Entertainment Finance Associates (AEFA) president Peter Anshin has been one of the first Hollywood based finance and legal specialists to spot potential in producing and distributing Asian content in international markets. In this column, Anshin writes about international distribution of Indian films.

“How will my film perform in international markets?” is a question that more and more Indian filmmakers may be asking themselves as of late. Just because a film is distributed in numerous territories, it obviously doen’t mean that the film is necessarily accepted in these territories.

The film needn’t be a good one to reach numerous territories, but it has to be minimally engaging. While there is no perfect formula for passing this test, I hope the following provide a few helpful non-trivial and non-obvious guidelines.

It goes without saying that, in the international marketplace, films are judged differently in different territories. This is because films are interpreted differently across cultures, and of course, films are also interpreted differently by different people. Distributors in different territories promote the film using different messages to reach their target audiences, and the characteristics of the distribution business in each media format also differ amongst different countries. Amongst this lack of clear and accurate information regarding foreign markets, what is a fledgling filmmaker who aspires to reach foreign markets to do?

First, realize that filmmaking is about story telling. Your goal is to tell a story, using not written words, but communication amongs living beings, moving images and sounds. Realize that the story you aim to tell on the screen goes no further than the person you tell it to, unless that person chooses to tell another about it. People do not always choose to tell others about films they watch, but those when they do, these films are usually successful. Why? Because people who have seen the film are able to convey to others what was interesting about the film, in a way that motivates others to watch the film. Of course the film will be interpreted in many different ways, and that is the beauty of film, and art; that it is subject to interpretation in many ways.

Nevertheless, there needs to be “something” that people take away from the film, something they want to tell others about, and that prompts others not only to take interest, but to travel to the theater or video store, pay money and watch the film. What is it?

India is a country with an extremely long history, diverse beliefs,peoples and locations. It has many great story tellers (e.g. Sanjit Roy,Vikram Seth etc.), who have told stories for years, great stories, that have reached millions in and out of India. This beggs the question, why aren’t there more stories told in popular Indian cinema that have that “something”?

Many of the stories that are told in Indian popular cinema are told over and over again. The stories themselves are not unique. They are rehashed, rejigged, reassembled again and again. And even if the stories seem new, the themes and motifs are not. It almost seems as if there is a standard checklist with themes that must appear in a film. A recent film at Cannes (“Missed Call”) had a scene (albeit probably exaggerated) with a young filmmaker talking to a Bollywood” producer.

While our young filmmaker lead is inexperienced and not skilled at “pitching” his project to the producer, the producer is a shallow, crass, flamboyant, ugly excuse for a 40 something male who has no understanding whatsoever of filmmaking, or storytelling, and rejects our hero’s film because it lacks the typical motifs present in all so-called “great” (i.e. Bollywood) films. Faced with rejection everywhere, it is no wonder that our sincere filmmaker is forced into an emotional tailspin.

But even if motifs reappeared in films and were told in ways that were engaging, if actors are not believable, people are unlikely to be engaged or tell others about the film. It seems like so many Indian producers, and directors, don’t seem to care whether the actors in their films are believeable. It seems like it doesn’t matter to them, which might mistakenly lead one to infer that it doesn’t matter to audiences.

Well, it certainly DOES matter to international audiences. Producers need to understand that putting someone with a known face, or body, in a film and having them recite a dialogue can be done my an automatons. For audiences to identify and be engaged by films, actors needs to act believably, as humans would.

The bottom line here is that to be successful, accessability to a film is key; being able to identify with characters and storytelling of the film so much that one is able to put oneself inside the film. The film must have a kind of reality that allows us to make this association.

Everything has to work to create this reality. The setting may be fantastic, something that would never occur in our world, but if our hearts connect with the story, it may be real enough for us to associate with it. I believe that the success of animated and fantasy feature films helps legitimize this idea.

Another way of looking at whether a film will be liked in international markets is “does the film allow our hearts to connect with it?” Films that sincerely move us “connect” with audiences no matter where they are. The more easily we associate with a film, the more likely that we will be able to connect with it. The key is to make films that our hearts can connect with. We may be prompted to disconnect with a film with even one scene that smells insincere. Many of the Indian films that Bollywood produces are difficult to connect with. They may be “entertaining” to people who find them so, but they don’t connect with our hearts.

At WSG pictures, we are trying to work with Indian creators to get them thinking along these lines. While there is certainly no guarantee for successfully engaging audiences worldwide, sincerity at every level of the filmmaking process is always a good way to ensure your acceptance by international audiences, and may even make you feel personally, spiritually and morally fulfilled… not a bad thing, eh?

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and need not necessarily subscribe to the same.