Skin Flicks

The naked truth about putting together a regional showcase like the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. And a revealing body of blurbs about the best and the not-best of the fest.

With distributors and filmmakers, sales agents form the triad of bodies that control what films we see--and they often consider Toronto as the only North American festival to provide any financial benefit from a public screening. Conversely, a lower-profile outfit such as the MSPIFF--heroically held together each winter by a bare-bones staff whose fulltime duties at U Film during the rest of the year leave them little opportunity to pursue greater financial gains for the fest--will naturally offer a program that balances safer, audience-friendly films (Gaudí Afternoon, anyone?) with off-the-festival-map properties from Rwanda and Wales. It will also need to rely on the generosity of others: national film institutes, the odd benevolent distributor, and those smaller companies that can glean at least some benefit out of the transaction--even if it's merely the satisfaction of furthering that old 20th-century concept of cultural exchange.

Indeed, for all the praise heaped annually (and justly) upon Milgrom and his staff, the credit for this local phenomenon is shared by a host of invisible angels in faraway places. People such as the ones profiled in this article: a European film institute officer who makes the most of money collected from the average taxpayer in Denmark; a Toronto-based film executive whose fledgling distribution company compels him to consider Minneapolis as a "real market"; and a cult documentarian who has cleared space in his busy schedule to stop in the Twin Cities--courtesy of a plane ticket paid for in part by the Canadian government.

These sorts of benevolent souls don't often include many foreign sales agents, who sell films to distributors and take a cut of the profits (serving a similar function as the agents of actors or professional athletes), and who charge unbelievable fees for festivals to screen films that would otherwise have little or no chance of turning up in smaller markets. To wit: A mini-scandal erupted last year when one of the world's most unfriendly such brokers--the Paris-based Wild Bunch, part of the Vivendi-Universal Empire--unceremoniously canceled a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's Éloge de l'amour (In Praise of Love) at a festival in Norway. Executive Vincent Maraval proclaimed in an e-mail edict: "We could devote ourselves to the...festivals in the world whose purpose is most often to please a few sponsors as well as local officials who don't know how to spend their cultural budgets. We prefer to participate in filmmaking rather than to turn into a travel agency for film prints."

Needless to say, there are no Wild Bunch films in the MSPIFF (with the exception of Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust documentary Sobibor, picked up for U.S. distribution by New Yorker Films). Other such powerful firms that you may not have heard of (but which matter immeasurably in the world-cinema realm) include Flach Pyramide, Celluloid Dreams, and Fortissimo, which charge smaller festivals upward of $500 for single screenings of their films--meaning that many topnotch titles are simply beyond the grasp of R-list programmers.

So be careful where you place the blame for a program that conspicuously lacks the latest work of those intriguing "new" world-cinema auteurs (e.g., Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Philippe Garrel, Darezhan Omirbaev, Jang Sun-Woo, Hong Sang-Soo) whom you've read about in Film Comment--the ones whose half-dozen or more films, beloved by critics with international travel budgets, have rarely if ever played here. Indeed, in an international economic climate where the bottom line is personal gain, can one fault the MSPIFF for dealing with organizations more amenable to cooperating with a smaller event? Yes, this folksy attitude may lead to curating by the UPS principle--that is, to the selection of films on the basis of their having already been shipped to the States from overseas, thus cutting down on freight costs. But there are still those who benefit from such an approach--including the audience. After all, diamonds have been known to emerge from coal.

And yet, if you're a Minneapolitan movie lover, hearing industry people talk about the MSPIFF--the center of the local film universe from year to year--can be a humbling experience: Their decisions about what we can and can't see often seem arbitrary if not downright insulting. Still, discovering how the cinematic sausage is made needn't dull one's appetite for the spread of international films at the MSPIFF's buffet--even though it does leave one feeling envious of what people are eating elsewhere.


As head of international relations for the Danish Film Institute--a job title that sounds more at home in the U.N. than Cannes--Pernille Munk Skydsgaard has been representing films at international festivals for two years. She acts as an intermediary between domestic sales agents and festival directors, determining which Danish films go to which of the more than 2,500 festivals whose programmers toss requests her way--a level of interest that has grown in direct proportion to the attention accorded those Dogme95 shenanigans. The DFI is an interested party to a film's success, as it also supports film production--sometimes providing as much as 60 percent of a movie's budget in exchange for festival rights, and sometimes flying directors abroad to places such as the Nordic Film Festival in Rouen, outside of Paris.

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