By Jesse Marx
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By Michelle LeBow
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Jeff Sackman, president and CEO of the fledgling THINKFilm, has been swimming in those shark-infested waters since 1985. In 1991 he joined the distribution company CFP and turned it into the well-regarded Lions Gate (Dogma, Monster's Ball). Speaking at the low-key, high-rise THINKFilm offices overlooking downtown Toronto, Sackman claims to view the MSPIFF as a legitimate way to promote upcoming product, but he admits to being oblivious of its nuances. "Every city has a festival," Sackman says. "It's a trendy thing to do. Personally, I don't have enough specific knowledge of this one versus that one. You don't want to overdo it [by giving your films to every festival]. So you want to have some sort of relationship with the fest, and you want to know that it's professionally run."
Personable yet blunt, his T-shirt and jeans conveying the aura of the casual executive, Sackman sees two components to a festival: the buying and the selling. "Initially we go to festivals to acquire films. Toronto, Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Sundance are great marketplaces where films are shown for the first time. It's very convenient to see everything in one place. But we also want to use these as places to promote our films, as they're areas where journalists congregate. When Jodie Foster comes to Sundance for [THINKFilm's] The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys [which she co-produced], you get a lot of press coverage from the national media. When we have [the French drama] Time Out at a regional festival like [the MSPIFF], we're selling awareness: You want to get the local media interested in your film for when it's ultimately released in that region--which, for these typical 'festival films,' is generally sometime in the month or so after the New York release date."
The three THINKFilm titles in this year's MSPIFF--the Venice prize-winning Time Out, Ismail Merchant's Mystic Masseur, and Bart Freundlich's World Traveler, starring Billy Crudup and Julianne Moore--all have theatrical openings tentatively scheduled in Minneapolis around late spring. Altar Boys, which Sackman has targeted as a summer release, falls outside of his awareness-selling window. "These are just advance promotional screenings [at the MSPIFF], so to speak," he says. "A festival is a very positive forum for showing a film. We've all had our knuckles rapped buying a film based on a festival audience's reaction. But for a film we already own, the people who will see it at festivals are dedicated filmgoers, and they're inclined to be positive. It can only inspire good word of mouth.
"There's a basic plan for how you release a film in a city like Minneapolis, and the festival is part of it--if it happens to coincide with your release date," he says. "You're not going to alter your release schedule because of a regional film festival." Which is to say that a movie like THINKFilm's Gerry, an avant-garde property with heavy Sundance buzz (and Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in the lead roles), won't play festivals until just prior to its fall release (i.e., at the Toronto festival in September). An exception was made for the Portland International Film Festival in February, because of director Gus Van Sant's personal connection to the city. But just as common is the case of a distributor forcibly encouraging a festival to play films that its programmers might otherwise not care to screen. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, as the saying goes--and, if you're a journalist, good luck getting someone's acknowledgment of that reciprocity on the record.
Like most distribution execs, Sackman uses Toronto as a point of reference. "Let's say 2,000 people see [your film] there. You're not getting $20,000 of potential box office. Film festivals are using you to provide things that they can sell to their customers, and you should get something in return. You've got to weigh that [inequity] against the positive [aspects] of playing at a festival. Some distributors would say that in Minneapolis, on a French film, you've got a limited audience. And if you're going to play a festival, that may be your [entire] audience. We think Time Out has broader potential, and we'd like people to see it--we need people to see it--because it's such a remarkable movie. If people don't see it, they're not going to talk about it."
Time Out--a daring look at the depths to which a consultant sinks to avoid telling his family that he has been laid off--opened in New York on March 29, and will expand to other cities on April 12. Sackman vows that the film will open in Minneapolis at Landmark Theatres' Lagoon Cinema, sometime in late April, regardless of audience reaction at the MSPIFF. "We're not worried [about getting the film into Landmark] at all," Sackman says confidently, as he'll rely on his past relationships with the theater chain's executives in order to guarantee the booking. "We also have good films. It's a symbiotic relationship."
Sackman's convivial attitude is due in no small part to the need to get his company's name into the public arena fast, and to the desire to get people seeing his films. "We want to be helpful if we can," he says. "The important question is, 'How are you going to promote a film like Time Out in a meaningful city?' We're not talking about some small town in Kansas. We want to be in there, and treat [Minneapolis] as a real market. The festival is a useful conduit to the audience we're going after." Still, the distributor does know where to draw the bottom line: When asked if he'd ever consider flying a film's "talent" to Minneapolis, Sackman raises an eyebrow and grins, as if to say, "Are you kidding?"