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Highlights - 22/05/2015
SPARTACUS & CASSANDRA, from Cannes’ ACID to its success in French film theatres
Let's take a look at the successful career of this documentary, from the ACID programme at Cannes 2014 to its success in French film theatres, with the distributor Nour Films.
Ioanis Nuguet's French documentary Spartacus & Cassandra, screened at the Cannes Film Festival a year ago as part of the ACID programme became successful in French cinemas this spring with over 55,000 admissions to date (out in 26 film theatres in its first week). This success is due to the distribution company Nour Films, active since 2009 and whose greatest accomplishment is Pierre Rabhi, on Behalf of the Earth (120,000 admissions). The film has also had international success at festivals (soon to be relased in Belgium and USA). The following is an interview with Patrick Sibourd and Isabelle Benkemoun, associate distributors with Nour Films:
How would you describe the current situation regarding the distribution of arthouse films in France?
It is a very complex field with tough competition, particularly when you think about audience polarisation with regard to some films every week. But that doesn't stop us from distributing films, or registering successes, by being more innovative. We feel that distributors are rather like publishers: you need to be able to make clear choices and release films in accordance with the public and with exhibitors.
Consistency of our editorial choices, and the way they harmonise with our tastes, the quality of the films we choose and the way we present them are all elements that determine how much exhibitors trust us. It is only by this means that we stand out from the raft of films released each week.
At what point did you come on board with this film?
The film was by no means wrapped up when it was sent to us. We saw it on the day we received it and made our offer the very next day. Spartacus & Cassandra was then selected by ACID, allowing us to accompany the film right from its première screening in Cannes.
How do you 'feel' a film, discover its potential?
With Spartacus & Cassandra it was love at first sight. We fell in love and embraced it immediately for its cinematographic beauty and its insight. We are first and foremost attracted by a film’s artistic perspective, that's what we base our choices on.
When a distributor examines a film's potential, he takes three aspects into consideration. To begin with, there is the artistic and cinematographic dimension which is very important to us. Secondly, you have to know how to convey this instinctive feeling: who will be interested in this film? How do you maximise its universal aspects? Finally, there is the economic consideration: is the film subsidised or not, can we count on support to help us release the film? We ask ourselves these questions to evaluate our impact and our capacity to make the film relevant.
With Spartacus & Cassandra we had an intuition that this story could have a particular resonance. But we didn't necessarily know that it would have such a great international reach, at least, not at that point. We didn't realise it until the first screenings in Cannes, when the viewers were overwhelmed by emotion, no matter where they came from. We still get feedback from filmgoers from Mali, China, etc., who were all very moved by the film. If different cultures experience the same emotion, the film must have a very strong universal dimension.
Was Spartacus & Cassandra designed for cinemas, from the point of view of the producer?
The producer had not the intended to produce the film for the cinema. But when editing the film, its qualities became undeniable, and they decided not to ask for the COSIP support, but to apply instead for the advance on earnings after production.
How did distribution differ this time from your previous films?
We took the decision to do something we don't generally do for documentaries, namely, a large-scale press and advertising campaign, especially with advertising in Paris’ kiosks. We wanted every communication tool to shine, brimming with creativity and emotion, like the poster, for instance. We also persuaded a press attaché who normally works with bigger films with a great potential. In fact, with the resources we had, we sought the best of everything. We worked with a communications agency for the poster and to establish partnerships, particularly for the large advertising campaign in Paris. As a result of these activities we were able, for example, to provide the closing item for the TF1 news programme and to provide many important articles for TV, radio and print press.
Finally, networks were particularly efficient, getting involved in all the subjects approached by Spartacus & Cassandra. For example, we have partnerships with organisations that deal with childhood, adolescence, abuse, street children and with Roma people. And we have a very special partnership with Amnesty International who organised a lot of discussions, have many local partners, media power, and who raised the whole question of human rights, which is not necessarily covered in the film.
As a matter of fact, we took the risks that had to be taken, and that's what really matters. We also applied this strategy to Charlie's Country, another equally powerful and universal film. With Pierre Rabhi, however (released on 27th March 2013), we opted for a strategy of evening discussions with networks (Colibris, etc.) and it is mainly due to these discussions that this film has achieved 120,000 admissions to date.
A film’s success upon its release is also a matter of context. Had we released Pierre Rabhi 15 years ago, the need for spirituality and humanity would not have been the same. The prevailing mood suited this film.
How do you take into account social networks in promoting your film?
Social networks are definitely part of our communication strategy. Even if it is not the core of our promotional work, social networks have become a significant means of communication.
How do you choose and approach film theatres that release the film on the very first week?
We organised a lot of preview screenings for Spartacus & Cassandra and Charlie's Country, which proved highly advantageous for these films. This was made possible through support from AFCAE (French Association of Art House Cinemas) and, regionally, thanks to exhibitor associations such as GRAC (Regional Group for Film Activities). This is the reason why exhibitors watched the film together, on the big screen, two months earlier.
Have the excellent reviews been a good springboard for S&C? How do you explain the film's success?
The press has contributed substantially to its success. But that isn't always the case... There is no magic formula to a film's success. It is a combination of things: the press, posters, word-of-mouth, networks, partnerships, debates, and work with associations of film lovers... Reaching out to smallest organisations that the film would not necessarily reach otherwise helps you slowly create a chain that lives on, and in which people continue to talk about the film.
When all these different criteria are met, we have a better chance to create a dynamic that will lead the public to the film. And create the famous word-of-mouth.
How important is it to accompany the screening with a discussion? What are the difficulties involved?
As a distributor, we pay travel expenses prior to release and for the first month thereafter. These costs are then borne by the networks, organisations and exhibitors. For Spartacus & Cassandra, GNCR or ACID paid travel expenses for their film theatre members.
We also like to visit film theatres when the film comes out, even if we can’t do it as often as we wish. Rolf de Heer spent nearly a month in France for the release of Charlie's Country, and it was a real pleasure to work with him because such moments offer an intellectual and human adventure. The dialogue with the director, the public and the exhibitors is the most fulfilling aspect of our work.
The adventure will resume in June with our next film, Fantasia, by Chinese director Chao Wang, to be released on the 1st July.
What were the benefits of the ACID support for Spartacus & Cassandra?
Having a film selected by the ACID selection at Cannes gives the film national and international visibility from the beginning. And it fosters preferential relationships with festivals around the world.
ACID also organises short tours in its network of film theatres, covering some of the costs and sometimes paying the director. A partnership with ACID helps strenghten a release.
Did you have film theatres in the same town, which were competing to show the film? How did you tackle these situations?
Yes, of course. There is competition between the cinemas in the city centres and those in the suburbs. We try to find a balance between each of them: for example, we can't leave out the small film theatres that helped us release more challenging films in the past.
How has Spartacus & Cassandra been received in other countries? What do foreign audiences think about French documentaries?
For us, the international impact becomes particularly visible during festivals, especially in the case of Spartacus & Cassandra, currently at Hot Docs Film Festival, which continues through more and more selections and competitions to be awarded on every continent. Obviously, this is a crucial catalyst to convince distributors or TV channels to buy the film rights for their country.
The film's reception abroad has been incredible, completely unexpected. In the United States, for example, during the première at the 1,200-seat Missouri Theater in Columbia, there was a very long standing ovation.
The distinction between documentary and fictional films doesn’t really exist when the film has cinematographic qualities. In fact, it is a documentary that has won awards at fiction festivals. But it is true, documentaries do have their own networks, their own festivals.
Can a film such as Spartacus & Cassandra be profitable in cinemas? How has it done so far?
The minimum guarantee for documentaries is lower than for fiction films. Having said that, we did take, for example, greater risks with Charlie’s Country, which isn't a French film, than with Spartacus & Cassandra which has received support particularly from the CNC.
The success of the film in cinemas does not necessarily determine its profitability. It depends more on the minimum guarantee which has been invested and the budget. The screenings of Spartacus & Cassandra are far from being over but we believe that the film will be profitable.
Which formats of distribution did work best for the film?
So far the film has exceeded 55,000 admissions and it will probably be incorporated in a Young Audiences scheme such as the French Collège au Cinema, or Lycéens et Apprentis au Cinéma and this may increase the figures further. But today, the box office earnings are between 50% and 60% of the global earnings. In fact, ARTE France has made us a purchase offer and the film is to be released on DVD by Black-Out. This may represent great amounts of money, particularly for television. Box office earnings for Spartacus & Cassandra will represent a smaller share of overall takings than for other films. The film has been successful on all supports. But it is still quite difficult to get an exact idea of the overall profits.
We often hear about a relatively recent decrease in purchases of auteur films by TV channels. What do you think?
TV channels purchase films based on their admissions at film theatres and it is very difficult to sell a film that has not been successful in cinemas. But in any case, there is no doubt that prices have fallen. With regard to our two latest successes, Charlie's Country was bought by Cine+ and Spartacus & Cassandra by ARTE.
But success is subjective…
For TV channels, the success is obviously given by the number of admissions. With less than 100,000 admissions, the film is rarely purchased by the big TV channels.
Would you say that VoD is a new source of income that has already had some success?
For the moment, we sell films to DVD publishers who assume VoD rights. Netflix has contacted us but we chose Black-Out and Universciné.
In fact, we release films for the cinema above all. It is important for us to share films in a collective way in the cinemas, to be together and to be connected to the film as an art project.
In the case of exhibition in the film theatre, the distributor has a direct relationship, a human relationship, with the film theatre manager. What do you think? Would you say that this is also the case with festivals?
Definitely. And that is the essence of the way we work: including exhibitors, liking them, trying to share, and talking about films with other devotees. We want that and we need that. This human dimension is fundamental and allows us to breathe intellectually. Exhibitors share movies and fundamentally, we make the same job. There is nothing better than meeting them, in their cinemas or at professional meetings and to discuss about our jobs, our preferences, favourite films.
Alixia Mainnemare, May 2015
- Camille Brisson, Ioanis Nuguet
- Ioanis Nuguet, Patrick Sibourd, Spartacus Ursu, Cassandra Dumitru, Camille Brisson
Fantasia, Wang Chao, (Un certain Regard, Cannes 2014), July 1st 2015
Bad Boy Bubby, Rolf de Heer (Great Prize, Venice 1993), November 11th 2015
Le Cose Belle, Agostino Ferrente & Giovanni Piperno, December 9th 2015
The Here After, Magnus von Horn (Directors’ Fortnight 2015), February 2016
Jodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (Directors’ Fortnight 2013), April 2016