Tuesday, 28 June 2011

[475] Extreme Fallout: A Post-Tartan Context

It's been a slow month on the blog, so I thought it was a good time to post up my essay on East Asian film distribution in the UK, specifically the Third Window and Terracotta labels, which I wrote for my MA earlier this year. The full title was 'Online Worlds and Grassroots Activity in UK World Cinema Distribution'; here's the introductory chapter.

Despite the international status of the cinema industry, and the ready-built modes of exhibition that exist in the UK, distribution of world cinema is a tricky endeavour. Due almost to their very nature, international cinema releases in the UK are pushed into the margins of popular film culture, with the presence of foreign languages, subtitles and unfamiliar stars guaranteeing smaller-scale distribution, consumption and reception. Indeed, not only are many such films granted only limited releases, at key specialist cinemas across the country, they are often only seen by certain subcultural audiences - the genre fans, the film buffs and the art-house elite - and generate a small percentage of the box office income of major English language productions.

Such industry trends have influenced the strategies of UK-based distribution companies, but some still bid for crossover success, with a recent example being Momentum Pictures' release of Swedish thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor, 2009), which was treated like 'a big event', with a lavish marketing campaign that attempted to entice the embedded audience familiar with the source novel into the cinema (Gant, 2010, 'The Film That Broke Rules'). In terms of East Asian cinema, the case study of the 'Asia Extreme' boom of the early 2000s has been well documented and widely scrutinised in both academic and journalistic contexts.

Spearheaded by Tartan Films, and featuring Japanese releases such as Ring (1998), Audition (1999) and Battle Royale (2000), this wave of imports managed to find a wider audience that transcended subcultural boundaries. In his essay '"Asia Extreme": Japanese Cinema and British Hype', Oliver Dew highlights the success of Tartan especially as capturing the attentions of horror fans, Asian cinema enthusiasts and high-brow cinephiles through what he terms the 'polysemic sell' - a marketing approach which allows film texts to present multiple readings and meaning, allowing it to be 'sold to a world cinema audience as well as to a genre-film audience, in a way that an American horror film or a common or garden foreign-language art house film cannot be' (2007, 60).

However, the reign of Asia Extreme was short-lived. In her study of Tartan's mastery of the 'Art of Branding', which focused on the hype generated by Tartan's catalogue of violent and explicit films, Chi-Yun Shin concluded with the ambiguous proposition that the label would eventually run out of product that would 'comfortably fit into the extreme category' (2008). Indeed, within months of the article's publication in the Spring issue of Jump Cut, Tartan Films filed for bankruptcy, resulting in scrutiny of another kind, this time looking at the company's downfall. Critic Geoffrey Macnab, writing in The Guardian, composed a detailed post-mortem for Tartan, analysing its strategy and the persona of its owner, Hamish MacAlpine. Macnab points to Tartan's willingness to over-saturate the market with product as one contributing factor, revealing that 'the market for Asian horror films, for so long [their] staple, had bottomed out' (2008).

Indeed, while the failure of Tartan and the bursting of the Asia Extreme bubble revealed the artifice behind the tag's creation - where the hype from the success of a handful of key films was stretched to cover dozens of lower quality releases - it also spelled a potential downturn for Dew's polysemic successes, which had been bolstered by a mixture of DVD sales, aggressive marketing, and coverage in old and new media. Macnab continued, looking at industry trends and the fate of smaller-scale distribution companies:

'Whereas in the past, a small arthouse gem might be given a chance to build up word of mouth and find an audience, now every film is judged instantly. If the opening weekend figures are disappointing, the film will be yanked out of cinemas. Meanwhile, when a small distributor does go all out to give a film a big push, the risks can be daunting. If the film flops, the distributor is lumbered with huge bills that it will struggle to pay.' ('Death of a Salesman', 2008)

However, despite Macnab's predictions for the industry, the final years of the decade saw a number of distribution companies emerging in the wake of Tartan's success and eventual decline. And, even though the majority of these do attempt to recreate the Asia Extreme effect, many provide an alternative to the company's aspirations for mainstream domination through tickling taboos. Instead, these labels have more modest aims, looking to build their audience from the ground up. While this may seem to be a retreat into the margins of the industry, there is also a simultaneous drive towards a proactive relationship with the audience, forming links and cultivating a new community around the labels themselves.

Key examples are Third Window Films and Terracotta Distribution, two London-based operations that focus on East Asian cinema that attempt to get away from the genre ghettoisation created by the Asia Extreme boom. Third Window, set up in 2005 by Adam Torel, an ex-employee of Tartan, defines itself on its own website as '[working] hard to bring you the wonderful world beyond long-haired ghost films and mindless Hollywood action copies' ('About'), instead specialising in having no specific genre bias, releasing dramas and comedies such as Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen daijobu, 2008), Kamikaze Girls (Shimotsuma monogatari, 2004) and Kakera (2009). Since it is a younger company, forming in 2009, Terracotta has fewer films in its roster - which nevertheless ranges from the critically-acclaimed Korean drama Breathless (Ddongpari, 2009) to the recently-released Japanese schlock-horror Big Tits Zombie (Kyonyû doragon: Onsen zonbi vs sutorippâ 5, 2010) - but its annual Far East Film Festival provides a platform for a variety of Asian films.

This essay will look at how these two companies build their audiences, and how they are succeeding in the post-Asia Extreme climate detailed by Macnab. Since large scale releases are out of the question, both Third Window and Terracotta need to be resourceful in the current marketplace, using new media opportunities afforded by the Internet, and employing old-school, grassroots initiatives that challenge mainstream modes of exhibition. In the process, they point towards a more promising future for world cinema distribution as a whole.

Subsequent chapters of this essay will be uploaded this week. Read part two.

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