Cannes Xpress 2023: Acquisition of foreign films is not an easy game

Straight from Cannes to electronic devices near you, our writer brings you the lowdown on one of the most prestigious film festivals of the world
Cannes Xpress 2023: Acquisition of foreign films is not an easy game

A leading distributor of English and foreign language films in the Indian subcontinent, Impact Films also acquired the rights to another Cannes title earlier this year, the South Korean film, Cobweb by Kim Jee-Woon. It features in the festival’s Out of Competition segment.

Ashwani Sharma, Director-Acquisition and Sales, Impact Films, says that they consciously decided to be a little ahead in scouting for films that “could land in the Cannes grid” because of the experience in 2022 when they had to compete with several interested parties for bagging the rights of Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s Palme d’Or winning English language debut Triangle of Sadness“It’s important to understand what stage to get into the acquisitions battle, whether you should wait for the awards or the approval of critics and audience,” says Sharma.

The early bird catches the worm—it’s the wisdom he has gathered over the years, learning from both the hits as well as the misses. It's also not the first time he has had a head start. He decided to acquire Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s English language Spencer (2021) and Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero (2021) by reading their scripts.

According to him, film acquisition is a long-drawn process. “It starts much before the film sees the light of cinemas. We start actively looking once a project is announced... It’s about being aware of what’s happening in the world of film production, taking a deep dive into researching and reading, who is making a film, who is representing it,” he says. And, of course, it is all about watching a lot of films from the world over and networking with people. Then comes the final challenge. “Getting the right film within our own limited budget,” says Sharma. A film that is right for the Indian audience.

Sharma has been in the media—television and film production—since 1996. It was while producing Suman Ghosh’s 2012 Bengali film Nobel Chor with Mithun Chakraborty in the lead, that he started gravitating towards the arthouse world cinema and decided to turn to distribution. “It’s where the best of them gets stuck. They are unable to find the market,” he says. 

That was the time when the viewership for international cinema was still at a nascent stage, the majority devouring Hollywood action flicks. “Things were not in good shape. Very few world cinema titles used to get picked up. There wasn’t an audience for them beyond the festival circuit,” he says.

Their first acquisition was Cate Shortland’s Australian-French co-production Berlin Syndrome (2017) which turned out to be a loss-maker. “We figured where we went wrong. We have found our way over the years, film after film,” says Sharma of the learning curve he has been on through the acquisition of 40 odd titles in their kitty which include celebrated works like Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round(2020) and American titles like Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs (2020)Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) and Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale (2022).

Sharma still calls Impact Films a “work in progress”. Much of the honing of the acquisition talent has been all about figuring out what clicks with the Indian audience and what not. Unsurprisingly South Korean cinema works big time. “It’s what India is most upbeat on,” says Sharma. Iran stands second. “There are cultural parallels with India. The faces of their actors are fascinating,” he says. The impact has two upcoming releases from Iran— No BearsJafar Panahi’s Special Jury Prize winner at Venice last year, and Saeed Roustayi’s Leila’s Brothers which won the Fipresci critics award in Cannes 2022. While Japanese anime commands huge following, live-action films, despite the emotional appeal and family settings, unfortunately, have not had many takers.

According to Sharma, just like every building needs to have a strong foundation, film acquisition must have a vision. The biggest high for him is when that vision gets realized, decisions are proven correct, and a film hits the bull’s eye. He found that validation in the success of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All At Once which he had hedged his bets on, long before the Oscars. French filmmaker Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) may not have worked commercially but the universal appreciation it got from the film buffs left Sharma immensely satisfied. On the other hand, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers, didn’t live up to his expectations. It barely mustered an audience; neither did A Hero.

Amid these hits and misses, there are three titles he regrets not having gunned for—Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (2020), Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021), the first Japanese film to get the best film nomination at the Oscars and Norwegian-Danish filmmaker Joachim Trier’s third of the Oslo trilogy, The Worst Person in the World (2021).

Monster is the second film of Kore-eda that Impact has bagged, after Broker last year. Sharma is keen to get his older titles, especially Like Father, Like Son (2013) to build a Kore-eda collection for India. After Parasite (2019), he also has his eyes set on the future films of South Korean maker Bong Joon-ho. For now, he is keenly following Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses which competes at Cannes but the film he is looking forward to the most at the festival is Club ZeroJessica Hausner’s intriguing take on nutrition and education, featuring a teacher, her students, their parents, and the concept of conscious eating.

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