Box office success not guaranteed for Locarno winner

Film director Hong Sang-soo's success at Locarno may not translate into broader Swiss exposure Keystone

The film "Right Now, Wrong Then", a bittersweet romantic comedy from South Korea, has won the coveted Golden Leopard at the 68th Locarno Film Festival – but will it be an exception and get a release in Swiss cinemas? A festival insider tells why Swiss films often struggle to find a wider audience.

This content was published on August 15, 2015 - 16:01
Stefania Summermatter, Locarno,

“Fiasco”, “lack of creativity”, “mediocre” – Nadia Dresti, delegate to the artistic direction at Locarno and head of international relations, doesn’t mince her words when it comes to Swiss cinema. She explains where Swiss directors are going wrong and what needs to be done.

It remains to be seen whether cinema-goers within Switzerland and abroad will be able to watch "Right Now, Wrong Then", directed by Hong Sang-soo, which won the top prize on Saturday. The film’s star Jung Jae-young also was awarded the prize for best actor. The film tells the story of a film director trying to woo a painter – but the catch is there are two versions, each lasting about an hour, with different outcomes. In the past ten years, only three Golden Leopard winners have been released in Swiss cinemas, of which one was French and two Swiss. Why is this?

Nadia Dresti: Locarno is a film festival for auteurs and the films selected by the jury do not meet commercial criteria, but artistic ones. As fewer tickets are sold in cinemas, distributors increasingly favour blockbusters. Even with a Golden Leopard, demanding films such as that by Lav Diaz are hard to show outside the country where they are made. [Diaz’s "From What Is Before", which won the Golden Leopard in 2014, clocks in at more than five hours] But that’s the situation in almost all film festivals, with the possible exception of Cannes, where the films are more commercial.

What’s more, with the introduction of digital, the number of films produced has exploded and is a dramatic development. Selection has become harder and harder and once again the films that are favoured are those that do well at the box office. We know that the traditional channels of distributing films no longer work, but we’re still trying to find an alternative.

Not to mention that young people go to the cinema less and less, watching films instead on VOD [video on demand], on television or on their tablets. It’s a development that can’t be ignored. VOD has great potential, but also with this medium there’s the question of how to promote those films that no one is talking about, and which are unknown to the general public. Can VOD be used to make Swiss films better known abroad?

N.D.: This was one of the issues that we discussed during the festival. Some countries, like Spain, have launched platforms dedicated to auteur cinema which are working well from a commercial point of view. In Switzerland, however, these attempts have been a fiasco.

Some people ask the government for more funding to promote Swiss films on VOD. What’s lacking is not money, but creativity and initiative. Swiss cinema can’t be a state cinema. We have a free market economy and need to stop asking Bern for money without doing anything. I am part of the federal cinema commission and have to admit that these continual demands for new funding make me angry, very angry.

If we’re honest, with the exception of rare gems such as "More Than Honey[Markus Imhoof’s 2012 documentary on dwindling bee colonies], Swiss films seldom find an international distributor because they’re not good enough. If a film is good, it doesn’t matter whether it comes from Uruguay or the United States – it will find a buyer. But Swiss film struggles to convince. The scripts probably need more work and people should stop focusing on the size and wanting to be shown in cinemas whatever the cost. But the fascination of cinema is linked to the big screen…

N.D.: Sure, every director dreams of seeing his or her film on the big screen, even in the Piazza Grande at Locarno. But today, with the competition being so ruthless, not everyone can have this luxury.

Ultimately, the problem is that in Switzerland people insist on making big-budget films, and in order for these to be profitable, they want them to be shown in cinemas or at festivals. But the audience don’t care how much a film costs to make! Why in countries like Argentina do young people manage to make extraordinary films with little or no money, while here they spend millions for a mediocre product?

We need to return to making films with more retrained budgets, focusing more on the story. What role does Locarno play in the distribution of auteur cinema?

N.D.: For several years the festival has organised Industry Days, an initiative aimed at putting producers, distributors and sellers in contact with each other in order to promote auteur cinema. For three days we show films in the International Competition, on the Piazza Grande and in the section Filmmakers of the Present, dedicated to first works. Those taking part mostly come from Europe, with a few from the US and sometimes China or Korea.

It’s clear that the festival can’t influence the purchase of one film over another, but at the least we give professionals the chance to meet each other, see films, talk and forge new relationships.

A decade of the Golden Leopard

(Films in bold were distributed in Switzerland)

2005: Nine Lives, by Rodrigo García

2006: Das Fräulein (The Waitress), by Andrea Staka

2007: Ai no yokan (The rebirth), by Masahiro Kobayashi

2008: Parque vía, by Enrique Rivero

2009: She, a Chinese, by Xiaolu Guo

2010: Han Jia (Winter Vacation), by Li Hongqi

2011: Abrir puertas y ventanas (Back to Stay), by Milagros Mumenthaler

2012: La fille de nulle part (The Girl from Nowhere), by Jean-Claude Brisseau

2013: Historia de la meva mort (Story of My Death), by Albert Serra

2014: Mula sa kung ano ang noon (From What Is Before), by Lav Diaz

2015: Right Now, Wrong Then, by Hong Sang-soo

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