Chasing the Yankee Dollar

Believe the hype, says Film Fest director Nicole Guillemet. Latin cinema is poised to conquer the U.S. with Miami as its gateway.

Cutting Hollywood deals often involves massaging the tender egos of overgrown children. The independent film world is much the same, laughs Krysanne Katsoolis, except it involves actual toddlers. As senior vice president of acquisitions and co-productions for Wellspring -- one of America's most prominent indie distributors -- Katsoolis is used to multitasking. So bouncing her young son on her knee while being interviewed at this cocktail party inside the Beach's Shelborne Hotel should be no problem.

She's about to explain her role at this Encuentros gathering, an adjunct to the Miami International Film Festival that seeks to mate seven new as-yet undistributed Latin films with an invited group of industry figures. But the littlest Katsoolis has other plans: He grabs his mother for leverage and then shoots his legs straight out like a prize gymnast, sending a lit candle on a nearby table flying into the air and onto the floor with a crash of glass and splattering hot wax.

Yet the surrounding crowd of Latin American directors, producers, and financiers barely blinks. Major studio execs may have nannies, personal assistants, and trophy wives to tend to their offspring as they jet off on business trips. For this group, however, the children come along for the ride. And as Katsoolis and Kulchur begin picking flecks of melted wax off their pants, the rest of the room merely sends sympathetic smiles while tightening grips on their own kids.

Without missing a beat, Katsoolis returns to what brought her to Miami: staying on top of Ibero-American cinema. "We've been watching the market very closely," she explains, and when it comes to U.S. audiences, "they're underserved." To that end, Wellspring has recently picked up Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz'sMadame Satã, a portrayal of Rio de Janeiro gay icon João Francisco dos Santos. After its screening at the Miami Film Festival, Wellspring will begin showing Madame Satã at art houses around the country.

However, this theatrical run is intended only "to drive the market" -- generate press and create long-term publicity for the subsequent home video release -- not rack up an impressive box office tally. For Wellspring, as with most indie outfits, profits usually accrue only from a picture's video sales and rentals.

Passing the tricky one-million-dollar box office gross, as Wellspring has done with this year's Russian Ark, last year's French psychodrama Under the Sand, and Edward Yang's 2001 Taiwanese love story Yi Yi, is considered a triumph. And selling 10,000 copies of those titles on VHS and DVD is cause for celebration. But while the stakes may be smaller, so are the margins for error.

"I hate to say it," Katsoolis continues, "but the New York Timescan make or break us. Big studios can buy word of mouth with massive advertising campaigns.At the art house level you can't do that. If we don't get good reviews in New York or Los Angeles, it's a hard battle." Emphasizing the key role a handful of individuals play in this milieu, she points to the Times's film critics and the close eye distributors keep on them as they travel the commercial festival circuit from Cannes to Toronto to Berlin. "You desperately try to find out what they liked," she chuckles.

Accordingly, one of 2002's key indie successes -- Mexico's Y Tu Mamá También -- has electrified the business. Made for $5 million, the picture not only topped critics' lists (earning an Oscar nomination, to boot) but has earned fledgling indie distributor IFC Films nearly $15 million. And that figure -- startling enough, given IFC's meager publicity budget -- is before video sales kicked in. Spain's Talk to Her was another recent critical favorite (also bagging two Oscar nominations, a further PR boost for the eventual video release), and continues to pack American art houses. On the heels of 2001's well-received Amores Perros from Mexico, industry watchers have anointed Latin cinema a bona fide hot trend. Long-time Latin film buffs may scoff, but of such hype are careers -- and new distribution deals -- born.

At least that's Miami Film Festival director Nicole Guillemet's attitude. The former co-director of Sundance has seen manias come and go. In 1989, when Sex, Lies, and Videotape rocked Sundance, "Hollywood descended en masse." That Pavlovian reaction was repeated in 1992 when Reservoir Dogs hit upon the same formula of box office riches on a shoestring budget.

"You have one particular style that works, and then for the next two years you see that same film remade everywhere," Guillemet recalls with a sigh. She already knows of two Y Tu Mamá También knockoffs in production, and "some distributors are trying to acquire films just because they're from Mexico!" The kicker: Warner Bros. has signedTambién director Alfonso Cuaron to shoot the next Harry Potter movie.

Still, Guillemet adds with a shrug, if hitching a ride on that Latin buzz is what it takes to bring quality auteurs to the attention of U.S. audiences, so be it. She wants nothing less than to eventually transform Miami's festival into an Ibero-American Sundance, a marketplace as much as a cinematic spotlight. Latin producers and acquisition agents currently fly to Berlin, Cannes, and Rotterdam to see new product and network, she notes, when "it's more practical to do that business here." If the Latin music industry can relocate to Miami, she argues, then so can the Latin film biz.

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