How ‘Driving My Car’ became a success with Slideshows and Criteria

How did a three-hour Japanese film become a historical blockbuster? The answer will inspire more innovation.

When “Drive my carreceived four Oscar nominations this week, it represented a triumph of arthouse cinema at a time when it could really use the boost. The Academy may have wished that one of the 10 Best Picture awards went to James Bond or Spider-Man, but Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story turned out to be a better case study of what it takes to keep the movie business alive.

The bold non-English speaking cinema challenges even the bravest distributors. That was certainly the situation at Cannes last July, when many buyers told me they were having a hard time analyzing the market potential for some of the festival’s favorites. One of them is “Drive My Car,” which takes 30 minutes to introduce the prologue and uses a quiet, mysterious approach to create the world of a widowed theater director rediscovering passion. its creation through the multilingual version of “Uncle Vanya”. Not an easy sale.

“Drive My Car”

Today, “Drive My Car” is surpassing the $1 million mark in 150 theaters thanks to some dubious numbers behind its meticulous distribution in the US. In September, a release announced the domestic acquisition of the film by Janus Movie (aka Criterion) with something called “Slideshow, a new stage label. The rumor has IFC Films veteran executive Jonathan Sehring, three years after he left his former employer, but he won’t confirm it until this week. Sideshow’s story was a risk – a company was launched exclusively to release a movie – but it was an educated film that paid off.

Janus has been in the decoration business for decades. Among the studio’s last major prestigious titles was Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning “Beautiful Beauty,” but the company was unprepared to handle the intricacies of a movie on its own in this era. translation, especially from a lesser-known filmmaker.

Enter Sehring. The veteran IFC Films CEO left that company in 2018 after nearly two decades, during which time he’s designed successful releases for adventurous period titles ranging from “Y Tu Mama Tambien” to “Boyhood”. With “Drive My Car”, he and his colleagues saw an opportunity to launch a private theatrical label with the possibility of collaborating with larger units.

“Sideshow was born among longtime collaborators who wanted to make sure that our favorite new films / works in contemporary cinema get a specialized theatrical release and there’s no risk of getting lost. ,” Sehring told me by email this week. “The idea was to team up with our longtime friends at Janus Films and Criterion and give ‘Drive My Car’ the status of a release from the company that has released Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini as well as many others. contemporary works by filmmakers such as Paolo Sorrentino and Aki Kaurismaki. ‘Drive My Car’ ticked all the boxes as the exact type of movie we wanted to release and felt fit with the vision. “

Even as the film received lackluster offers from American buyers at Cannes, it won three awards at the festival and grossed nearly $300,000 in France a month later. Critics have hailed it across social media, from Twitter to Letterboxd, which shows the potential for crossover with a younger audience. Sideshow shapes its strategy around a digital footprint that can drive theater engagement.

As I wrote it down a few weeks ago, “Drive My Car” is an ideal slow-burning stage phenomenon, especially since it’s a difficult show to sell on VOD. I revisited the film this weekend and was amazed at how its use of time and the complexity of language paints a portrait of emotional loneliness. The last film that did anything along those lines and made a real commercial mark was “Boyhood,” the movie that Sehring invested in for 12 years and guided through its theatrical life. Another title that will never work fully on VOD.

Hamaguchi is adamant that his film will open in theaters and for good reason. “We trusted the filmmaker’s vision,” says Sehring. He gathered a few additional partners (he declined to name them, as aspects of the company were still not fully formed) and invited former Cinetic Marketing journalist Jason Hellerstein as his first executive hire. Sideshow, while exhibition veteran Dylan Marchetti handles reservations.

All of that ranks at the top of Janus’s in-house resources, including stage host Emily Woodburne. “The fact that I didn’t believe it,” said Marchetti, who has succeeded in the film industry with challenging nationwide releases such as “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” and “The Assassin” by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. died. , ” Movies also find their audiences in theaters over the course of many months. “The specifics of what that means are always changing. A good movie like this has an audience and no fighting. “

“Drive My Car”

Distributors also trust the foundation laid by other curatorial forces: Everything from American Cinematheque to MOMA and Metrograph have helped introduce Hamaguchi to American audiences over the years. The series capitalized on its already established charisma with its fall release – and, despite the density of the season, it was still a hit. I was in the room when “Drive My Car” won Best Picture in the New York Film Critics Circle ahead of formidable contenders like “The Power of the Dog,” and it was remarkable to see support rise. up in real time. Critics did not vote for the film in protest of the most beloved film; “Drive My Car” was positioned as a big fall movie, and the team took the opportunity to recognize it in those senses.

That has set expectations for other parts of the country. Marchetti beams about “Drive My Car”‘s performance out of the bubbles of New York and Los Angeles, noting that even the $2,000 the film grossed last week in Sioux Falls, South Dakota contributed. make up the bigger picture.

“My instinct is that this movie wouldn’t make a lot of noise if it were to stream after three weeks,” he said. “Previously, you had to choose the platform; now you have to select content. If you consider a three-hour foreign-language film as content, it will take a lot of time. “

With so much skepticism about the future of cinema, it’s inspiring to talk to the likes of Sehring and Marchetti, who capture the subtleties of serving audiences long beyond the boomers’ bubble old age explosion. Most major broadcasters aren’t going to allocate resources to support movies like “Drive My Car” – not when they’re looking for an easier win for home audiences with clever attention spans. skillful. Can others launch a distribution venture to meet the demand of one movie at a time? Sideshow will be working on additional titles soon, and there appear to be plans for larger partnerships, but has been entirely in the “Driving My Car” business for months.

The big lesson learned here is the need to innovate on every important aspect of a film’s length. “We all have to walk and chew gum here by thinking of the many ecosystems,” said Marchetti. “Not everything is better now because ‘Spider-Man’ has made over $1 billion. Revenue has been slashed across the board. Manufacturers are struggling because profits are not coming back. What’s happening in this new age for movies like ‘Drive My Car’? I’m happy to see that there is, maybe even more than before, an audience for them.”

However, Sehring said he didn’t expect the film to go this far. “Nobody ever thought the movie would do what it did,” he said. “However, this goes back to our original desire to create something special and our belief in the filmmaker and champion for important work.”

The result is a global impact. European sales organization Match Factory, which represents “Drive My Car” in Cannes, said the US success has spurred interest from other territories. “Seeing these very solid numbers outside of the US has been encouraging for everyone,” Match Factory Manager Michael Weber told me. “The US release is usually a freeze, but the way Jonathan and the team built this film is encouraging for everyone.”

As it happens, Match Factory was recently acquired by movie-friendly streamer Mubi for an undisclosed amount. Match Factory is known for its daring auteur cinema, from Lucrecia Martel to Apichatpong Weerasethakul; The sale has sparked speculation that the streamer’s ownership could jeopardize the brand’s theatrical life. To me, it seems like an admission that the one-size-fits-all distribution is already dead. Business alliances ensure that these films can survive through diversification.

Mubi and Match Factory declined to discuss the terms of the deal, but for now, Match Factory continues to operate as a production and sales company representing films entering the Berlin Film Festival. This is pure speculation at this point, but ownership of Mubi should ensure that Match Factory titles have a supporting platform, whether or not someone puts the movies they produce in theaters.

As it happens, this year’s Berlin jury includes Hamaguchi; He was on a plane to the festival without wifi when the Oscar nominations were announced. During the opening press conference, the filmmaker and jury president M. Night Shyamalan pushed back against the question of the dichotomy between historical films and commercial films. “There is no distance,” he said. “There is no gap between the two.”

It’s a phenomenal argument, but “Drive My Car” makes it so much more palatable. Other struggling companies – or freelancers contemplating their next moves – should look at these results and consider how they can make their own big moves. Start new labels, form alliances, think outside the box: The audience is there and they believe in you.

Delivery has such a questionable ROI that it seems suggestive that anyone should think twice about selling hard when it’s hard enough to keep the lights on. I welcome readers who have thought through these issues to come up with alternative routes, point out my blind spot… or just call me an idiot, as long as you can back it up: Eric

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Olly Dawes

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