Changing things up, today's column will look more at the business aspects of taking a film from pitch to film festivals and beyond and how similarity on the surface doesn't always play out the same. As test subjects, we'll look at two films who could have been elevator pitched with the same theme and are currently playing the festival circuit side by side but are radically different in execution and marketability. This isn't a comparison between the films. Both of these films are strong examples of how to do things right with the choices they've made and the paths the stories dictated. What this article will attempt is to give examples of how you need more than a cursory understanding of what your film is, even from the very beginning, to properly handle the choices and understand the opportunities that are truly viable for your individual finished piece.
The films chosen are Madame Bovary by Sofie Barthes, being distributed by Millennium Entertainment and Two Days, One Night (aka deux jours, une nuit) by the Dardenne brothers, distributed in the U.S. by Sundance Selects (IFC).
Starting caveat: I will try not to reveal so much of the story as to spoil either movie for those who haven't seen them yet. My intention is to delve only into the specifics as far as their trailers and the press for the films have already revealed (for Madame Bovary there's more leeway since it's based on a pre-existing work. You knew that, right?) But for those who don't want to have the pristine movie-going experience spoiled even a little, you have been warned. And good luck.
Same basic theme
Both of these films can be described as following the same basic theme, namely:
A woman of her time dealing with finding herself through personal strife and circumstance.
Like genre, theme is often used as a shortcut to describe a film to a potential producer, supporter or financier. The shorthand has its uses. A studio looking for blockbusters is quickly able to dismiss broad ideas that don't have that potential. A financier that makes money on horror films doesn't care how articulate your tearjerker drama will seem to the different type of audience than their distribution schema can attract to the theaters. The short cut bucket will quickly eliminate those films that aren't their cup of tea. That doesn't mean someone else won't ask for a second cup. A quick no will allow the best use of time for everyone's agenda.
But even with a very basic theme that appeals to the potential buyer there are many different ways those themes can be served. And each one can attract a completely different marketing strategy with equal, though radically different approaches.
Let's examine the similarities and difference that set the paths that each film in our examples have taken. You can rest assured that every film with similar thematic elements to others will share some similarities and radically depart with those same films on other levels leading to completely different strategies to get them to market.
Female central lead character played by fairly well known, name actress.Madame Bovary has Mia Wasikowska as the title character and Two Days, One Night stars Marion Cotillard, both stellar actors in their particular skill sets.
Low-ish budget. Though Madame Bovary's budget isn't public, it is clear that they didn't have tons of money to shoot, though they did a good job of not having it show on screen. Similarly, Two Days, One Night used their reported €7M budget efficiently to squeeze their largish cast and many locations on screen.
Indie centric, proven writer/directors. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have a long and well-respected film history as a directing pair, most recently in the indie hit, The Kid with a Bike (2011). Sophie Barthes is a promising fresh face with the well received Cold Souls (2009) as a calling card and her constant collaborator, cinematographer Andrij Parekh at her side.
Played at many of the same festivals: Both films' production and distribution advocates know the value of a good festival run for similar themed indie fair in reaching their respective audiences' radars. This is evident in the several festivals these films found side-by-side slots in Toronto, Telluride, and Hamptons International.
The variations similar theme can spawn are quite evident in the marked differences between these two examples.
Period piece versus modern day. Besides the obvious visual differences and production quirks each setting dictates there are other choices that are less evident, but, also indicate how each film gets made. Madame Bovary chose to spend a significant portion of its budget on named actors for small roles, limiting locations and other elements accordingly. Setting Two Days, One Night in modern day allowed for greater latitude of found environments and enough budget for an unusually long, but crucial rehearsal period to get the entire large cast prepared.
Novel adaptation versus original story. Adaptations of already proven stories allow a much quicker pacing of pre-production, allowing the Bovary team a rapid idea to shooting period. Getting an original story right requires much more vetting and can lead to a very long gestation period for some films. In this case the Dardenne brothers worked on the story for more than ten years trying many radical variations until they found the fit that worked for the story they wanted to tell.
Elite lifestyle, costume drama with lots of name talent in lead and supporting roles versus worker class story, one name actor in lead with a talented but journeyman supporting cast. Having named cast in small roles will get marketing exposure and solid performances from the veterans, but, can often leave little nuances of story behind with not enough time to gel. Using solid, available actors and given time and rehearsal for each to find their parts can have a unifying impact on the total impression of the story told. Both approaches can work wonderfully, but, care has to be paid to make sure expectations are set properly by the parameters that are in play.
Young female director versus seasoned veteran brother directing team. A lot of difference in perspective exists between a young, French-American woman and “seasoned” Belgian brothers. There is a lot to be said about the shape of a film being most formed by the influences of the director at the helm. And audiences, especially indie ones, recognize a director's mark more than the most think. For writer/directors that influence is amplified and the differences heightened.
English versus French language dialog. Making a choice of what language to shoot a film in is not just a creative one. Even though the domestic market (U.S. and Canada) box office is currently averaging half the international market take for a given film, there is more general marketability globally in an English language film all things being equal. But distribution isn't always best told as all things being equal. Often, especially for independent films, niche marketing can find a large audience for a film telling the right story in a natural language for the story. Only in the U.S. is there a perception that audiences don't read subtitles. In actuality, for indie films the audiences willingly read subtitles as long as the film is worth the effort. Still, choosing a language for the film dictates how and where it can be marketed, so, shouldn't be done without considering that aspect.
Madame Bovary starts with the lead knowing her place in society and living within her understanding of her anticipated role. Her eyes are opened to possibilities, she dabbles, gets in trouble and the world around her lets her fall. She gives up on herself when her own actions turn on her and she suffers her own consequences. High drama leads to a tragic, inevitable end.
When her world crumbles it crashes in loud, spectacularly dramatic ways. The character is smashed into by each reveal and thrashes about at each lash of the story turn.
Two Days, One Night starts with the lead character lost as to where she fits in her world. She starts damaged, recovering, fragile. She is tossed and turned by every confrontation. But she begrudgingly attempts to save herself. It is not easy on her psyche, emotionally tossed and shaken by each interaction, growth and recoil in equal measure at every point. There are many possible endings as the story unfolds, all viable until the end and even then there are unseen twists.
Through a deliberate choice of slow, seemingly repetitive confrontations the Dardenne's reveal an exquisitely complex dilemma as if layers of an onion each revealing their subtle flavor as she attempts to reconstruct her life. In the end, she quietly pieces together a life she did not intend, but, the journey for both the character and audience are well rewarding.
Writer foreknowledge helps
In the mix of possibilities starting from a single theme, the writer must realize that every decision made in the story told will have repercussions for the resultant film. In turn those repercussions will impact the marketability concerns down the road. Making those decisions with foresight as to how it will impact and change the nature of the finished product will allow the writer to know in advance how the piece will be sold, what to expect, and what doors are being closed by the choices made. A writer doesn't write in a vacuum and understanding that a genre or thematic choice still leaves a lot of variation will be invaluable knowledge as the writer plies his or her trade.
In the end the two example films are appealing to completely different audiences. Madame Bovary seems to be seeking a more popular minded audience. By choosing a well-known source, sprinkling in known faces and telling the story in English this indie is hoping the mainstream might open its mind and consider veering just a little off the beaten path and try one of the smaller theaters at the multiplex for a change.
Two Days, One Night on the other hand knows that it isn't going to be a blockbuster and isn't attempting to be. The Dardenne brothers have a following and this film only slightly departs from that mold. Using Marion Cotillard as their main character brings her European star status to their film, but, her name is not yet a household one in the domestic market (though, I feel that will soon be rectified. Her performance is stellar in this, as usual.) The film's workman theme, pacing and French language set it solidly in the European mold and that is reflected in how the film is being released.
Release Strategy Differences
Two Days, One Night, as of this writing has already been released in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden and the UK with an estimated $5.4M box office take so far. It will be released in U.S. 24 December, 2014. It has also been selected as Belgium's entry for consideration in the Best Foreign Language category for the Oscars.
Other than festival showings Madame Bovary's release dates have not been set.
What remains to be seen
The most interesting thing about these two films or any two films with a similar theme is there is no way to tell which if either will be a success with their chosen strategy. The world is constantly changing and so is the movie going audience. Whether the formula you've used in the past will still work is unknown. Will a new approach gain favor? Will your film's audience every really find it? As always in the conclusions for my columns, it depends...
- More articles by Christopher Schiller
- What is Story?: Story Types, Plot Types, Themes and Genres
- Writers On The Web: Theme, and Asking the Central Question – What the Heck is My Web Series About? (Part 1)
Learn more about the use of theme in Dara Marks' book