GREGORY HATANAKA: TAKING NIGHT INTO DAY

The late-great Phaedra Cinema presented many edgy, bizarre and eccentric titles. What is it about films like these that piqued your interest and propelled you to bring them to theaters?
I’m a rabid fan of anything film, which means that I love all types of films running the gamut from typical arthouse fare to the more experimental and cultish. I think that the films I distributed at Phaedra were a reflection of this taste. I think that a “Phaedra” film could not be immediately identifiable or categorized because you (the audience) never knew what to expect be it, the intense French drama “La Separation” (which starred Isabelle Huppert and Daniel Auteuil), the very commercial comedy Just A Little Harmless Sex, the offensive Underground Comedy Movie or the classy but shockingly revolting Japanese film “Wife To Be Sacrificed.”

During Phaedra’s peak, roughly 1999/2000, it was still a very tiny operation and we were able to take chances on theatrically releasing these challenging and financial risky titles, without having to suffer the wrath or backlash from a more corporate environment. It was a real sense of freedom to be able to acquire the films, market and sell them myself, put the advertising charges on my credit cards, count the heads in the theaters and collect the box office receipts (or lack thereof). Of course, it was also disheartening to live through the failures, of which there were many.

Phaedra Cinema was among the few distributors which would take a chance on films from the likes of Men Cry Bullets or The Underground Comedy Movie or even a $980 film like “Cupid’s Mistake.” Why do you feel that other distributors were less enthusiastic about pursuing and releasing these kinds of films?
Well for one thing, these films were hardly commercial in any sense and if you refer to their theatrical reviews you will see that none had any sort of critical support either. But for every film that I distributed through Phaedra, there was something of each that intrigued me whether it be the subtle Cassavetes’-like quality of “Cupid’s Mistake,” the intensity of Zack Winstine’s States of Control, the glossiness of “Ratchet,” the over-the-top excitement of Gonin, the complete incomprehensibility of Soft Toilet Seats, the Frankenheimer feel of “The Taxman” or the simple romance told in “Love Etc.”

From the start, I had modeled Phaedra Cinema after World Northal Films, an independent distributor from the 1970s known for distributing martial arts classics from the Shaw Bros. but who also made a name for releasing such arthouse hits as Peter Weir’s “The Last Wave,” “Quadrophenia” and Nicolas Roeg’s “Bad Timing.”

But getting back to the question: I think that the other distributors simply weren’t interested in the challenging films we released. They had to be financially responsible to their corporate parents and simply could not take these sort of risks. Remember, this was all before the DVD boom, the cable market was relatively static, but the theatrical market was, as it still is, non-existent for marginal fare.

Some of the edgier, underground-variety indie films released by Phaedra were roasted by the critics. Do you think that the critics tend to be more hostile to smaller films versus the blunders that come out of Hollywood?
By and large, the critical press have their own select brand of taste. To be a critic is to be one of the most overworked people in the world — you screen six-to-ten films a week in very desolate screening rooms – you’re always in the dark – pressured by editorial deadlines to deliver reviews. You lose the fun of moviegoing, I would think. Given these circumstances, it’s very hard to be objective when you’re under these sort of pressures and I think the smaller films fall through the cracks when it comes to getting press. Ironically, it’s these films that need the press the most given they’ve no real advertising budget to speak of, no star actors, etc.

I would think though that the studios do impose some kind of pressure on critics to give their films major coverage. Studios such as Miramax, and the majors (i.e. Sony, Paramount, etc.) will routinely fly in critics to luxurious press junkets and parties for their latest releases. It’s hard to be objective when all that is lavished on you.

Do you recommend self-distribution for filmmakers who cannot get their films picked up?
No. Simply because self-distributing your film means that you’ll be living with your film for another one-to-two years in addition to the two years it took to write and produce it, which means a delay in making your next film and losing your creative momentum. On top of that, there’s also the major issue of being able to collect from exhibitors when they know you have nothing to follow it up with.

Where do you see indie theatrical distribution heading in the near future?
Onwards and upwards, I hope. Though there are and continue to be the many, many failures in the independent film scene, there are still enough commercial successes for the audiences, studios and networks to take notice. Having hits like Lost in Translation and American Splendor means that more theater chains will be open to showing indie films and it also further builds up the audience for indie cinema. Yes, the studios continue to dominate the art houses, but the DVD market is still a market where a small indie can survive and television is getting rosier.

Check out “Until the Night” at the film’s official website.




Posted on August 18, 2004 in Interviews by
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