LOCARNO — Switzerland’s Locarno Fest hit its final straits on Wednesday evening with “Spring Breakers” director Harmony Korine, among a slim roster of on-site stars, set to arrive to accept in person an Honorary Golden Pard.
Otherwise, the dust is settling on activities at the festival’s vibrant industry arm, Locarno Pro, which broke all-time attendance records with 1,530 delegates, and on a market which, however relaxed, says much about larger forces rocking the arthouse and crossover business worldwide:
Over the last decade, theatrical arthouse markets have imploded soufflé-like. “We used to make 5,000 admissions per title, now the target audience is 500,” Peter Bognar, at Hungary’s CinefilCo, told Variety at Locarno. So, to close the gap and move hopefully into a little upside, having tapped subsidies and local TV pre-buys, producers are looking ever more to overseas public-sector coin, channelled via international co-producer partners. Tapping that not by chance is the objective of three of Locarno’s biggest industry initiatives, Open Doors, Match Me! and A4Development. Not surprisingly, all three are flourishing.
Riz Ahmed, Cate Blanchett: The Importance of Stars
Following on Fantasia, as the second high-profile fest after SAG-AFTRA’s strike action, Locarno took a hit in star presence, always limited at the best of times. Ahmed cancelled an opening night attendance to accept Locarno’s Davide Campari excellence award ahead of a screening of “Dammi” in which he starred. Cate Blanchett, an executive producer on closing night pic “Shayda,” also pulled out in solidarity with striking actors. Stellan Skarsgård did attend, declined a Leopard Club Award, talked up his latest film, “What Remains,” but refused to talk about the strikes. Does the lack of star glitz matter? Well, yes. Locarno is distinguished by its auteur fare and debuts and now select genre fare. Its audiences also expect, as a counterpart, some big names and more broader audience fare with stars in attendance at its Piazza Grande screenings. That implicit contract could not function this year.
What’s Locarno All About
Bereft of huge marketing budgets, the independent industry turns on talent, talent and talent, enshrined as either star auteurs or breakout new directors. Mixing both, for years Locarno has functioned in business terms as a massive talent launchpad. “Locarno is ideal for films to gain prominence which might be a bit lost playing a big fall festival,” says Films Boutique’s Jean-Christophe Simon. “It’s also a great place to start a career or discover beautiful surprises and pearls,”
Sales will go down when buyers are in more of a buying mood, during the vertiginous late summer trifecta of Venice, Toronto and San Sebastian.
The Shift in the News Cycle
This drive for discovery and overseas equity colored the caliber and timing of business announcements at Locarno. Variety’s Locarno Dailies boasted news exclusives. The lion’s share featured sales agents’ taking a punt on new talent, announced mostly around Locarno’s lineup announcement last month, or around project or co-production unveils. Straight sales were few and far between. Grosso modo, given the slowing of the sales cycle, the same could be said for even Berlin, Cannes and Venice. The real business is announced before or, except for sell outs from top echelon sales outfits, in the weeks or months after.
Much table title-tattle at Locarno turned on one of the world’s great out-there auteurs, Romania Radu Jude, in competition with “Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World.” “With scabrous wit, deep seriousness and blatant bad manners, the Romanian director tops even his Berlin-winning “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” for acutely topical, deliriously gonzo provocation,” Variety’s announced. Some critics reckoned the film Jude’s best ever. Variety judged “Yannick,” from “Wrong” director Quentin Dupieux, “an absurdist delight.” The jury is still out on the other high-profile out-there filmmaker in competition, Filipino Lav Diaz and “‘Essential Truths of the Lake,” a black-and-white cold case mystery.
Talked Up New Directors
Of new or new-ish directors, the biggest buzz, at least among buyers, was for “Excursion,” playing Locarno Cineasti del Presente and a mid-school sex scandal drama marking the first feature from Sarajevo-born Una Gunjak and producer-sales agent Salaud Morisset. In main competition, both Laura Ferres’ debut “The Permanent Picture” and “Sweet Dreams,” Ena Sendijarević’s Indonesia-set, colonial-era satire had their fans.
Ted Hope Focuses Debate on Independent Production
Locarno is also a high-class talking shop, its one day StepIN conference focusing on the burning issues of the moment. A fiery Ted Hope, producer of “The Wedding Banquet” and “The Ice-Storm,” served to center debate on the future of independent cinema, talking as often hard-hitting bullet points rolled behind him on a screen. For example: Netflix made $900M on “Squid Game” but the creator received zero dollars in residuals.” The indie film sector is f*****, he proclaimed. Hope was talking about the U.S. industry. Many of his issues are key, however, to current industry debate in Europe, such as rights ownership and reversion on streamer productions. The E.U. is mooting new legislation, said to come into effect year-end 2024, to address these concerns. After his speech, Hope was the talk – and toast – of Locarno.
Locarno Pro’s Hot Plays
So weren’t there any more hot pics at Locarno? Yes, there were, but they were to be found at Locarno Pro as festival industry excitement shifts from just finished titles to projects revealed in highly structured industry events organized by festivals themselves. Variety’s 10 Locarno Industry Talents to Track focuses on some of them and the creators behind them, or the execs who brought them to market.
Some cases to point: Estonia’s Johanna Maria Paulson brought to the international market “Beatrice,” a love story/soul transplant mindbender from Vallo Toomla, who wowed at 2016’s San Sebastian with debut “Pretenders”; also at Match Me!, Yifang Lee introduced “Goodbye North, Goodbye,” which frames a story set in a divided Taiwan after a horrific U.S.-China war; Open Doors’ triple runaway winner was “Three Bullets,” from Dominican Republic’s Génesis Valenzuela, a spirited riposte to received wisdoms about the Dominican diaspora experience.
In Alliance4Development, Ann Oren proved that she can go even stranger than “Piaffe” with “Object a,” which will see her reunite with Simone Bucio and focus on a couple that enters a “surreal dialogue with nature, which turns into an absurd and sensual commentary on contemporary life.”
Despina Athanassiadis raised interest with “The Young One” about female truck drivers – bringing back to mind last year’s Locarno offering “Paradise Highway” – and Rokhaya Marieme Balde made a case that personal can, or probably always is, personal. In “The Passion of Aline,” she will talk about childhood hero Aline Sitoé Diatta, who fought against French colonization in Senegal.
Sales Agents Shout Out for Locarno
It is this project presence and need to position titles before late summer festival bedlam which makes Locarno such an enriching experience, as top European sales agents attested. “The days in Locarno have (as always) been great and busy with many fruitful meetings both regarding new projects to potentially take on as well as negotiations with distributors,” reported Trust Nordisk’s Susan Wendt. “I am confident that there will be a good outcome both in terms of sales and new projects for Trust Nordisk,” she added.
“I do have a few offers here in Locarno but it’s too early for me to share info and I still have two full days of meetings,” relayed MK2’s Elise Cochin, who had Justine Triet’s Cannes Palme d’Or “Anatomy of a Fall” at Locarno, along with Locarno opener “The Falling Star” by Abel and Gordon, next heading to Telluride.
“We don’t have a film here this year, so no Locarno-related business to report. And we didn’t acquire here either. But I’m meeting producers in the various programs and it’s always worthwhile,” said Beta Cinema’s Thorsten Ritter.
“Locarno is a market that doesn’t feel like it,” said Simon sharing a relaxed coffee with Variety at Locarno’s buyers lounge. But there he was taking time to talk up Lav Diaz’s “Essential Truths” and “La Morsure,” another Films Boutique title, at one and the same time, before catching a train to Milan.
Ritter snapped up works in progress First Look winner “One Last Evening” at Locarno last year. Beta Cinema was only able to announce the deal in December.
Anyone expecting a major flurry of sales announcements from Locarno during the festival shouldn’t hold their breath. That said, these were new deals or projects announced in exclusivity by Variety from last weekend:
*As creators and sales agents interest turns from arthouse to far more sellable family fare, FilmSharks snared world sales rights to “Snot & Splash: The Mystery of Disappearing Holes,” a surreal sci-fi family film from Finnish director Teemu Nikki, behind Oscar entry “Euthanizer” which played Locarno Kids Screenings.
Finland (Scanbox), Scandinavia (Folkets Bio), Norway (Norsk Filmdistribusjon), Italy (I Wonder Pictures) and Poland (Orka) have also been licensed.
*In a just sealed deal, Denmark’s LevelK has closed international on “The Invisible Fight,” a bizarre kung fu comedy from Estonia’s Rainer Sarnet (“November”).
*Lars von Trier, Lucrecia Martel and Lisandro Alonso producer Marianne Slot revealed at Locarno, while accepting a career achievement award, that she will continue her successful collaboration with Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson, following 2018 “Woman at War” with TV show “The Danish Woman” and upcoming feature film “Normal Men.”
*Pandora Filmes will release in Brazil “Tomorrow’s Rain,” from Portugal’s Bernando Lopes, a Cesar and Portuguese Film Academy winner for “Moço,” lead produced by Omaja, his first expanding Lisbon label.
*Spain’s Vertigo Films has boarded “All the World Drops Dead,” Austrian Kevin Kopacka, follow-up to “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes,” set up at Germany’s Manderley Films, which oversaw VFX on “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
*Richard V. Somes’ action spectacle “Topakk”(“Trigger”) has sold to Aud (South Korea), Superfine Films (India), Kinologistika (CIS and the Baltics) and Lighthouse (German-speaking Europe), sales agent Raven Banner revealed during Locarno.
*Costa Rica’s Juli Films has boarded Nicaraguan Gloria Carrión’s stop motion “Pantasma,” which won the biggest Open Doors award on Tuesday, a CHF25,000 ($28,600) cash prize from Visions Sud Est, bulwarking the Central American production alliance behind the admired project.