Nobody sleeps well at film festivals. Some people don't sleep at all. The evening before this year's Toronto International Film Festival kicked off, Mike Boyuk, the Head of Distribution for Films We Like, lay awake for hours waiting for a file to upload. Hanging in the balance: the first TIFF press screening of a new film by a major Asian filmmaker. "I was on the bed with my phone beside me clicking on the refresh button all night," he says. "I made sure that I could hear the ding every time I got an email, but it was mostly just spam. It kept dinging."
The consequences of a film not being ready to screen for reviewers at TIFF are dire, especially for a distributor like Films We Like, which specializes in what might affectionately be called critic-bait. Between the likes of Apichatpong Weerasathul's cryptic and beautiful Cemetery of Splendor, Jia Zhangke's majestic Mountains May Depart, and Athina Rachel Tsangari's wryly funny Chevalier, the Films We Like slate is a veritable auteur smorgasbord. This year, the company's logo was on on nine titles, a huge amount for a company with less than a half-dozen employees operating out of a single-floor space on Mercer Street, a parking lot's width parallel to the Lightbox.
The Films We Like office is strewn with paraphernalia describing a decade spent distributing movies at the eccentric end of the spectrum: none of the posters or press books are emblazoned with what you'd call household names. Having made many visits there over the years, I can say that its employees have always ably and cheerfully shouldered the load that comes with operating near the low end of an economically stratified field. They are a dauntless group, and given the craziness of releasing films theatrically in 2015 AD—aka Year Zero VOD—they'd have to be. But that doesn't mean that they aren't tired. When I meet with co-founder Ron Mann, he also tells me that he hasn't been sleeping much, either—he looks a little more rumpled than usual, eyes weary underneath his bushy white hair. "I was up reading reviews from Venice and Telluride," he says. "I want to see what people are saying."
The films that Ron Mann buys tend to get good reviews. If they get bad ones, they're in big trouble. Long before he decided to start Films We Like, Mann was (and remains) a director of eclectic documentaries—most famously Comic-Book Confidential and Grass. Like his fellow Toronto New Wavers Atom Egoyan, Bruce McDonald, and Patricia Rozema, Mann's reputation in the early days was dependent on reviewers giving his work a thumbs up. This is still the case now that he's become a distributor. Without big stars or big budgets, the films that Mann acquires have to appeal to a more rarefied sensibility.
Case in point: this Friday, Films We Like will release Daniel Barber's The Keeping Room (starring Brit Marling) and Laurie Anderson's new documentary Heart of a Dog, the latter of which got raves at TIFF and the New York Film Festival. It's an intimate and impressionistic work centering on the director's late rat terrier Lolabelle, which is very interesting to those familiar with Anderson's career as a multimedia artist and probably a hard sell to anybody else. It's one thing for a filmmaker to preach to the converted, but a distributor's job is to get as many bystanders as possible into the tent—and to pay for the privilege of being there.
Mann has always been a resourceful showman. As a high school student in Toronto in the 1970s, he used to show 16 mm prints of big-ticket films like The Graduate and The French Connection in campus auditoriums or even his own basement, and he wasn't above squeezing his customers. "During the climax, we would turn off the lights and stop the projector and pass a hat around," he recalls. "We'd say that we needed a little more money to actually keep screening the movie."
By the beginning of the 1980s, Mann started making movies of his own, documenting Toronto's counterculture in the free-jazz film Imagine the Sound (1981) and an experimental dramatic feature, Listen to the City (1984), about a man who wakes up from a coma to discover an oddly haunted metropolis. Mann's desire to make movies featuring cultural marginalia—from Beat poets to indie bands—crested with Comic-Book Confidential (1988), a landmark survey of the medium featuring high-profile interviews (Frank Miller, Stan Lee) and a zippy visual style.
A box-office success, Comic-Book Confidential established Mann's as Canada's hippest documentary director—and there haven't been any heavyweight contenders for that title ever since. It also may have helped motivated him to eventually seek out and support films with a similarly maverick sensibility—and which needed the help. He co-founded Films We Like in 2003 with music promoter Gary Topp because the activist documentary The Weather Underground hadn't been picked up by any Canadian distributor.
"It made $17,000 in its first weekend," says Mann. "I thought it was just a one-off. After that, somebody brought me a movie called Rivers and Tides, which has done well in the US but had nobody representing it here. They said, 'We hear you're a distributor now.'"
Perceiving a niche between the Canadian distribution arms of American studios and the few other home-grown companies to gain any traction, Mann and Topp set about compiling a catalogue that reflected their idiosyncratic mandate. Poring over the list of films a decade later, it reflects either rigorously cinephilic taste or outright whimsy. Not to mention self-promotion: Films We Like has been putting out Mann's own movies for years, including his recent Altman (2014). "I got into this," he says, "because I really wanted to know where my royalties were going."
Mann says that the business has changed considerably since 2003, and that for all his purist fervor about watching movies in theatres, reality is moving in a different direction. "The audience for independent film is really specialized," he says. You can spend a lot of money promoting a film but in the end it's just a billboard for VOD. And DVD doesn't exist anymore. That's been a massive difference." At times, the best a company like Films We Like can do is roll with punches, but they've had moments of innovation as well; Mann's 2009 fungophile doc Know Your Mushrooms—featuring an appropriately psychedelic soundtrack by the Flaming Lips—had interesting post-theatrical packaging. "We were the first ever release on a USB," says Mann. "Selling 500 hand-made packages versus 2000 DVDs, we made just as much money—and we sold out."
Sometimes, instead of having to think up bright ideas, Films We Like hits paydirt. It was the Canadian distributor for Ida, an austere, black-and-white Polish drama that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. Other, bigger North American distributors salivate over the prospect of pushing Oscar contenders, and yet somehow Ida was available by the time Films We Like came calling after its Cannes premiere. How did a boutique company snap up one of the most popular foreign language releases of the last few years? "I have no idea," says Mann, who was also savvy enough to pick up the Palme D'or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), which became a word-of-mouth hit because of—not in spite of—its ecstatic strangeness.
The ragtag aspect of Films We Like is good branding: scrappy underdogs are always endearing. But it's also not solely a pose—it's a philosophy. Whether or not it's sustainable over the long haul is another case, although so far the evidence for the defense is more compelling. For his part, Mann has no illusions about his company's place in the overall pecking order, and for now (and probably for the foreseeable future) he isn't about to try to change it. "We can't compete with [the bigger distributors," he says. "To use a gambling analogy, we play at the $5 table. Mongrel is at the $50 table, and eOne is at the $100 table."
It's a gamble for any player to put their money where their mouth is, even—and sometimes especially—if they're playing for small stakes. It's a risk that Films We Like will continue to run. "I like being at the five-dollar table," says Mann. "It's my comfort zone."
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