Making Italy Marketable. An Interview With Neal Block (Magnolia Pictures)

Magnolia Pictures is one of the most important American film distributor specialized in both foreign and independent films. The company was founded in 2001 by Bill Banowsky and Eamonn Bowles, and at the moment it is a subsidiary of Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 Entertainment. Magnolia distributes some of its films, especially foreign and genre titles, under the Magnet Releasing arm. Among its most important European movies distributed in the last decade, they released several Italian films, such as I Am Love by Luca Guadagnino, Dogman by Matteo Garrone and Nico, 1989 by Susanna Nicchiarelli. On the afternoon of March 19, 2019, together with my colleagues Marco Cucco, Emiliano Morreale and Massimo Scaglioni, I met Neal Block, Head of Distribution of Magnolia Pictures, at his office on 49 West 27th Street, in New York City. We had the opportunity to talk with him about Magnolia’s distribution strategies of European cinema, and especially of Italian cinema, in the U.S.

How do you organize the distribution of European films in the United States, and especially Italian films?

As the head of the distribution department, I oversee and implement the theatrical releases for all of our films. First, we acquire a film – through a film festival, the market, a sales agent or whomever – and then I sit down with my team to figure out a general release date. Then it’s my specific responsibility to plan out a whole theatrical release and to execute it: I maintain relationships with the exhibitors, I book all the theatres around the country, I superintend the theatre marketing and I make sure that the films are being properly advertised, properly marketed. Then straight through to opening of the film, I look at expanding the film once it opens, negotiate the film rental in terms after the films is played, collect all the money… So what I do really covers from the beginning to the end of a theatrical release.

Do you only deal with national releases? Are there any important differences between big cities and other parts of the country?

Yes, just the US. And there are huge differences. I think the value that I bring mostly to Magnolia is my relationships with all the different theatres: I know the theatre in every market, big and small, where any film should play, I know who the competitors are. But we do only handle the US: we don’t work in any international territory, except for the output deal we have with Mangrove Media in Canada.

When it comes to Italian movies, are there any substantial differences between the different parts of the country? Does Italian cinema work better in some territories rather than others?

I don’t think that there is a huge difference in the performance of Italian films compared to other European films, as far as what theatres they’ll play – every foreign language film will play in the same theatre in US cities. For instance, in Columbus, Ohio there is the Gateway Film Centre and the Wexner. There’s not one theatre that’s especially good for Italian films – it’ll be just a theatre that’s pretty good for any kind of European film. The theatres that do well on Italian films are the theatres that will do well on any kind of European release.

Do you have direct contacts with Italian companies or Italian producers?

Yeah, but I don’t know who they are. We have a whole Acquisitions Department that maintains these kinds of relationships.

Where do you acquire a film – at the festivals, before the screenings, via market sales?

Primarily at the festivals, otherwise we try to obtain links of the films prior to their premiere dates at the festivals. Sometimes, if it is a filmmaker that we really like and haven’t worked with before, we’ll try to acquire the film even before we see it. But for the most part we work just like every other distributor: we attend the first screening of the film at the festival and then, if we like it, we’re ready to go and put it in offer as soon as we see it. Last year we had a Japanese film called Shoplifters, which premiered in Cannes. Our team saw its first screening, loved it and quickly approach the sales agent to make an offer. We bought the film right before all the reviews started heating it – and as soon as they did, the other distributors were very upset. We’re a very small and nimble acquisitions unit and luckily we don’t have many layers of bureaucracy to go through to get approved to buy a film: when we like a film, we can put an aggressive offer as early as possible and not have to worry about it. Some other companies have to run those films up through various levels of approval.

Can you tell us more about specific cases of Italian films you have chosen to distribute – for example, you released I Am Love by Luca Guadagnino, Dogman by Matteo Garrone and Nico, 1989 by Susanna Nicchiarelli? What made you select these films?

I don’t remember where we bought I Am Love – probably in Toronto or in Venice, where it premiered.  I think that one of the reasons that it did so well was because of Tilda Swinton: I don’t know if it would have resonated commercially the same way that it did if there wasn’t an English-speaking, well recognizable actress in it. Indeed, a lot of the initial reviews and of the initial press on the film was about Tilda Swinton speaking different languages and inhabiting a different kind of film than she had done before. Furthermore, I Am Love had something that is appealing across all European films: a relatable story of a beautiful woman in a beautiful place. Unfortunately, the US audience can be a reductive sort of business: we may have this really nuanced, amazing films like I Am Love, but we have to sell them just as “a beautiful woman in a beautiful place” – the sensualism, the food, the beautiful architecture, the sunshine… This is one of the reasons why The Great Beauty also resonated with American audiences. Our idealization of Europe and the beauty of European cities is a really strong selling point when we’re trying to release European films in the US – and this is one of the reasons why I Am Love did so well initially. But I think the reason that it ended up exceeding anybody’s expectations – the movie grossed $5 million, and we didn’t at all expect the film would do that – is that the beauty of the cities gets you there and then the quality of the filmmaking is what really extends the life of the film. Once people are in it, they’re hooked on the film. But first we have to sell it as a luxury good. For I Am Love it was easy because the film is almost like a luxury good itself and we just had to make sure that that’s exactly what we sold to the audience.

What about the marketing strategies for the US audiences? Do you make a deal with Italian distributors and then work with them? Or is it just up to you?

We don’t really work with Italian distributors, sales agents or producers, unless contractually obliged. Typically, for a foreign language film, we will create our own materials and they’ll have consultation rights: for example, for Dogman we had to send our poster and our trailer to those who sold the film to us. We’re in touch with the producers of the film to give them updates over the course of our release and leading up to the release, but it’s not an actual partnership usually. That comes in more with domestic films. The thing about releasing a European film in the US is that it’s difficult to be in touch with the producers and the filmmakers all the time. And because the US territory is a secondary territory for them, most of the time they’re not quite as involved day-to-day.

Did you create a specific Academy campaign for Dogman?

Yes, together with Ira Deutchman from Cinecittà Luce. Dogman was selected as the Italian Oscar entry. As its distributor, we would have done our own campaign for it – a few ads and some screenings. But it ended up being a much more robust campaign because of Ira’s involvement, and because of the money earmarked by Cinecittà specifically for Academy campaigns. No other government from any other territory is doing what Italy is doing to help the theatrical releases of Italian films in the US. Normally Magnolia is a pretty risk-averse company: we do not spend a lot of money on Academy campaigns because it’s just a total waste of money for the most part, we would spend the bear minimum of dollars on a film pre-shortlist, just because we don’t have a lot of money to spend on campaigns for any release. We prefer to save the money that we do have and use it for the theatrical off, rather than a big Academy campaign. That said, because Ira was involved, we were able to do more ads, have more screenings and do a few events that we wouldn’t have done otherwise. It was great because we are happy to do those things, it’s difficult to justify paying for it normally, if the film hasn’t opened yet. Usually, we release foreign language films in the US in the spring. Shoplifters was an exception: we released it in November because we knew that it was probably going to get nominated – and when a film is nominated, it’s better to be open at the end of the year, because then there will a be much more aware audience. But for Dogman, we figured we would release it in the spring, so an Academy campaign doesn’t really make a ton of sense, because it takes place five months prior to when you’re going to open. But, like I said, because there was specific money earmarked for the Academy campaign, we had great one – even though it didn’t get us a nomination.

When you choose a film like Dogman, do you decide also the number of theatres to distribute it? What are the criteria for your choices?

I always try to get the best possible theatres for a foreign language film: for Dogman, I was really excited because we had the two best theatres in New York City for foreign language films, the Film Forum downtown and the Film Society at Lincoln Centre uptown, and in Los Angeles we had a theatre called New Art. I think that those three theatres really provide a great way to watch movies. But for a film like Dogman, we knew that the business was going to be limited: there’s not a huge market for a film like that in the US. Even if it wins Best Actor in Cannes, it wins a bunch of European Film Awards and it’s critically allotted, here it is still an unknown quantity. We acquire films like that with the understanding that we’re probably not going to make a huge amount of money.

When do you decide whether to organize a wider distribution for a film?

Dogman is not going to approach a wide release, but I try to book as many markets as possible before the film opens. I’m now set up in Boston, DC, Chicago, San Diego, Minneapolis, Texas… Dogman is already booked to open in those major markets. Now I have 20 markets booked, which is a pretty reasonable number of theatres to have booked in advance of an opening.

Shoplifters had a bigger market…

Dogman is violent, a little unpleasant, grimy and it doesn’t present the kind of Italy that an American audience expects or wants to see. It’s a difficult film, but we knew that we would be able to make it profitable: it was an affordable film for us, and we knew that we have enough know-how for small, foreign language films to make it work. Shoplifters was different because it got better reviews out of Cannes and it won the Palme d’Or. Also, Kore-eda is a better-known filmmaker in the US. It’s also a “softer” movie, more palpable to the American audience: it was an easier sell. So I planned the releases of these two films thinking about what the initial reaction of the audience would be and who would go to see and enjoy these movies… like my parents. Older audiences, unfortunately, are the only audiences in the US that go to see foreign language films. The theatre going audience in the US, in general, is an older audience when you’re dealing with independent releases: it’s hard to get and reach a younger audience – there are some companies that know how to do it, but it costs a lot of money. Marketing to younger people is expensive: we have found that what it costs to spend to reach those audiences is more than what we’re making on the films that we released. However Shoplifters, at some point in its release, became a film that younger audiences had heard of, and wanted go to see: there are some theatres in Williamsburg and in Brooklyn that did well from that movie – and those are theatres that only young people go to. But, in general, the audience in the US for foreign language films is an older audience.

Do you think that its nationality is relevant in the evaluation of the possible success of a film? Is it relevant that Dogman is an Italian movie and Shoplifters is a Japanese one? Or are other aspects more important – for example, the concept of the movie?

Aside from French films, I think a lot of the US audience lumps all European films in together.  Being “Italian” is not going to be the deciding factor of what film you might choose over any other European films. I do think that there is a difference in audience between European and Asian films: there is a much bigger appetite for European films than there is for Asian films here. Japanese films do well, but Korean releases or Chinese releases just do not make a dent in US audiences at all, unless they’re being released specifically to Chinese audiences. There are probably a hundred theatres around the country built specifically in areas with a lot of first generation Chinese, who will support Asian films, but there’s not really any kind of specialized audience beyond that. I think that as long as the film is appealing, its nationality doesn’t really matter.

So the category you refer to is more like “European films”?

Yes, I think so. Except when it’s French: there’s a larger audience for French films specifically. In the history of foreign film distribution in the US, the films that have resonated the most are French films.

In the past, like in the ’60s and ’70s the art-house circuit in the America favoured a lot of auteurs, and many Italian ones like Fellini and De Sica made the top 10 foreign-language films. By the ’90s this was totally different, with European successes coming only from Miramax/“internationalized” models like Cinema Paradiso. Today the best performing Italian films never reach the top tens of foreign-language films, but within them there is a clear return to auteurs: like Sorrentino, Garrone, Guadagnino, Bellocchio, Moretti and so on. Do you think the presence of a well-known director affects purchasing or distribution of Italian films significantly?

It’s interesting that today we have these well-known auteurs who are the only Italian filmmakers that are releasing movies now, but before, when Italy had more higher grossing films, we didn’t have those auteurs. I think that people today like to follow directors’ careers: certainly, we wouldn’t have bought Dogman if it wasn’t directed by Matteo Garrone, because he is a known quantity and it’s an easier sell for us. I am surprised that Gomorra did as well as it did, because it was a pretty gritty film. But Americans love organized crime, so that was the real sell for that film.

Dogman (2018, Matteo Garrone)

Do you think Italian films will continue to struggle in the USA in the coming years?

Not necessarily. The fact that the Italian government is giving money to Ira to disseminate theatrical releases, for us, at least, this is a really big factor when we’re trying to acquire a movie. Let’s say we’re in Cannes and we see a great Italian film, but we’re a little gun-shy about it for whatever reason – maybe we don’t want to spend the money that they’re asking, or maybe we have to factor in a lot of travel costs when we’re releasing the movie. If we know that there will be a certain amount of money allocated for us to release this film, then it’s a difference story for us. No other government does that, even though Iceland has a big local film industry and they support a lot of their films in the US.

What about France?

Nobody supports releases the way that Italy does. Ira Deutchman is the go-between the Italian government and us: everything goes through him, he’s like the Godfather of Italian cinema. He’s been in distribution for decades and he knows what he’s doing. For Dogman, for example, we’re going to increase our advertising budget significantly: we’re intending to do more targeted Facebook campaigns, some podcast advertising, which is normally pretty expensive, we’re going to do some outdoor advertising in Manhattan, too. These are things that we might not typically do for a foreign language film, just because we know that there is risk involved in spending. In general, over the last five to seven years, attendance for foreign language films in the US has dropped, so we’re very careful about how much money we spend when we’re releasing a foreign language film – as opposed to a documentary, because the audiences for documentaries have really increased recently. We used to be able to buy any kind of foreign language film: as long as the reviews were good and you had a good campaign, there would be an audience for that film. But a lot has changed over the last years.

Are you referring to technological changes, like the growth of streaming services?

Essentially, I think that the problem is that the audiences are aging: the audience for art films is getting older and older and less able to get to the movie theatre – and it’s only going to get worse. Streaming has presented so many options that a film has to be exceptional to break through – not just foreign language films, but those in particular. It used to be that you could have a film with B plus review and it would be fine, but now you have to only buy the films that have the best reviews or a really easy hook, because there’s so much content available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and all these platforms. We have to change our strategy based on the changes in the US audience movie habits: this is one of the big changes over the last nine years. Dogman, for instance, is a gritty crime film and we know that this is something we can sell. Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or and it had incredible reviews.

Are you also involved with the post-theatrical distribution of a movie?

Magnolia has a home video department, which we’re not super involved in: they’re a separate entity out in Los Angeles and they take care of our DVDs and iTunes releases.

For the same titles? Do you buy the rights both for theatrical and post-theatrical distribution?

Yes, we buy all of North American rights whenever possible. We used to release every film on our good: we used to have a physical DVD or Blu-Ray for every film, but we don’t do that anymore because we lost too much money. For Dogman, we probably won’t release a DVD. Even for Shoplifters we’re not releasing a Blu-Ray, only a DVD. It’s a shame. But we are considering transactional VOD and then eventually streaming: Magnolia has an output deal with Hulu, so all of our films will eventually go to the Hulu platform as an exclusive.

As for Ira Deutchman’s role, do you usually talk with him before choosing to pick up a film at a Festival? When it’s an Italian film, does the possibility that Ira could help you in distributing it affect your choice?

This is the first time that we worked with him: we didn’t really know that Ira was involved at all before Dogman. Now we know that if we see an Italian film at a Festival, we might give Ira a call and say “Hey, did you see this? What are the chances that your organization will help with this if we buy it?”. In the past I’ve had conversations with Ira when he’s said, “Yeah, you should do that”. For the future, when it comes to any Italian film, we will certainly talk to Ira: he wouldn’t be directly involved in the buying of the film, he’ll just be a consultant that we deal with later. For sure it’s a big help, it’s like a godsend: to be able to have 20, 30 or 50 thousand dollars (or whatever they end up spending) for a film like Dogman, where we have such a narrow margin of profitability, it’s amazing.

You said that the primary audience for this kind of movies is an older audience, but maybe the younger generation are more used to watching movies with subtitles through Netflix – we noticed this, for example, with My Brilliant Friend on HBO. Is this affecting or could it affect your work?

I don’t really know, it’s hard to say what people are watching. I would think that younger people who watch Netflix could see more international programming than would they would see if they choose to see something in the movie theatre. But I’m not sure if that’s going to translate into them going to see films in theatres: I think that’s really hard. A similar thing happened with documentaries last year: we had a huge summer of documentaries in the US – RBG, Mr. Rogers, Three Identical Strangers and Free Solo all grossed enormous amounts of money. But aside from those films, there’s been such a proliferation of documentaries on streaming platforms that devalued, in a way, the theatrical experience. Even if younger viewers are watching foreign language, subtitled films on streaming platforms, I don’t know if this is going to encourage them to go to theatres. I fear that streaming platforms just devalue the theatrical experience. I know that’s kind of a downer of an approach, but I just see it happening: before we opened Shoplifters, I looked back in 2018 to see which foreign language films grossed $1 million or more – there’s usually six to ten of them. Well, in 2018 there were only two films, The Insult and A Fantastic Woman, which grossed respectively one and two million dollars. We ended up grossing $3.3 million with Shoplifters – which is crazy, that was just an anomaly – but I was shocked that there were so few foreign language films that had crossed a million, and it just seems to be fewer every year. Who knows, maybe streaming and subtitled films on streaming will create a new audience? Let’s hope so.

Which are the best marketing tools to address your target audience?

I still think that the best marketing tool is the theatrical trailer: putting a trailer on a movie theatre screen and having people see it. In the US, for the most part, the only theatres that will show your trailer are those same theatres that will be playing your film. So, the theatrical trailer speaks directly to the people that are most likely to buy a ticket for the movie: they’re already at the theatre, they attend that theatre and they’re seeing a film that is probably similar in some ways to your film. I think that is still the most important – and it’s always been the most important – marketing tool. Beyond that, online trailers and online discussions through Reddit or Twitter also are important, just to make sure that your film is being discussed in some sort of conversation. This is hard because there are dozens of advertising agencies that are trying to start conversations about a film intentionally – and who knows what breaks through.

Do you cut and re-edit the trailer for your domestic market or do you just take the original trailer?

We will cut a new trailer, almost every time. For Dogman, the trailer was good, but it was too dark for our audience, so we needed to totally recut it. The result is similar, because it’s the same film, but we softened it a little bit: we made it more about the story of redemption of the main character, rather than just a crime thing. Do you remember the poster where he’s walking and carrying a big body over him? We couldn’t use that, it was too much. We ended up using a poster that worked like a throwback to traditional old-school arthouse releases: typically those kind of movie posters are a little too narrow focused for the wider audience, but for Dogman we want to hit the old school “foreign cinema fans”, for whom that kind of design may appeal. Sometimes you also have to think about the theatres in the US where your posters will be hung.

Marco Cucco, Neal Block, Massimo Scaglioni, Damiano Garofalo and Emiliano Morreale