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Case study: Bullhead

The challenges of producing and distributing Belgian drama Bullhead [pictured] were discussed by Savage Film producer Bart Van Langendonck and Celluloid Dreams boss Hengameh Panahi. The pair spoke to Screen at the Les Arcs European Film Festival.

Bullhead, set in the world of animal hormone traffickers, was the feature directorial debut of Michael R Roskam and was nominated for the foreign language Oscar last year, launching the international career of lead actor Matthias Schoenaerts.

Roskam is now working on Brussels gangster film The Faithful, which will also star Schoenaerts, produced by Langendonck’s Savage Film and co-produced by France’s Stone Angels.

Langendonck had travelled from Brussels and Panahi from Paris to attend the Alpine festival and speak about Bullhead. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

How did you get to know Michael Roskam and when were the seeds of Bullhead first sewn?

Langendonck: I met Michael in 2003 when I started a company with people from a commercials production firm called CCCP. We launched a new label together. Michael had already made a short film with another producer but wanted to make his second with me. We made three shorts together.

After the third, he was already writing Bullhead – then called The Fields, in 2006 – and got support from the Flemish Film Fund for script development. At that time, it was a 3 ½ hour epic. Luckily, that changed or it would have been totally unsellable.

Michael was already well known in the Flemish film world with his successful shorts that showed his craftsmanship and ability to tell stories. He then had to start writing, which took a long time. He got it down to 2 ½ hours.

At that time, I was breaking away from my previous partners who weren’t interested in Michael’s feature. He came with me and I set up my production company. It was my first feature too.

Michael is great at convincing people to give money. But we weren’t bankable because we hadn’t done anything commercial. We were selling the film as a commercial arthouse film. People believed the arthouse part but not commercial side. So I had to associate myself with a bigger player in Belgium, Eyeworks, for all my projects. It was a good deal if we didn’t turn a profit. Unfortunately, we made profits so it wasn’t such a good deal. Now, I’m trying to turn it into an advantage.

How was the longer version of the script different?

Instead of having five-minute shots of people driving through a field, it was only three seconds. The Fields was more epic. Storylines were dropped before we had a shooting script, such as a love affair between a cop and an informer.

I still thought the film was going to be too long but luckily we didn’t get funding from Eurimages and had to reduce the shooting days – so sometimes Eurimages’ refusal is good. They didn’t believe it was going to be credible and weren’t sure if we were making a thriller or personal drama. One week before the shoot we had to reduce the budget by €300,000.

It was frustrating that, after five years of working on the financing, I had to put my salary as a guarantee on the contingency. If we went over budget, I would not have made anything. Thankfully, we didn’t go over budget.

Was it a tough sell?

We spent a lot of time talking to sales agents at Cinemart and Cannes, at the development stage. People listened but didn’tact. We had a good feeling with Wild Bunch but it didn’t turn into anything.

We were then selected for Berlinale while in post production. We wondered whether to wait for Cannes but decided to go for Berlinale because there hadn’t been a Flemish film there in 10 years. We thought that would give us extra promotion.

We shot in spring 2010 and the film was released in February 2011.

How did the relationship with Celluloid Dreams come about?

I had heard a lot about Hengameh Panahi. She had great charisma and a strong track record so I felt she might be a great representative for this film. When we were selected for Berlin, I sent her a bad quality Vimeo link. She emailed me back three hours later at 3am.

Hengameh, what happened after you first saw Bullhead?

Panahi: I showed it to my sales team, who said it would be impossible to sell. I was torn because I saw the quality of the film and emergence of a director and actor. I responded to Bart saying that if he was prepared for the fact that I may not make any sales, I was interested in promoting the movie.

But I didn’t have a clue who would buy it because it’s long, dark and sits between arthouse and genre, which hard to sell.

I had a track record of making directors famous and Bart agreed to come on board. With a tough film, you have to be as inventive and creative as the director to find ways to sell the movie.

I came on board late. The film was finished and already selected for Berlin so I was frustrated. It would not have been my idea to go into their Panorama section because it features audience-friendly movies – and Bullhead isn’t an audience-friendly movie.

I wanted to try Cannes or at least get it in competition in Berlin. Experience tells you where the film will best play.

But we went to Panorama and the film was everywhere - posters, the cover page of the market guide. But we were unlucky because our screening we went up against Wim Wenders’ Pina. We had no reviews and left Berlin with no sales. We needed another launch.

We struggled to find a distributor because in Europe, sex isn’t a problem but violence is, and in North America violence isn’t a problem but sex is. I had to make a splash at a genre festival.

With a US launch, we saw another opportunity  to promote it and bring it back to Europe. We chose to go to Austin [Fantastic Fest]. It was a start. We went there and won Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and the US press went over the roof.

Drafthouse Films acquired the rights to distribute the film in the US. Bart then applied for funds for Oscar promotion, having been selected as Belgian’s foreign language entry.

So we came out of Berlin with no interest and ended up being among the foreign language selections for the Academy Awards. But it was still a tough sell.

Right now, the film has sold in 20 territories, screened at 55 festivals and won 36 awards.

What did happen at Berlin is that Michael was signed by [US agent] UTA. The US path opened and he is now doing projects for Fox Searchlight, HBO and Brad Pitt’s Plan B.

Years ago it would take talented directors at least a few films to get there. Now, if you’re talented, the door can open after one film. He is still young but is already with big names. Matthias was also signed by major agents and starred in Rust and Bone.

It is going to be released in the UK by Soda Pictures, which first distributed Rust and Bone. They bought it after the Oscar nomination.

They were originally going to release it in the UK earlier in the year but delayed the release so that they could promote it after Rust and Bone. Now, every month, people are asking me what Michael is doing next.

Did you ever consider re-cutting the film to make it easier to sell?

Panahi: I proposed to recut it to under two hours. Many distributors won’t consider films over two hours so be careful in that respect. Exhibitors are against it too. I would say, the shorter the better.

Langendonck: It wasn’t a problem in Belgium. And we didn’t have the time or money to re-cut it. But it may have been a better film if ten minutes had been cut.

Panahi: After the nomination, there was demand but still no sales. We even accepted smaller deals to get the film out in territories. Even with all that attention, the market is tough. What you win is recognition for the director, who now has three contracts with big US companies. That is the real reward.

Have you been approached about a US remake?

Langendonck: Some people showed an interest but we don’t want to do it because we don’t want to spoil it by making a mediocre story. It would taint the original.

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