It is increasingly difficult to market the non-quantifiable film,' warns David Mamet in his book Bambi Vs Godzilla.
Certainly the recent box office has been dominated by the easy sells - remakes, adaptations and sequels. And under pressure from tightening budgets and heavyweight competition from a Hollywood buoyed with private equity dollars, even arthouse distributors have been opting to play safe.
Genre pictures and smaller local films have been increasingly important to the bottom line. Some fear, reasonably, that the much-vaunted distribution methods such as online downloads and digital cinema will become more efficient ways to give established audiences what they want, rather than expand horizons. So what happens to those whose work defies categorisation'
The Palme d'Or winner, Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, seems to represent all the challenges. At the heart of the story is an abortion and it is set in Romania under Ceausescu's dictatorship. Even strong supporters say it is a film which works brilliantly on the big screen but is difficult to explain verbally - a serious handicap when word of mouth has become so important to marketing.
A Romanian abortion drama is not an adequate description for a great piece of cinema. One can, of course, point out that Mungiu's film is important, but to many that makes it sound like the kind of experience that is good for you rather than an immersive and engaging piece of cinema.
The style of his film-making makes no compromises to help lazy interpretation. The long sequences and lack of a score are the marks of a film that refuses to direct the emotional response of the viewer.
Romanian film-makers are more sensitive than most to manipulating response, given that under Communism, the country's cinema was a propaganda tool.
'Now we try to be as honest as we can,' says Corneliu Porumboiu, whose 12:08 East Of Bucharest won the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 2006.
But honesty is not necessarily the easiest policy, for distributors and exhibitors are in a commercial business and need to offer something to tease audiences. How you define the indefinable is making for an interesting case study in arthouse distribution.
Tapping local pride
The home market might seem the easiest sell. A Romanian winner of perhaps the world's most prestigious film competition is a source of national pride. And, of course, there has been a series of recent internationally recognised films, including Cristi Puiu's The Death Of Mr Lazarescu, Porumboiu's 12:08 East Of Bucharest and Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin'.
Sadly, the flowering of Romanian film-making has not been matched by the rebuilding of the theatrical infrastructure. The country has around 35 cinemas servicing a population of 22 million. Even those with a cinema in their city attend less than once a year.
It took one of the more inspiring ideas of recent years to bring 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days to audiences. Supported by Mungiu himself, a team led by Romanian company Image Factory took the film on the road.
The 4 Months caravan, with prints and screening equipment, went to towns and cities across Romania. It was able to boast final figures in the country close to those of Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End. More than 18,000 of saw 4 Months in the tours, in 15 cities. Many screenings took place in local 'popular theatres' - halls used for local shows and concerts.
'Initially we wanted to have the film on the big screen as early as June,' says Mungiu, who lent considerable personal support to the plan (his willingness to market the film around Europe has been another factor in its success, says Jakub Duszynski, of Polish distributor Gutek Films).
Mungiu adds: 'When we realised how few cinema halls are left in Romania, we felt it was our responsibility to take the film directly to the people.' It's an inspiring story, but unique to the territory.
Outside Romania, Mungiu's film has benefited from the serious cachet it gained from winning the Palme d'Or. Nowhere is this more true than in France, where 4 Months took an impressive $2.5m.
An added bonus is that a lesser-known prize from the festival - the National Education Prize - ensured the film was shown in schools. And education minister Xavier Darcos' objection to supporting its school run because of the film's 'harshness' - later overturned - led to a debate about free speech and abortion that will have done the film no harm.
However, Wild Bunch head Vincent Maraval, who sold the film at Cannes, points out that it was bought in all territories bar Scandinavia before it scooped the Palme d'Or. He believes the quality of film-making that Mungiu represents is rare and could be sold on quality alone.
'I agree the market looks for films it can identify. But this is a strong film with strong attachments. The harder ones are the dreary ones. This is a great cineaste and that is immediately evident,' says Maraval.
'Our idea to sell it was twofold. One, the film is built like a thriller and, two, it is a great story of solidarity and friendship between two girls.'
The idea that the story will appeal to women was at the heart of the Belgian release in September.
Again, this is a territory in which the Palme d'Or gives a film extra clout. The kudos of a Cannes win has been boosted there by the successes of the Dardenne brothers - to whose work 4 Months has been compared.
Belgian distributor ImagineFilm bought 4 Months at Cannes before it won the prize, but it was not quite as confident, initially, as Maraval that it would be an easy sell.
'Obviously, it was a really big bonus when it won,' says Christian Thomas, managing director at distributor ImagineFilm.
'We knew it was a great film but we couldn't have known it could win a prize. Our initial reaction was that we had to be cautious. There's a big difference between what works at Cannes and the reaction of audiences in the home market.'
The choices came down to whether to play up the abortion debate to provoke interest; to position it - perhaps a little misleadingly - as a thriller or to emphasise the human drama.
For Thomas, the latter course was the most persuasive. The central dilemma of the film, he argues, is how an illegal abortion creates tension between friends. 'A universal message, 'How far would you go for your friends'', was a big idea in the film,' says Thomas. 'That was an important theme for women.'
This led to him targeting women's magazines to sell the film (see box, right). Initial conservative figures were upgraded after very positive previews from the initial 15,000 admissions. Instead the film was put out on 19 prints - five of them in multiplexes to widen the audience. It scored 31,000 admissions in Belgium in the first six weeks and is heading towards 45,000, entering the top 10 best performing arthouse releases in the country.
In the UK, Artificial Eye is distributing 4 Months. It is looking to release on 20 prints in January. The company has had the opportunity to look at the way other markets have attracted audiences, while the film has enjoyed considerable exposure at a number of festivals. The thriller aspect - which is emphasised in a strong French trailer - will again play a big role.
Another advantage in the UK may be the enthusiasm of arthouse exhibitors. 'This is one of the most important films in Europe of the last 20 years,' says Mark Cosgrove, programmer of the Watershed in Bristol. He is interested in generating debate on the central themes, but in the end a common theme among all the distributors and theatres is that it is just a great film.
Perhaps the trick is that undefinable genius is a genre all of its own.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE
FRANCE - $2,504,953 (as of 9 Oct 2007)
INTERNATIONAL - $1,266,766 (as of 2 Sept 2007)
ROMANIA - $275,363 (as of 11 Nov 2007)
BELGIUM - $247,181 (as of 21 Oct 2007)
SWITZERLAND - $80,604 (as of 16 Sept 2007)
DENMARK - $14,525 (as of 18 Nov 2007)
NEW WAVE ON A SHOESTRING
The importance of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days' success cannot be overstated for Romanian film. But despite the hype which has suggested a Romanian new wave, the industry is mired in financial difficulties.
Each film that has enjoyed success in recent years - including The Death Of Mr Lazarescu, 12:08 East Of Bucharest, California Dreamin' as well as 4 Months - has struggled to find finance. And there is little sign of an immediate change in fortunes, warns Catalin Mitulescu, director of The Way I Spent The End Of The World.
Romanian film studios have attracted big Hollywood productions in recent years but the trickle-down effect has been limited. 'Actually, people working on those films don't want to come and work on our films for the money we have,' he says. 'We have great film-makers but no money.'
Film-makers have been helped by Romania's new cinema law, which boosted the size of the national film fund for local productions with contributions from the state public broadcaster Srtv and the national lottery. In late 2006, the Romanian National Film Centre (CNC) announced it would fund 22 features, including new films from Cristian Mungiu, Catalin Mitulescu, Tudor Giurgiu and Radu Muntean. The total amount of support is roughly $11.3m, the highest figure in the last 15 years.
However, budgets still remain small enough (Mungiu shot 4 Months for just $940,000) that relatively modest support from international sources such as Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Fund (and, in some cases, members of the director's family) can make up a significant chunk of a film's budget.
REVIEWS RULE THE ARTHOUSE
Reviews remain an essential element of marketing an arthouse film. It is true that critics seem to have slipped from their pedestals when it comes to Hollywood blockbusters and many genre pictures which have, to all intents and purposes, become critic-proof. However, arthouse films can still live or die by the reviewers' views.
'Critics and their reviews can play an important role in consumer decision-making in general, and film choice in particular,' says Gerda Gemser, co-author of a Dutch study into the impact of experts on film.
'Consumers of arthouse movies are being led by film reviews when making a film choice (the influence effect), whereas consumers of mainstream movies are believed to rely mainly on other sources of information.
'Thus, in the latter case, the review does not influence the movie-goer but may still be a reflection of the ultimate success of the movie (the predictor effect).'
What has changed is that the range of influencers has increased. At one time, most markets had a small number of make-or-break critics on television or a national newspaper. But audiences are now looking for trusted sources they feel will reflect their outlook on life, rather than critics drawing on some intellectual benchmark of what makes a 'good' film.
There has been talk in recent years about the democratisation of criticism. Certainly, word of mouth plays an ever more important role, and social networking - pioneered by the likes of MySpace and Facebook - is finding its way into marketing plans.
One of the emerging influencers with real muscle, however, is the women's magazine market. It is not uncommon now to see quotations from reviewers in such publications given the top positions on film posters.
There is a tendency for marketers to concentrate on the women's market for softer sells, such as romantic comedies. But Christian Thomas at ImagineFilm put a lot of energy into reaching women's publications in Belgium for the release of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days.
Thomas believed that, despite its uncompromisingly downbeat look, women would be interested in its rich exploration of character, friendship, responsibility and devotion under duress, as well as the illegal abortion story.
'We felt this was a women's film and raised issues of real concern to women. It's a film in which all the villains are men,' he says.
Thomas also put work into attracting discussion in medical magazines. In a fragmented market, specialised press was considered the easiest way to mobilise potentially important niche audiences.