The Fortissimo Films chief — now steering the company alone after his partner Wouter Barendrecht died earlier this year — tells Liz Shackleton how he and his team are adjusting their strategy in a tough international sales market

Prince Of Tears

It’s been a tough year for the international sales business with the global financial downturn and contracting ancillary revenues. But for one of the most established names on the circuit, Fortissimo Films, the difficult business climate was overshadowed by devastating personal loss, when founder and co-chairman Wouter Barendrecht died of heart failure at the age of 43 in April.

This left Michael J Werner, his Los Angeles-born, Hong Kong-based partner in the company, to steer it single-handedly through choppy waters, starting with the Cannes Marché just weeks after Barendrecht’s death.

Feeling the full weight of responsibility for the Fortissimo brand, its clients and its global staff, Werner has since been putting into place some of the strategic moves he and Barendrecht had already discussed before his death, along with some of his own adjustments, in reaction to market conditions.

“There was a long-term rhythm to the way the company operated, and how Wouter and I functioned together, and of course that was irreparably disrupted.”

“It’s a pretty traumatic situation that the company has been through,” says Werner in Fortissimo’s Hong Kong office, where he and Barendrecht used to sit at opposite desks with a view of the harbour. “There was a long-term rhythm to the way the company operated, and how Wouter and I functioned together, and of course that was irreparably disrupted. Now some days I’m 1,000% and some days I’m 10%, but there are less of the 10% days, and we have a great team.”


Global reach

Reflecting just how international Fortissimo has become since its inception as an Amsterdam-based company in 1991, that team is located in the four corners of the globe. In Amsterdam are managing director Nelleke Driessen and chief financial officer Kees Koot; in London, Nicole Mackey handling international sales and Chris Paton working on acquisitions; in New York, Winnie Lau working across both sales and acquisitions; and in Hong Kong, sales and marketing staff Ingrid Lim and Esther Yeung.

The company is gearing up for Venice where it has four films in selection — including competition titles Life During Wartime by Todd ­Solondz, and Yonfan’s Prince Of Tears — and Toronto where Tian Zhuangzhuang’s epic drama The Warrior And The Wolf and Dev Benegal’s Road, Movie will have their world premieres.

But despite its strong positioning as a platform for world cinema, distinctive English-language films and theatrical documentaries, the company has been buffeted by the same forces that have affected the sales business across the board, in particular the fact that the market for arthouse films has contracted over the past few years.

“We began to realise that we’re probably taking on too many films.”

In reaction to this, Fortissimo has already trimmed some of its Amsterdam staff and will make further cuts as people move on. Paris-based head of TV and ancillary sales, Catherine Le Clef, is leaving next month to set up her own documentary sales outfit, Cat And Docs. The company will also scale back the number of films it handles.

“We began to realise that we’re probably taking on too many films,” says Werner. “They’re all wonderful films — we only take on films we want to handle — but the market was moving against us in that regard. The global market for arthouse films has been shrinking, but the cost and effort to launch a film is the same whether it’s a big picture or a small, modest-performing picture. When the arthouse market was more vibrant, you could sell to 20-25 countries. Now we find that, although some films still sell to the broad spectrum, pure arthouse only sells to around seven territories.”

The company’s new strategy is to cut back from around 20 new pick-ups a year to 10-12, of which two or three will be tentpoles with greater commercial potential. This does not necessarily mean English-language films — big foreign-language projects with commercial elements would qualify, as would genre films from auteur directors.

“You won’t find us handling pure mainstream films, but films with an edge, films that are different and have something to say. We still want to maintain that kind of positioning and branding,” Werner says.

Fortissimo’s slate already includes some pictures that fall into the tentpole category such as The Warrior And The Wolf, co-produced by Focus Features and Bill Kong, and Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of Norwegian Wood, starring Japanese idol Kenichi Matsuyama. Werner is also talking to actress Michelle Yeoh and John Woo and his producing partner Terence Chang about upcoming projects.

Werner observes these are the kind of titles that see buyers running to your office, making it easier to attract their attention for smaller films.

“You won’t find us handling pure mainstream films, but films with an edge, films that are different and have something to say.”

Although Cannes was reasonably busy, it did not signify the recovery for which everyone was hoping — buyers are still taking longer to make decisions, taking screeners home and opting for fewer titles. Commercial elements such as a name cast or accessible storylines make it that much easier.

“Buyers are looking for something less difficult — they don’t mind a walk uphill, but would prefer a gentle incline to a steep slope.”

Co-production commitments

The company will also be reviewing what it needs to be involved in as a co-financier or co-producer. Over the past few years, Barendrecht and Werner had stepped up their activity as executive producers, in order to secure the projects they wanted to be involved in. Some of these investments, such as John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, proved lucrative, but overall, production has not been as financially rewarding as they had hoped.

“We’re not abandoning that area but we’ll certainly reassess it,” says Werner. “With those kinds of opportunities, it probably makes sense to have a bigger group of investors than just ourselves and the local producer.”

Werner also points out that despite a gloomy market there are still reasons to be cheerful. Independent films can still do good numbers at the box office — documentary Food, Inc, which Fortissimo handled outside the US, has just passed a satisfying $4m in that market — and one consequence of the downturn has been a revival in video rental.

The company also has a solid bedrock in its library of 300 titles which Werner says he will become more personally involved in selling: “One key aspect going forward is to look at more systematic ways to exploit the library, particularly across pay and free television and VoD.”

“I’m not sure this is the easiest path, but we have a good team and everyone has stepped up to the plate to help.”

He also adds that the process of re-evaluation through which the company is going is a natural evolution in a bear market, especially for a company that has grown to a certain position and achieved a certain level of success.

Even without the global downturn, complacency at this stage could be dangerous.

It is too soon after Barendrecht’s death for Werner to feel wildly energised or optimistic, and he clearly misses his former partner, but he believes the company is heading in the right direction.

“I’m not sure this is the easiest path, but we have a good team and everyone has stepped up to the plate to help,” he concludes. “We’ve redistributed some of the responsibilities and we’ll get it right.

“Nobody knows how to plan for something like this, and nobody knows the best way to recover, but I think we’re on the right path.”

Born in Los Angeles, Werner graduated from UCLA in 1979, then moved to Taiwan for a year to study Chinese.

Back in the US, he co-founded buyers rep company Trans-Pacific Media Consultants Group.

In 1995, Werner moved to Hong Kong for Twentieth Century Fox

International, consulting on the studio’s Chinese distribution. He also became an external consultant for Fortissimo Films, founded in 1991 by Wouter Barendrecht and Helen Loveridge.

In 2000, Werner became a partner in Fortissimo after Loveridge’s departure (Barendrecht had relocated to Hong Kong in 1997).

Werner and Barendrecht were awarded a Silver Hugo for their contribution to world cinema by the Chicago Film Festival in 2005; a Golden Kinnaree for their contribution to Asian cinema at the Bangkok International Film Festival in 2006; and the Award of Excellence at CineAsia in 2007.