Festivals showcasing films from particular territories are injecting life into Australia’s foreign-language box office.

Olivier Assayas’ French drama Summer Hours, the highest-grossing foreign-language film so far this year in Australia, has just passed $760,000 (a$1m). The French Film Festival can take considerable credit.

1 - Number of foreign-language films in Australia’s top 100, 2008 (Mongol)

14 - Number of national film festivals in Australia

“Spreading awareness takes enormous time, energy and money,” says Palace Films general manager Nicolas Whatson. “And that festival is like an enormous word-of-mouth campaign.”

The annual French Film Festival, organised by Alliance Francaise and the French Embassy, runs throughout March for between 10 and 14 days in six Australian cities, including Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. This year it has showcased 34 French titles, including 11 which have an Australian distributor attached. (Not all will be released theatrically.)

Summer Hours screened 25 times in the festival before opening nationally on 16 screens on April 2.

The travelling nature of the festivals means strong films are more likely to garner more media coverage from the press of the cities the festivals visit than if they played as part of the larger festivals like Melbourne, which screens more than 250 features. It’s the big fish, small pond syndrome. French films are consistently popular in Australia and the festival’s artistic director Jean-Jacques Garnier, cultural attaché at the French Embassy, plans to introduce a competitive element next year.

Like most other major territories, Australia has a clutch of festivals dedicated to spotlighting cinema from a single territory, of which the French, Italian and Spanish film festivals are the biggest. They often provide the only route to Australian audiences for these films; few Spanish films, for example, are released theatrically in Australia. Beneficiaries include Alvaro Begines’s Scandalous, the audience award winner at last year’s Spanish Film Festival and Chef’s Special, starring Javier Camara, this year’s winner.

Of course, having a film in this kind of festival does not guarantee box-office revenues — Francis Veber’s broad French comedy A Pain In The Ass (L’ Emmerdeur) had a miserable theatrical run — but it can. Further French films to be released following this year’s festival include Séraphine, Public Enemy and Shall We Kiss?

Greg Denning of Icon, which showcased The Baader Meinhoff Complexin the German Film Festival in April, says festivals provide a chance to reach an audience beyond the arthouse. “We were given the opportunity to open [the festival] in all but one state which was a big carrot, especially as most tickets went to guests, sponsors and the media,” he says. Audiences voted it the best film of the festival.

Since 2006, Australian distributors take a slice of all festival receipts. Palace’s Whatson says the growth of cultural festivals is giving distributors the impetus to buy more foreign-language films — or release more of the films they have already acquired in packages to get to A-list titles. “Festivals are not only lucrative for the organisers, but can also be for distributors,” says Whatson.

Palace organises the Italian Film Festival, programming 15 to 20 titles and later releasing two to three theatrically. Whatson says he is not concerned the festivals may ultimately cannibalise the theatrical audience.  “A good foreign-language film cannot have too many people seeing it [before release].”

But Icon’s Denning believes Cédric Klapisch’s romantic comedy Paris, starring Juliette Binoche, screened too often in last year’s French Film Festival. Icon opened the film theatrically on April 17, 2008, and it grossed $573,000 (a$741,000) having played to packed audiences throughout its festival run. Similarly, Roadshow has restricted the number of times Carlos Cuaron’s football drama Rudo & Cursi, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, is screening in the 12th Spanish Film Festival, which wraps on May 31, says festival director Natalia Ortiz. It did the same thing with 2008 closing night film The Orphanage, which grossed $521,000 (a$664,000) last year.

Selected films released in Australia after festival exposure:  

Title (origin)  Distributor     Release date      Gross US$
Summer HoursPalace April 2, 2009$762,000*
Paris (Fr)Icon April 17, 2008$582,000
The Orphanage (Sp)Roadshow  May 29, 2008$521,000
Un Secret (Fr)    IconMay 15, 2008$463,000
Moliere (Fr) Hopscotch May 1, 2008$309,000
Paris 36 (Fr)      SonyApril 30, 2009$160,000*
The Baader Meinhoff Complex (Ger)    IconMay 7, 2009$126,000*
A Pain In The Ass (Fr)Sharmill April 9, 2009  $64,000