Sales agent Wild Bunch adopted a unique strategy when pitching The Artist to international buyers. Melanie Goodfellow tracks the film’s history from sales mystery to global smash

How do you pitch a silent, black-and-white film shot in the long-abandoned film ratio of 1:33 to distributors in the 21st century, some eight decades after the format was replaced by talking movies?

This was the challenge facing Vincent Maraval and the team at Wild Bunch when the company took on world sales of Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist ahead of the Berlinale in February 2011. Their solution? Don’t. Don’t pitch it at all.

Wild Bunch saw the allure of the black-and-white romance — starring Jean Dujardin as a fallen, silent-screen idol opposite Bérénice Bejo as a rising, talking-picture starlet — but knew it would be difficult to sell.

“We felt as soon as we told the buyers it was silent and black-and-white, they would lose interest,” says Maraval. “We decided our strategy would be to reveal nothing and do the minimum, which is rare for us, and to launch the film as a surprise in Cannes.”

‘We set up a vast programme of premieres based on its presence at festivals including Cannes, Deauville and Lyon’

Iris Knobloch, Warner Bros France

At Berlin, the company signalled the production’s existence with a poster bearing the title but no other details and did not discuss it with buyers.
Getting the picture into Cannes was easier said than done. “Dujardin, Hazanavicius and I are not regarded as ‘tres Cannois’ if you like — we’re seen as too mainstream,” says the film’s producer Thomas Langmann of La Petite Reine, whose productions include such commercial films as Asterix At The Olympic Games.

Festival chief Thierry Frémaux eventually selected the film for an out of Competition slot just ahead of the press conference in April. A non-competitive screening suited Maraval, who wanted to keep the spotlight off the picture ahead of its premiere, but Hazanavicius and Langmann had other ideas. “We begged Thierry Frémaux to put us into Competition,” says Langmann. They got their wish just a week before the festival kicked off in mid-May when it was announced as a last-minute addition to the Cannes Competition line-up.

“I’d wanted to remain coherent with our surprise strategy but Michel said screening out of Competition would be like going to a ball and dancing with his sister,” Maraval explains.

In the meantime, Harvey Weinstein’s acquisition of the film began some two months before Cannes “by chance” after Maraval bumped into the US distributor at the Hong Kong Filmart in March.

“Harvey was at a loose end and asked me if I had anything to show him back in Paris. I said I did but that I wouldn’t tell him what it was. He would just have to watch it. Harvey has his good and bad sides, but one of the great things about him is that he’s still curious enough to jump on a plane to watch a film he knows nothing about,” says Maraval.

Following a last-minute, long-haul flight from Hong Kong to Paris, Weinstein saw the rough-cut version of the film and instantly fell in love with it.

After protracted negotiations, The Weinstein Company (TWC) took US rights alongside a slew of territories including the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Eastern Europe, Canada, Brazil and South Africa. Deals have since been done with Entertainment Film Distributors for the UK and Village Roadshow for Australia and New Zealand.

“We would have taken the entire world if it had been available,” says David Glasser, COO of TWC. “It’s always very important for us to control the English-speaking territories for a whole bunch of reasons, such as being able to use our campaigns, the long-lead press and the momentum in the United States.”

The deal was officially signed at the beginning of Cannes, four days ahead of The Artist’s Cannes premiere on May 15.

“We asked Harvey to respect our strategy and not to announce the acquisition ahead of the premiere,” says Maraval. “He managed to contain himself until the eve of the premiere but then rumours started to circulate that he had bought the film, and he cracked.”

The rest, as they say, is history. A raft of deals followed the film’s triumphant Cannes premiere, including to Alta (Spain), Delphi (Germany), Bim (Italy), Cinéart (Belgium) and Gaga and Comstock (jointly for Japan).

The Artist finally hit theatres in France some five months later on October 12, when Warner Bros France released it on 295 prints. It topped the box-office chart in its first week with 443,000 admissions ($2.7m) and had registered some 1,522,063 admissions ($9.3m) in the territory by December 18.

‘The picture will gain momentum through the holidays. It’s a very similar strategy to The King’s Speech’

David Glasser, The Weinstein Company

“We set up a vast programme of pre-premieres based on its presence at festivals including Cannes, Deauville and Lyon and also organised a tour by the director and cast of the provinces,” says Warner Bros France president Iris Knobloch. “We did everything we could to ensure the film would touch a large public from the first week.”

In the US, TWC opened the picture on four screens, in New York and Los Angeles, on November 25 and widened the release progressively with the aim of having it in 250 cinemas by Christmas. “We believe the picture has very strong world-of-mouth potential. It’s a discovery picture, people go to see the film not quite knowing what to expect and leave raving about it,” says Glasser.

“The idea is the picture will gain momentum through the holidays. It’s a very similar strategy to The King’s Speech. You allow the film to gain momentum and, touch wood, a couple of award nominations and these two things, combined with a smart marketing campaign, can create a solid awareness and audience.”

Hazanavicius, Dujardin and Bejo have been putting in appearances at US events such as the New York Film Festival in September and an AFI Fest gala screening at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in November. The Artist has also picked up a raft of US critics’ awards and was named Time magazine’s film of the year in mid-December.

“The Time news is an exciting development and it enforces our plan,” explains Glasser. “Of all the pictures I have had the pleasure of working on… this one has been such a fun ride.”

The Artist: key release dates

  • France: Oct 12 (Warner Bros)
  • Belgium: Oct 12 (Cinéart)
  • Netherlands: Nov 24 (Cinéart)
  • US: Nov 25 (TWC)
  • Canada: Dec 9 (Alliance Films)
  • Italy: Dec 9 (Bim Dist)
  • Spain: Dec 16 (Alta Films)
  • UK: Dec 30 (Entertainment)
  • Germany: Jan 26 ’12 (Delphi)
  • Australia: Feb 2 (Village Roadshow)
  • Denmark: Feb 9 (Scanbox)
  • Sweden: Feb 10 (Scanbox)
  • Japan: April 7(Gaga)