The independent film industry is reeling from Wednesday’s announcement that sales group Fortissimo Films has filed for bankruptcy protection.
A 25-year veteran of the indie film scene, Fortissimo was a pioneer of the art house world and is credited with bringing many underground talents to a wider, global audience. In particular, the company was a pioneer in the Asian indie scene, handling films from such talents as Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love), Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Nymph) and Tsui Hark (Seven Swords).
“With Fortissimo closing, it is like loosing an arm or a leg in the industry,” Rikke Ennis, CEO of Danish sales group TrustNordisk, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “(That such) brave and competent people who have done an amazing job for so many films, especially Asian films, will no longer be present in the industry…just shows what a challenge the film business is facing.”
Others agree. “The space for art house films has become very compressed, very small,” says Diao Yinan, the writer-director of Black Coal, Thin Ice, the indie Chinese crime drama that was championed by Fortissimo and went on to win the 2014 Berlin Film Festival and become a sleeper hit. “Their leaving means competition in the film industry is very cruel and fierce…as a director or filmmaker, we have to adjust ourselves, [decide] how to adapt to it and maintain our own style and the original intention of making interesting films.”
Fortissimo stayed true to the cutting-edge approach it pioneered from the start when Wouter Barendrecht and Helen Loveridge founded the company in 1991, and under Michael Werner, who joined Fortissimo in 1995 and took over as sole chairman when Barendrecht died suddenly in 2009. Until the end, the company eschewed mainstream titles for films with a distinctive voice, tirelessly promoting new talents.
But the company was unable to adapt to the collapse of the art house market in the past decade as public television in Europe started buying fewer indie films and art house exhibitors struggled to survive. Underlining the challenges, Britain’s indie distributor Metrodome, another art house darling, filed for bankruptcy protection the same day as Fortissimo.
“It feels like the end of an era,” says Yukie Kito, producer of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata, which Fortissimo co-produced and which won both the jury prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival and the best film honor at the Asian Film Awards in 2008. “I think I worked with them at the best time. They gave as much support to Kiyoshi as any creative filmmaker could ask for. They gave us creative feedback, but didn’t try to control him or me. (But) the market has changed so much with the rise of streaming services, and it’s difficult to see quality Asian films at the cinema around the world.”
“Fortissimo greatly contributed to the promotion and distribution of Chinese-language art house films to the world,” says Chinese director Zhang Yang, who had six films represented by Fortissimo, including 1999’s Shower. “We need more companies like Fortissimo to survive and help distribute art house films. I believe that the demand for the export of international art house cinema is still there.”
Ennis of TrustNordisk, whose talent roster includes the likes of Lars von Trier and Susanne Bier, also argues that there is still a viable market for art house movies, but that the indie industry needs “a serious game changer soon if we are not to see more cases like (Fortissimo) soon.”
Ennis argues that it has become too expensive to launch small indie films in the traditional manner and that, so far, no effective streaming alternative has been found for titles outside the mainstream. “And then of course, piracy is not helping,” she adds.
Kito sees hope with the growth of the Chinese market, that, alongside the blockbusters, there could soon be room “for the kind of films Fortissimo was involved with…(if only) they could have hung on.”
Patrick Brzeski and Gavin Blair in Tokyo and Karen Chu in Hong Kong contributed to this report.