The Odd Phenomenon of Big-Name Filmmakers 'Presenting' Others' Awards Hopefuls

Martin Scorsese, Samuel L. Jackson, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Jonathan Demme and Spike Lee have all lent their names to little movies this year.
Joshua Oppenheimer
"The Act of Killing," which was "presented by" Werner Herzog and Errol Morris

If you follow movie news closely, you may have picked up on a weird trend this year: a considerable number of movies have been promoted in the press as being "presented by" people who had nothing to do with making -- or, for that matter, distributing -- them.

The movies being "presented" tend to be documentaries and foreign language films made by filmmakers who are not household names in America. The "presenters," meanwhile, tend to be members of the film community who are known at least to cineastes -- and, in some cases, to the general public, too.

2013 examples include Samuel L. Jackson and Martin Scorsese present Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster (Hong Kong's entry for the best foreign language film Oscar); Werner Herzog and Errol Morris present Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (a long-listed best documentary feature Oscar hopeful); Jonathan Demme presents Nabil Ayouch's Horses of God (Morocco's entry for the best foreign language film Oscar); and Spike Lee presents Lucy Mulloy's Una Noche (an award-winning drama about Cuban refugees).

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What does it mean to "present" a movie? In most cases, it merely involves a notable person lending his or her name to help give a little film a bigger chance in the competitive marketplace.

The connections between the aforementioned individuals and films vary. Lee was a professor of and mentor to Mulloy at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and helped advise her on her film as it came together. Herzog and Morris were shown early footage of Oppenheimer's film, which is as dark and eccentric as most of theirs, and signed on as executive-producers to help it generate greater attention. Jackson and Scorsese, meanwhile, are just mega-fans of Wong and his film, as Demme is of Ayouch's film. (With a record 76 countries vying for one of the five Oscar nomination slots, both The Grandmaster and Horses of God can use all the help they can get as far as getting noticed.)

When did this "presentation" marketing gimmick originate? As best I can tell, it started with Quentin Tarantino, the world's most famous fan of obscure films, who worked in a video rental store until not long before he won an Oscar for his film Pulp Fiction in 1995.

That same year, Tarantino and Miramax, which distributed Pulp Fiction and wanted to remain in business with its "It" boy, established Rolling Thunder Pictures as an outlet for Tarantino to release or re-release indies and foreign films that he wanted to bring to the attention of American moviegoers. Miramax shut down the operation after just two years due to "lack of interest" in its offerings, but not before Tarantino helped bring to many moviegoers a bunch of films they might not have otherwise seen, including Wong's Chungking Express (1994).

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Even with Rolling Thunder gone, Tarantino continued to get Miramax and other companies to take low-risk/high-reward chances on unconventional films well into the 21st century, in part by lending his name to them. His first Tarantino pet-project was the long-delayed Hong Kong martial arts film Iron Monkey (which was finished in 1993 but only released in America in 2001), which he "presented" via text and a pre-trailer video introduction. That film became a hit, grossing $14 million in the U.S. (more than seven times its budget). Then he championed the Chinese martial arts film Hero (2004), which wound up opening at number one at the U.S. box office and eventually grossed an impressive $53.5 million. And he similarly endorsed two 2006 horror flicks, the Thai production The Protector, which opened in fourth place with an impressive $5 million haul, as well as Eli Roth's Hostel, which topped the box office its first weekend with the eighth biggest January opening of all time, $20.1 million.

For years, Tarantino's cinematic style has been imitated by other filmmakers. Now, it seems, they are taking a page out of his promotional handbook, as well.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg