Risky Business

An indie distributor gambles on the explicit and the extreme

At the Cannes Film Festival in May, many U.S. distributors walked away empty-handed, griping all the way home about the overwhelming number of challenging, arty movies that had no chance of making it in the U.S. market. "[The films at Cannes] may be good," Warner Independent's Mark Gill told The Hollywood Reporter's Anne Thompson, "but none of them are remotely accessible to an American audience."

Not everyone agreed—especially not U.K.-based distributor Tartan Films. Months before Cannes, Tartan had pre-bought all distribution rights to one of the festival's most difficult works, Mexican director Carlos Reygadas's kidnap drama Battle in Heaven, which opens and closes with a blowjob. While British audiences have been familiar with Tartan for more than two decades, the company has only started doing business stateside since last November, when it launched Tartan USA. Already, Tartan has gained a foothold, thanks in large part to its willingness to take on sexually provocative or explicit films like Battle in Heaven, Catherine Breillat's Anatomy of Hell, and Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin. Last week, the company released Michael Winterbottom's controversial 9 Songs, which contains a number of hardcore sex scenes.

The man behind Tartan is Hamish McAlpine, a Scotsman known as much for his business acumen as his brash, dandyish persona (wearing white fur to premieres, getting into fistfights with Larry Clark, etc.). "I feel that America has been culturally challenged, and that's where we come in," says McAlpine of his decision to open a U.S. branch. "We're sort of an agent provocateur. We don't have to answer to any American stockholders or banks; we have no one saying we are too outrageous; we have no one holding us back. In other words, we are operating in the true spirit of independence." For McAlpine, embracing the risqué is essential to Tartan's branding strategy. "For the last 21 years Tartan has established a reputation for walking a line which others fear to tread," he says. "Sometimes that can take us into sexually explicit territory and other times into intellectually explicit arenas."

For the past few years, Tartan has maintained its bottom line thanks to its lucrative Asian Extreme video label, which has built up a cult following in Europe with a slate of mostly Japanese and Korean horror films, as well as artier titles by directors like Park Chanwook and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. They plan on duplicating that business model stateside. "Thanks to the huge popularity of manga and anime, there's a built-in audience for Asian genre films, and our job is to grow that audience," says Tartan USA head MJ Peckos. The company has also launched a U.S. production wing, which will also focus on genre material (including recently completed docudramas on serial killers Ed Gein and the Hillside Strangler).

For a veteran like Araki, Tartan's arrival has given the indie landscape a welcome alternative to mini-major dominance. "Small distributors have become like mini-studios," says Araki. "There's an expectation at this point, with these runaway successes like Napoleon Dynamite, that every film needs to make tons and tons of money to be successful. But the old-school independent movies like Mysterious Skin, movies that attack a challenging subject, need companies like Tartan."

 
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