What do Chen Kaige, Nanni Moretti, Raul Ruiz, Alexander Sokurov, and Hou Hsiao-hsien have in common? All of these directors have been introduced to American audiences by Wendy Lidell, founder of International Film Circuit and present head of the WinStar Cinema, the theatrical division of the video company formerly known as Fox Lorber. At International Film Circuit, she was the first distributor to import Fifth Generation Chinese films, and since moving to WinStar, she’s continued taking chances with the kind of foreign-language work most other distributors won’t touch: seven Hou films, presented in a traveling retrospective that appeared at the Walter Reade last fall, Bruno Dumont’s award-winning but divisive L’Humanité, and the late Akira Kurosawa’s final film, Madadayo, which will be released in conjunction with a new print of his 1985 classic, Ran.
As it happens, Lidell became a distributor almost by accident: “The genesis of International Film Circuit was at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 1985 or 1986 when I saw someone give a talk to an audience of filmmakers about the cost of releasing foreign films in the U.S. I was then working for The Independent Film & Video Monthly and AIVF [Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers], bringing American films to foreign festivals, so I got to see a lot of films which never came to the U.S. I got up and said, ‘Why don’t you tell these filmmakers about our well-developed circuits of universities, museums, and media centers in the U.S.? You don’t have to open in New York with $40,000 in advertising.’ For the next three days, filmmakers kept walking up to me, asking, ‘How can we go there? What can we do?’ ”
In response to these questions, Lidell approached the NEA and other sources of funding in order to get IFC off the ground. The company presented three installments of its Cutting Edge tour package, including such landmark Asian films as Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief and Hou’s Dust in the Wind, but life as a nonprofit became more and more difficult for Lidell as the ’80s wore on. “As funding for the arts began to decline, I had to reinvent myself as a more conventional theatrical distributor,” she says. Although the IFC imprint still exists, it’s been inactive since Lidell’s move to WinStar, a division of the broad-band communications company WinStar Communications, in the summer of 1998.
Although WinStar only began releasing films theatrically in 1997, she sees its background in video as one of its major strengths: “We don’t have the deep pockets of a Miramax or Sony, so why try to compete with them? We do what we do better than anyone else, which is to aggregate revenue from different markets.” Unlike many distributors on a (probably futile) quest to find the next Pulp Fiction, Full Monty, or Blair Witch Project, she insists that “WinStar is interested in evergreen films, which enables me to continue the programming strategies I was doing before. I could bring the Hou Hsaio-hsien films here and make them work because I was able to make a case that these films—and this is also true of the 11 Truffaut films we acquired and rereleased—will continue to be of great value. No theatrical distributor was able to take the risk of bringing out his films, but if you take the theatrical arthouse audience, DVD collectors, and enlightened TV programmers, and string them all together, we have a business.”
This winter, WinStar plans to release Eric Schaefer’s Wirey Spindell, followed by director Tom Tykwer’s 1997 film, Winter Sleepers, which she describes as having “a lot of the same themes as [his last film] Run Lola Run, but a more complex treatment of them. I like it much better, actually.” L’Humanité will roll out in May, timed to capitalize on the press generated each year by Cannes, where it won three awards last year. “I think it’s like Microcosmos about human beings,” says Lidell. “You get a sense of looking at the human race running around, following their instincts.” In the summer, a dual release of the Kurosawa films will follow, although the company decided to have Madadayo premiere on Turner Classic Movies well in advance of its theatrical release. “We did it for the money, but in the long run, it will put more eyes in front of Madadayo than any other strategy.”
Meanwhile, Lidell worries that “in American culture—and worldwide, more and more—entertainment is completely displacing art,” and she emphasizes the importance of the shrinking number of critics who “don’t give you a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, but say, ‘Look at this work of art. This is what’s interesting about it, and this is what it makes me think.’ . . . I like Men in Black as much as anyone else, but to me, going to see a movie and a film are two different experiences. Going to see a film is more like going to an art museum, where I’m going to be engaged and provoked but maybe not entertained.”