|It was at this year's European Film Market in Berlin (a wonderful source for industry gossip) that I first learned of the troubles brewing over at Tartan Films. Jane Giles, head of acquisitions, and Sam Dunn, of the home entertainment division had both recently left Tartan for senior positions at the British Film Institute (BFI), whose DVD division had grown somewhat stagnant of late. On top of that, I heard that the home office in the UK was siphoning off most of the Tartan USA's revenue, making it extremely difficult for them to maintain operations. Lo and behold, several months later Tartan USA joined the growing list of North American indie distributors to shut their doors this year.|
While that didn't come as much of a surprise, news of Tartan UK's sudden folding arrived without warning on late Friday afternoon. Some reports claim that employees showed up to work on Thursday to find the doors locked shut. Tartan hasn't released an official statement, but that hasn't stopped rampant speculation in the blogosphere. Many feel it has to do with Tartan head Hamish McAlpine's losses from the US remake of Funny Games, which he co-produced. Some feel the company paid too much attention to their Asia Extreme line, while not doing enough to promote their arthouse titles, while others blame the state of UK cinemas, which are increasingly favoring mainstream-indie fare over niche titles. Regardless, the demise of Tartan is certainly a big blow to an already problem-riddled industry.
I've always been a big fan of Tartan, and a quick perusal of their releases over the last 20+ years reads like a who's-who of international cinema. Their DVD line included some of the first English-friendly Bergman releases, as well as Liv Ullmann's Faithless, and a handful of Bigas Luna and Truffaut titles, to name but a few. I was disappointed that their American DVD line was almost exclusively limited to their Asian titles, but I guess they knew where the money was. I never much cared for the all-inclusive "Asia Extreme" moniker they gave the series, for it did little to help the average (read: non-fanboy) buyer/renter locate the quality films (from Takashi Miike, Park Chan-wook, Andrew Lau/Alan Mak, etc.) from the many cheap, derivative horror titles they pumped out (Phone, Cello, Infection).
Tartan head Hamish McAlpine liked to push people's buttons, referring to his company's releases as "cultural hand grenades", which explains acquisitions of controversial titles from Carlos Reygadas, Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noé, and Ulrich Seidl. (Hamish was meant to release Ken Park in the UK, but a now-infamous nose-breaking dust-up with director Larry Clark over 9/11 and Israel put an end to that.) Recent acquisitions have included less-controversial festival favorites Silent Light, Paranoid Park, and a small handful of titles that Benten Films would have loved to release. (And still would, for that matter. Hamish, call me.) What is the fate of these films, I wonder?
A visit to their website reveals just how sudden this decision was -- the site opens with a pop-up of employment opportunities at Tartan. The question now is who, if anybody, will take their place? Is there another company willing to take similar chances, or are UK film-goers about to find themselves with a dearth of edgy, international fare?