Festival finds in Greenwich and a 'book report' in NYC

ScreenerBlog

The new realities of increased diversity, the streaming explosion and concerns for social justice animated two recently wrapped film and book events — the boutique Greenwich International Film Festival (GIFF) in Connecticut and Manhattan’s mammoth BookExpo, the major publishing show at Manhattan’s Javits Center. But old joys of discovery and new trends abounded.

With good storytelling as their shared DNA, the two events made clear that both the movie and book sectors continue to converge as they benefit from the growth of streaming and better marketing tie-ins (movie streaming sells books, books sell movies, marketing and screen options increase…that kind of thing).

The young GIFF, only in its fourth year, again grew by sticking to its formula from the get-go: high-quality, independent programming of specialized films seeking buyers or on the verge of release; an equally focused outreach and event agenda to address important social issues (“Make an Impact” was this year’s theme); and the usual sprinkling of film-related talks, tributes, panels, Q&As and parties. All with plenty of respect and money for the community thrown in.

A good handful of films in this year’s lineup (a few just hitting screens) reflected the growing importance of fests like GIFF as word-of-mouth engines. American Animals, Leave No Trace and Generation Wealth were among those to get some marketing oomph.

But GIFF again provided proof that even the smaller fests provide surprises with lesser-known product for the industry. A prime example was Magnolia’s Danish pickup The Guilty, a gripping thriller about Asger (impressively played by Jakob Cedergren), a policeman pulled from regular duty to do temporary desk duty wielding a phone at an emergency call center.

The film is essentially a one-hander as the officer early on receives a call from a kidnapped woman secretly pleading for help from her abductor’s van. With the camera always close on Asger, she struggles to report her desperate plight, provide clues to the van’s whereabouts and beg that her young child left alone at her house be rescued. As her danger and the imminence of violence grow clearer, tensions build in a ticking-clock situation as Asger, trying to stay cool, frantically attempts to orchestrate from his chair the rescue of both mother and child.

The odds are daunting: The perp mustn’t hear his victim’s muffled calls, the homebound child is too young to effectively communicate, and even morsels of clues Asger provide to police headquarters run into logistical roadblocks.

But The Guilty doesn’t have the clean story arc expected; as suspense builds, twists accrue and the story plays out, the title even pays off. With most of the work on actor Cedergren’s shoulders, he accomplishes the kind of one-man show that Tom Hardy achieved in his equally remarkable (but, alas, underappreciated) one-hander Locke, acclaimed writer-director Steven Knight’s tale of the mounting problems of a desperate family man at the wheel on a solo road trip.

A well-done but more modest surprise at GIFF came from the Kodak-supported, black-and-white narrative feature 1985, a period drama about the AIDS crisis. The story unfolds in that eponymous year when the disease was growing more prevalent and ominously suggested the scourge it would become. The hero is Adrian (a solid Cory Michael Smith), a secretly stricken (and gay) unemployed Madison Avenue ad copy guy who returns to his Texas home for Christmas with his religious, lower-middle-class, clueless parents (Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis, big assets here). Further emotional impact comes from Adrian’s former hometown girl friend (effectively played by Jamie Chung) and the hero’s shy, misfit younger brother in need of Adrian’s support (Aidan Langford).

Although not shot widescreen, 1985 occasionally evokes the black-and-white small-town Texas of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and, in story, fully recalls Xavier Dolan’s similarly themed but more star-studded AIDS drama It’s Only the End of the World, about an estranged gay black sheep returning to the family fold with his sad news.

The 1985 post-screening Q&A featured two of the film’s executive producers—Clay Floren and Clay Pecorin (yes, two Clays), who came late to the production with finishing funds and business savvy (Foren scouts for the studios; Pecorin produced Lionsgate’s The Big Wedding).

Both are former Greenwich locals who made their way into mainstream Hollywood but reminded that it takes that proverbial village (in this case, Greenwich itself) to get a feature film made and seen. The producers secured a distribution deal, soon to be announced, that is expected to take 1985 to the big screen in a hoped-for 20 markets. (The company, unnamed until the ink dries but shared with this reporter, is well-established and entirely appropriate to the film.)

As primarily a tradeshow for those in publishing, BookExpo is more a barometer of industry changes, especially in areas like audio books. (Like streaming, they are soaring in popularity and authors are now more frequently going straight to audio rather than print.) Streaming, as it’s doing in film, is energizing publishing with old and new content and powerful cross-marketing options (e.g., a Netflix or Amazon promoting books or films via e-mail blasts to millions of targeted subscribers).

Equally noteworthy at BookExpo (and also at GIFF) were the ubiquitous themes of diversity and equality. BookExpo featured a panel, co-sponsored by the MPAA and the AAP (the Association of American Publishers) addressing the adaptation of books into film.

Dominating the discussion were MPAA efforts and programs—effectively conveyed by panelist John Gibson, MPAA senior director of diversity and inclusion and deputy chief of staff—to make the film industry more diverse. Gibson emphasized Hollywood’s strong efforts but humorously added that “green remains the color of preference.”

On the subject of the green stuff powering decisions, he cited trendsetter The Fast and the Furious, which was not just a “multiculturalism celebration” but was “Universal’s first billion-dollar film.” In addition to the diversity and inclusion we’re seeing in the industry, he also talked about the notion of “belonging, which is not how the government identifies you but how you identify yourself.” So, “the groundbreaking films these days are those that people see themselves in and feel they belong in. You can see that the industry is moving toward this and we’re working hard to make it happen.”

Gibson said that he could give a “laundry list” of MPAA initiatives over the past six years in this area but, pointing to a few, talked about the lobby group’s summer program that has 30 college students from around the country placed in paying jobs at the Hollywood studios, including positions in post-production departments. The MPAA also ran a one-day pitching program recently in New York for students to polish their skills and get a toe in.

Fellow book-to-film panelist Angie Thomas, who helped adapt her young-adult best seller The Hate U Give for director George Tillman, Jr.’s soon-to-be-released drama for 20th Century Fox, contrasts the lives of young people from both poor black and affluent white neighborhoods. A former rapper (and not a good one, she admits), Thomas was often on the set of Hate and said she was grateful for all the input director Tillman asked of her, even in post, as it showed the respect he had for her book as the source material.

Another panelist was marketer Darin Keesler, VP of marketing at Picador (Macmillan), who was part of the effort to bring the book Call Me By Your Name to the screen. Synergy between book and film always varies; best-sellers don’t always become hit movies, yet hit movies can stimulate book sales of lesser-known titles.

A problem in the film-book alliance can occur because, Keesler said, movie tie-ins are not well aligned with publication dates. Suggesting how different and unpredictable the work flows can be to finished product, whether book or film, he opined that “studios often don’t realize how much time publishers need to release a book.” And changed movie release dates can require marketing tweaks. But the tie-ins and marketing are great for both sides because the studios offer more visibility for a book and books prominently displayed in stores cue customers to their film counterparts. “And a film adapted from a book gives a film cachet.”

Producer Catherine Hand, another panelist, worked about 30 years to get the novel A Wrinkle in Time to the screen through Disney. Citing Wrinkle’s director Ava DuVernay, she reminded that “we still have a long way to go with diversity” and praised Disney for “doing so much to make crews diverse.” Looking back, Hand recalled that when she began developing A Wrinkle in Time in 1980 and wanted a female screenwriter to adapt it, she couldn’t find one. But, she said, “so much has changed.”

But not enough. Commented Thomas, “I can name a number of black writers in young-adult fiction but not as directors. At least we’re definitely seeing the increase in publishing.”

Happily, the abundance of so much content flowing through both film and publishing doesn’t seem to worry anyone as long as good storytelling is there. As one book consultant at the tradeshow rhetorically put it: Who can lose when there are just so many places for things to go these days?

This, of course, includes the movie theatres whose patrons’ appetites and curiosities are heightened by books and films—old and new—that streaming delivers anywhere, at any time—not just as entertainment but as an incentive to go find more.