Coping With the Denominators: An Exclusive Interview with German Director Peter Lilienthal on the Viability of Niche Film Markets

It's the inevitable question, isn't it? You're an artist, and you slave over your opus for an indeterminate time of blood, sweat and tears, at the end of which all that matters is that you feel ready and willing to reveal this opus to the world. Sound overly dramatic? Maybe. Words like "opus," "blood," "sweat" and "tears" in the same sentence welcomes reader scrutiny I admit, but for most artists, I'm sure this sentence spoke to the whirlwind sentiments felt when preparing to unveil a work to an audience for the first time. Hey, I feel those sentiments even now. I've slaved over this article. It took me awhile to compile and is rather long. Everything I write is long...I can't help it, folks. There go my blood, sweat and tears, so will it appeal to you? Well, it's all okay because I know my audience. Or do I? Wait a minute, just who the hell are you people?! Joking aside, back to the question -- the "inevitable" question mentioned earlier. Here it is: Who is your audience? You've gone to all this hard work and to top it all off, you've gotten all hot, bothered and passionate about it and you cannot bottle it up even if you want to (but why would you want to?). It has pleased you as its creator enough already during its creation and execution, so who will it successfully please next? Have you created art in a vacuum? Have you perhaps created a work of art to please yourself and no one else? Or does the work of art appeal instead to a select, narrow audience? ...or as distributors might call it, the dreaded "niche audience"?
Every filmmaker is at least somewhat convinced of the viability of his or her own work, but in the film world, for film distributors, a great deal of emphasis is of course placed on the term "marketability" and "commercial" when the audience factor is broached -- and often times, there is a daresay maddeningly overriding need to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I am not saying that it is not wonderful when a film appeals to as wide of a demographic as possible, but it would seem that the need to appeal to the everyman and everywoman often acts as an excuse to oppress filmmakers who wish to work more towards specificity. To film financiers, opening up the work means that all is hunky dory. So what of the others whose works cannot be opened up in this sense? What becomes of the films in niche markets and films made for niche audiences? Granted, the market for gay and lesbian cinema is perhaps the most successful (in terms of profitability) niche market in the film-releasing world, but what of the others? For instance, recently I had the privilege of going to see A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers. As a cineaste, I am convinced that this is best American film I have seen thus far this year. I saw the film in a crowded Upper East Side theater in New York City, a city whose "folk" can truly and properly appreciate it. What of the film, though, when it plays outside of this welcoming urban demographic? I am not even speaking of the Jewish urban demographic. A Serious Man's Jewish themes and often in-jokey Jewish content might be lost on a great many viewers (read: goyim). Only the Coen Brothers could have gotten a film like that made on that scale at this moment in time. I marvel at this. But not all filmmakers are as fortunate as the Coen Brothers, one of the few mainstream auteurs working within the Hollywood system, as independents with consistent autonomy from project to project. Boy, it must be wonderful to be the Coen Brothers!

Of course, it is extremely troubling trying to pin down what "commercial" means at any given time in history. Robert Towne's script for Chinatown was, in 1973, considered to be the very height of commercial; today, most likely, it would at best be relegated to an arthouse subsidiary, no matter its quality as an imminently filmable written work. In my personal experience, there is a film project I wrote (but am not directing) called Call Me Spoons, a wild and wacky road comedy. It is a project I wrote to sell and to be purely commercial and to appeal to that least common denominator...only to discover that my view of what "commercial" was did not really conform to what others perceived as commercial (as it turns out, I was missing the all-important "young characters" variable of the marketing equation, among other things). Call Me Spoons is still being made, but I was surprised at the time at peoples' appraisal of its commerciality.

One of my favorite films of all time, and perhaps the most curious fixture on my Top 10 Favorite Films list (although it is fair to note that I find it impossible to be comprehensive with this kind of often mind-numbing list-making) is New German Cinema director Peter Lilienthal's Dear Mr. Wonderful (1982) which I have written about on this blog in three (count 'em) prior entries. Lilienthal has also directed another of my favorite films, David (1979), which nabbed the Berlin Film Festival grand prize the year it premiered there. I was able to track down and contact the Munich-based Lilienthal via e-mail about two months back and our correspondence has touched on a great many topics -- subjects so close to the heart of filmmakers. One mainstay among our e-mails was the question of audience. Both Dear Mr. Wonderful and David tackle Jewish themes, and Lilienthal was quite candid with me about how difficult it has been for him to market films with Jewish-centered themes. I was reminded of a scene from Christopher Guest's most recent comedy For Your Consideration (2006) in which the movie-within-the-movie, a melodrama about a Southern Jewish family entitled "Home for Purim" is eventually retitled "Home for Thanksgiving" by studio bosses looking to streamline the work for a more popularized audience.

Considering that Lilienthal directed two of my favorite films, I was honored to be in contact with him at last. I sent him a series of questions and asked him to answer them for a formal interview, on the topic of audience. He had a great deal to say about this subject.

For reader reference, Lilienthal's film Dear Mr. Wonderful tells the story of Ruby Dennis (Joe Pesci, fresh after Raging Bull), the owner of Ruby’s Palace, a bowling alley attached to a bar-and-lounge where he performs to little fanfare, but still dreams of making it big crooning in Vegas. He lives in a cramped Jersey City apartment with his sister and nephew, both of whom also aspire for something more. Will this little man learn to accept what his life has to offer or will he be plagued by chronic dissatisfaction and pipe dreams?

Peter Lilienthal's Biography: Peter Lilienthal is an independent film director living in Munich, Germany. Born in Berlin, Mr. Lilienthal spent his childhood years in Uruguay. In 1956 he received a scholarship to the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Between 1959 and 1964 he worked at the German TV channel Südwestfunk, first as an assistant, later as a director. In 1967 and 1968 he was lecturer at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin. He is the co-founder of the German distributor Filmverlag der Autoren, and served as the headmaster of the section Film and Medienkunst at the Akademie der Künst in Berlin. Mr. Lilienthal has directed more than thirty films, radio plays, and documentaries. Many of his films show solidarity with the victims of the Latin American military dictatorships. Mr. Lilienthal directed the film The Silence of the Poet which was an adaptation of the book by the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua.


DK: Can you first talk about what it was like distributing Dear Mr. Wonderful in 1982?

PL: When I finished the film, I was completely convinced that we would not have trouble finding distribution in the United States for the film. We had Joe [Pesci] who was right off of Scorsese's picture and he had just either won or was nominated for the Academy Award and there was all the attention surrounding him. So I thought we were all set and all would be well. It was a quiet picture, very understated. I wanted to do a film that tackled the Jewish working class in the United States because I felt it hadn't been explored yet. I had just come off of the success of David [the story of a rabbi's son during the Holocaust], which was very much a film about celebrating one's Jewishness, and while I was putting that film together, this passage of Pirkei Avos [a textual work of Jewish Oral Law devoted to the behavior of man, and how one can improve it], "A rich man is he who is content with what he has," started to intrigue me. What of the man who wants more? Shall he ever find riches beyond what he has been given? There were many things I wanted to explore in the film and at the time, and even still, I thought I succeeded. Joey brought Frank Vincent to me, because he was also in the Scorsese film.

DK: What happened then when the film went out into the world?

Dear Mr. Wonderful did reasonably well in Germany. I showed a rough cut of it to Fassbinder before he died because his favorite cameraman [Michael Ballhaus] had shot it for me. He loved the film. But then when we took it to the States, there was suddenly this stigma. We couldn't get the film shown. We got respectable reviews in the New York Times and from other critics, but we couldn't find a proper distributor. No one seemed to be interested in picking it up. Eventually, a little company [Pierpont Films], they were just getting started, picked it up for a pittance. Then, eventually, United Artists Classics got a hold of it and they didn't do much at all to market the film effectively. It was some time later when I asked a friend of mine who worked in Los Angeles within the industry what could have accounted for the lack of interest in the film. He told me, "Marketing films about Jews in the United States is like trying to feed a tiger may be good for them, but they're just after their not-unusual quota of red meat." The paradox in that statement is that Hollywood was started by Jews and, even today, there are many Jews in positions of power in the film industry. All the major studio heads in the golden age were Jewish. Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor. They were all Jews, yet it was and still is such taboo to make explicitly Jewish films. I've had the same problems since Dear Mr. Wonderful with other films.

DK: I remember hearing a story about the resistance towards Zanuck producing Gentleman's Agreement, an Elia Kazan drama about a journalist out to expose American anti-Semitism by posing as a Jew for six months, at Fox.

PL: The really interesting part of the whole thing was that Dear Mr. Wonderful isn't even so explicitly Jewish that it loses any of its appeal for non-Jews. I see it as a universal story, although the characters I depicted are very clearly of the Jewish-American lower middle class. Unless Jewishness is portrayed as quaint or cute like in Fiddler on the Roof or something, it just doesn't interest the fat cats.

DK: Thus, a film gets relegated to a niche market, where it can fade into obscurity.

PL: Keep in mind also that the film was made during a different time. Today, there are so many more avenues for distribution and it is easier now to make films for these select audiences. When Dear Mr. Wonderful was made, the independent filmmaking world as we know it now was just getting started in the United States. It was my first English-language film and, of course, the first film I made in America. I know Michael [Ballhaus] went immediately from photographing my film to shooting a John Sayles movie. It's just a completely different world. Now, there are even niche festivals. Jewish film festivals, gay and lesbian film festivals, festivals for every race, color and creed, women's film festivals, you name it. That certainly wasn't the case when Dear Mr. Wonderful was first shown in the U.S.

DK: But are these niche festivals really a proper place to show a film if a filmmaker is looking for a wider audience than what these festivals would offer in terms of audience? In other words, aren't these particular audiences often insular and often very shut off?

PL: Well, it's a place to start, at least. I didn't have that back in 1982. The United States market was a tough place. I haven't made or tried to actively distribute a film there in a long time, but I gather it still is. At the very least, films for a select audiences have a chance to grow from these niche festivals, and have a chance to reach wider appeal from this base.

DK: To ask particularly about the Jewish niche market, why do you as a filmmaker who has explored Jewish issues personally think that Jewish themes are considered so not viable in the United States film marketplace?

PL: I think that's easy to answer. American Jews seem to stick close to cities and suburbs and, let's face it, a rather cruel history has taught us to be insular. The most vast part of America is middle America, the wheat belt, which is populated with mostly people who are not Jewish, although of course there are always small pockets of Jews. There is this whole Orientalist perception about the Jew, it seems, especially in a culture like America, where there is such a need to assimilate into a culture built on Anglo-Saxon values. It's the foreign and the unknown that scares the average audience member. American distributors, I believe, are in the market to provide films about things the audiences know or things the audience feels a certain level of comfort with. Jews are a minority, and an often silent minority and, like I said, insular, particular outside the big cities and the cultural meccas. In these small pockets, it's kept even more hush-hush.

DK: In the United States, the Coen Brothers new film A Serious Man has just been released. That film, which I have seen and adored, is very explicitly Jewish and its humor is often derived from inside jokes and a kind of friendly self-parody, while at the same time it earnestly explores big, ambitious issues like religiosity and the search for meaning in one's identity. The kicker is that it is playing at a multiplex that screens big blockbusters in my neighborhood on the Upper East Side. Now, I know this is because of the Coen Brothers name and that, if some indie darling or debuting filmmaker had directed it, I'd find it at a downtown arthouse. Do you feel audiences (and not just cineastes) believe that a name or names attached to a film can make or break the viability of chancy material and do you feel the appeal of a film like A Serious Man can reach beyond the cities and cultural meccas you mentioned before?

PL: I'm not sure if I totally understand the question, but the Coen Brothers have proven themselves in battle time and time again. Not many filmmakers can say that when playing with big money on a film. They have their trademarks, their voice, their quirks, all the elements that make their work appealing to people. If they want to make a riskier movie for themselves, they can do it a great deal more easily than the majority of other directors would, but that is their privilege and their prerogative. What you and others have working in your favor is that, like I said, the market is slightly different than what it was in 1982.

DK: One of my favorite sequences in the film is the bar mitzvah party sequence about 45 minutes into the film.

PL: That's my favorite scene of the film as well. And it is the most important! I wouldn't have made the film without that sequence, or something akin to it. The film's whole point of the film is in that sequence.

DK: I agree. I'll tell you, I wasn't sure about the film the first time I saw it. It took repeat viewings to cement it for me as being not just a great film, but one of my favorite films and a work of genius.

PL: Very kind of you to say so. Thank you.

DK: Even on that unsure first viewing of the film, though, I rewound the bar mitzvah party sequence and watched it again because I was fascinated by certain choices you made in it. However, do you find that a sequence like that would alienate most audiences?

PL: How so? There are certain things as a filmmaker that you fashion so that people can understand without taking into account everything. For that sequence, the average viewer understands it's a party being hosted by our main character and that's all that particular audience member needs to understand. For a person viewing the film as simply a story who does not think or care to consider the ideas or the personal statement within the story, the work means something else to them, and I accept that. You can't do anything about that. There is no fail-safe button to make everyone understand the stuff underneath the scenes. People in a given audience will not be as proactive as others. Another will look deeper, see those cuts I make to the harbor with the Statue of Liberty juxtaposed against the bar mitzvah boy playing classical guitar and can take away something much deeper and much more. In terms of the Jewish content, as an artist, you try to make it accessible so the audience feels connected despite their disconnection to it in the real world.

DK: So, in the United States, Dear Mr. Wonderful fell into the budget video release netherworld in the early 90's and has been retitled for some releases [Ruby's Dream]. I know another filmmaker named Eli Hollander who has had this same thing happen to his film Out and it bothers him, but not enough for him to take serious action. How does it make you feel that the film fell enough between the cracks in the U.S. because of its so-called "niche market qualities" that it can now be purchased at any local Dollar Store under another title?

PL: I always carried the copyright on the film in the U.S. and I wasn't concerned with keeping it up over there. The film, through some kink in the system, fell out of copyright. In a way, it's good because it means more people see the film. In another way, I dislike the fact that they retitled it without my consent, but what can you do? You're powerless.

DK: Would you make the same film today?

PL: I've never thought about that. Every film and every work of art in general reflects the time in which it was made. One thing is for sure: I would not have changed any of the Jewish undercurrents in the film just to sell it to a distributor. Sometimes you have to do such things for money and I can respect that, but some projects you just can't toy with. They're too close. I wouldn't have changed anything about the film itself at all. It would be a different film if made today, sure. I wouldn't even have bothered to make the film without the elements that apparently made it unmarketable. Dear Mr. Wonderful is what it is by sheer virtue of the fact that it contains that Jewish-themed content. I felt and still feel that the film is universal and the Jewish stuff shouldn't deter anyone from seeing it or connecting with it.

DK: I agree. The film, to me, is very emotionally affecting, but it pulls those strings in such a quiet, imperceptible way. It seems like a lot of people miss that about it, even the ones who praise it.

PL: Well, you've had the privilege and the interest to have seen it many times. I find it, even as its maker, to be a film that grows on you. But like I said, there's nothing a filmmaker or any artist can do about that. Everyone reacts how they react. You can't make them feel a certain way. You can just know you did your best in delivering to them an experience that has a potential to do that.

DK: Do you think the climate concerning certain niche markets is changing, or has changed?

PL: With Jewish-themed stuff, it's hard to say. Certainly this new Coen Brothers movie sounds like it is doing well in the U.S. Then again, it is Jewish humor that has always been popular. Phillip Roth, Woody Allen, even Saul Bellow, it's the Jew lampooning himself. It's when it reaches over to something a little more serious and a little more earnest that it scares the people looking for commerciality. I don't think it's the same for other ethnic minorities, and I am not just partial towards this opinion because I'm a Jew myself. Gay and lesbian cinema has certainly come unto its own. It seems like the market for that has grown exponentially. Other niche markets too have done very well. Oh yes, things undoubtedly have changed for them, but not for us.

DK: Have you ever struggled during the actual making of a film, agonizing over who your audience for a given work is?

PL: I don't know a single artist who hasn't agonized over that.

1 comment:

  1. Daniel, thanks for posting the interview. I had a viewing of this film last night, a very pleasent surprise indeed. Although as great as the film was, the host elements were atrocious! A poor dvd sourced from a VHS master. With the director explaining the film fell out of copyright, this explains it. However, the 'quality' of the DVDs out there is inexcusable. Hopefully someone will step up and find a good print for restoration (can you hear me Criterion?).

    - John