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Rob Edelman: Film Festivals, Film Distribution

These days, plenty of films that play at festivals-- the most recent one I’ve attended is the Toronto fest-- are way under the radar. They make the rounds of the festival circuit, often for months and occasionally even for a couple years, with the intention of earning critical kudos, garnering audience praise, and grabbing the attention of distributors. But for a range of reasons, finding a U.S. distributor will be difficult if not impossible. Certainly, if a film is not American-made, it will end up with little or no theatrical distribution outside its maker’s home country.

This will be the case even if it has legitimate entertainment value. However, if there are no stars, and there is nothing particularly sexy or eye-opening about it, well, the only way a cineaste might get to see it is at a festival or if it ever makes its way to DVD, Blu-ray, or streaming.

Take for example RIVER, directed by Jamie M. Dagg and screened in Toronto. Its countries of origin are Laos, Thailand, and Canada. RIVER is the story of John Lake, a dedicated, highly-principled American doctor who has volunteered to practice among the poor in Laos. After failing to save a desperately ill patient, his superior orders the overworked medic to take a rest for a couple weeks. Dr. Lake heads off for some r & r but, immediately after arriving at his destination, he finds himself neck-deep in a case involving a sexual assault, and a murder.

Is RIVER a great film, a possible Oscar contender? No, it is not. But is it an entertaining film? I would say that it is... At its core, it is a Hitchcockian thriller spotlighting an otherwise innocent, not to mention exemplary, individual who is a victim of circumstance and who must fight for his survival.

One question that came to mind while watching RIVER: If the doctor is innocent, why doesn’t he cooperate with the authorities? Why does he run? Wouldn’t this make him appear to be guilty? The answer is that his taking flight, and his desperation, make for good storytelling. It adds to the conflict within the storyline and, without conflict, there will not be much of a movie. Plus, despite all his good intentions, Dr. Lake still is a stranger in a strange land. From his point of view, his desperation is understandable.

However, one of the reasons why a film like RIVER may not extend itself beyond the festival circuit is its casting. Rossif Sutherland, who plays the doctor, may be the son of Donald and half-brother of Kiefer. He may be a fine actor but, unlike them, he is not a name personality. He is not a marketable commodity. And after all, that is the bottom line for movie and television stars: They are marketable commodities. If his character was played by, for example, a Jake Gyllenhaal or James Franco or Mark Ruffalo, RIVER easily might garner oodles of attention, not to mention some high-profile theatrical play in the U.S.

Rob Edelman has written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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