The re-release of Jean Jacques Beneix’s “Diva” has brought back a lot of memories for me. I was working at United Artists Classics when we released the film in the U.S., and I find it fascinating to read about the film’s history in the various articles that have appeared in the last week. Having been there when it all happened, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around. The film was NOT an instant hit or a sensation upon release. Quite the contrary. In fact the film was a complete flop when it was first released in France. No U.S. distributor was interested in it. The film came to us at U.A. and we passed on it…at least twice.
Then Toronto happened. I was the only representative of the company at the Toronto Film Festival that year. The moment I arrived, I started hearing about “Diva.” I was told that the audiences “loved it” and that it was getting standing ovations. The late great David Overby (who had programmed it in the festival) pulled me aside and told me that I must go and see it. I explained that I’d already seen it and passed. I was introduced to Jean Jacques at a party, and he started to stalk me. Someone had told him I was a U.S. distributor that had handled some French films, and it was like I had a target on my ass. Finally, under much pressure, I went to see it with the Toronto audience (they had added several additional screenings) and after a few phone calls back to home office, we made an offer of $35,000 and had the U.S. rights to the film.
The film’s U.S. premiere was at Filmex, the old AFI run film festival in Los Angeles. It went badly. I went to a luncheon at the festival and sat at a table of critics who were bad mouthing the film, unaware that I was the distributor.
The plan was to open the film in New York and L.A. simultanously, but the NY opening was delayed by a couple of weeks because the film playing ahead of us at the Plaza Theater was continuing to do business. We went ahead and opened L.A. anyway and the grosses were terrible. Everyone began to panic. Perhaps our first instincts about the film were correct.
The day we opened NY, Vincent Canby killed it in the Times. Fortunately Pauline Kael had published her review earlier in the week, and we had this great ad right opposite Canby’s review with Kael’s words all over it. The ripple effect of her review cannot be underestimated. Most of the national publications were equally good, and not only did New York do business, but L.A. picked up as well. The final result was that the film became the highest grossing foreign language film of all time up until that point. $6 million. Sounds pathetic these days, but it was a big deal. The film was re-released in France and became a hit there as well. Can’t think of another example of a French film that was revived in France by a U.S. release.
One final point…many of the recent articles talk about the filmmakers of “Diva” claiming that that the film represented another French New Wave. They never did any such thing. It was just a copy line used in the American ad campaign. It said “Here comes a new kind of French New Wave.” I should know. I wrote it.