Big Little Indies

Today’s new wave of “indie studios” are changing the rules of the game

by Jerry Weinstein

(Cue Don LaFontaine voiceover) In a world… where studios once made Cecil B. DeMille-sized epics and independents cobbled together pictures on a shoestring and a cash advance comes gatecrashing, globetrotting Babel.

Just how is last year’s co-financed arthouse affair an “independent” film if it makes The Ten Commandments look like a kitchen-sink drama? Not long ago there was no such thing as an “indie studio.” Things have changed.

Sure, back in the 1990s the six major studios owned specialty divisions and shed them, but today’s hybrids exist in the context of an industry that finds itself negotiating art against a backdrop of both a technological flux and an austere bottom line. As such, these mini-majors have a different identity than those of the last wave; the phrase “true indie” has lost all currency. Rather than be perceived as vanity plates or rubber stamps for their paymasters, these shops strike an enviable balance while greenlighting edgy, sometimes willfully obscure films and all the while practicing financial discipline that would give Francis Ford Coppola agita.

While it’s fashionable to insist that Midnight Cowboy or Klute could not have been made today, the truth of the matter is that there is an embarrassment of riches where content is concerned. Broadly speaking, the central challenge of seeing a film reach its audience remains. And today, that’s no small affair. Not only are potential filmgoers distracted by PlayStation game consoles, social networking on MySpace and watching decidedly unsophisticated fare on YouTube, but they are newly engaged. A fall, 2005 Pew Internet & American Life study found that one-half of all teens (and a third of all adults) could be considered “content creators,” meaning that they have either built homepages or blogs, posted original artwork or photography or uploaded a video to the Internet. Apart from this rejuvenation of juveniles, there are disruptive technologies that are the stuff of the late Jack Valenti’s nightmares: Why head out to a Friday opening if you can download it on BitTorrent that same evening? But where the MPAA has been playing defense, technology has also opened up a range of opportunities to indie studios.

When Jonathan Sehring first launched the Independent Film Channel in 1994, it was in the wake of Pulp Fiction’s box office-shattering success, and at the cusp of the last wave of majors acquiring indies: Disney purchased Tarantino’s patron, Miramax, and Turner gobbled up New Line. Likewise, majors launched their own specialty divisions, some of which have shuttered while others, like Sony Pictures Classics, thrive to this day. At that time Sehring’s first order of business was educating TV audiences about auteurs like Allison Anders, John Sayles and Jim Jarmusch. Asked if today’s roster of majors partnering with indies is cyclical, Sehring explains, “I used to think so. We’re sort of at the top end of the cycle, but what’s different is that there’s been a huge revolution that has had such an effect on the industry-and that’s digital. Digital technology has changed the playing field for everybody. Ranging from what our network is doing with Media Lab and what we were pursuing with InDigEnt in digital production to day and date distribution, ultimately you look at platforms like iTunes and Netflix. It’s not going back. There’s no sort of ‘traditional’ model for independent film distribution anymore. It’s broken-and it shouldn’t be fixed.”

Being a subsidiary of Cablevision Systems, with its own cable channel and a three-screen movie theater in New York City, has given IFC the latitude to pursue day and date releases, but is it economically viable? First Take, IFC’s day and date model, is not cribbed from Mark Cuban’s 2929 Entertainment or ClickStar-it exists in its own ecosystem. “We thought that there were just so many movies out there not getting picked up for distribution,” laments Sehring. “We had four or five productions that we tried to sell at Sundance, but for the studio specialty divisions it was just not worth their time and effort to make a couple of bucks. They are looking for millions, not $500,000; it doesn’t pay their overhead. This year, we’re releasing Ken Loach’s Palm d’Or-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley-nobody else was going to pick it up-and Alain Resnais’ Private Fears in Public Places-no one was going to acquire that; it’s just not in the specialty wheelhouse. Meanwhile a producer is not going to entrust these small companies, because they don’t have the financial wherewithal to make them work. That’s why we came up with our model. We’ve been releasing 24 movies a year that way. We could probably double it.”

Last year at Cannes, Focus Features CEO James Schamus told indieWIRE, “I think what you are seeing is that there is no one single model that determines the maximum approach to specialized markets in a studio-driven environment.” Certainly, Picturehouse supports that view. The lovechild of New Line and HBO is a product of two distinct cultures. Whereas HBO Films has a reputation for upscale offerings and theatrical-grade marketing of its on-air films, New Line has its roots as a scrappy fighter and boasts one of the longest lifespans in the business (dating back to 1967). While Picturehouse president Bob Berney holds that the theme should be consolidation, he’s quick to add that “within this consolidation, there’s a lot of room. For the smaller films, there’s probably a bigger appetite than ever before.” Consider the documentary: “Think about it,” says Berney. “Even when [Terry Zwigoff’s] Crumb came out, it was questionable. There’s more opportunity now for people to see a film like that. When you look at theatrical plus delivery over the Internet, docs now have an immensely broader audience. Beyond Michael Moore’s $100 million-plus for Fahrenheit 9/11, which was special, it’s now cool to watch a documentary without labeling it. That’s a shift.”

Berney might be onto something. At this spring’s Gen Art Film Festival, Sharkwater became the first feature film documentary in the festival’s 12-year history to win the Grand Jury Prize (as well as the Audience Award). According to festival director Jeff Abramson, today’s emerging moviemakers are looking to MySpace and how it opened up music as a model for the future of film. Sharkwater has had a robust ride this festival season. What distinguishes it from its predecessors is the marketing savvy of its moviemakers. Says Abramson, “They have their talking points ready. These guys aren’t Today’s new wave of “indie studios” are changing the rules of the game by Jerry Weinstein holding their breath, waiting for distributors to do it for them. When they do strike a deal, both marketing costs and HR time will be leaner for their efforts.”

While IFC is a vertically integrated company, touting itself as “the only brand to operate in every area of independent film to include television, production, financing, distribution, digital, on demand and exhibition,” Picturehouse exists in what can best be described as Time Warner’s extended family. Speaking about his upcoming summer release, The King of Kong, Berney is already spinning how New Line is in talks to remake it as a full-bodied film with an A-list cast. There’s also the recent announcement that in 2008 HBO Films will debut Sydney Pollack’s Recount entirely on the Internet. While Berney hasn’t been privy to any discussions, he assents, “I can certainly see projects going that way.”

Shrugging off a recent statement that “technology is thinning out younger audiences,” Berney insists that while it’s difficult to compete for teen attention, “If it’s an event, if a movie touches them, if it’s marketed to them, they will still come.” He’s particularly impressed by the success of Pan’s Labryinth: “It went so far, not only in terms of pure gross. We got a good, young audience as well as the older audience-it was across the board. It shows that originality, storytelling and emotion trump the challenge that we might have expected from a Spanish-language film, a period piece, violence or dark themes for children. It’s wonderfully encouraging that a filmmaker was absolutely able to break through. From the first frame you were pulled into the world and no one worried about the supposed hurdles. This opens up a lot of possibilities.”

While IFC’s model permits them to experiment across the board, for Picturehouse, “theatrical is all-important.” For Berney, this restraint gives him freedom. “When independent films don’t follow patterns, you need some kind of baseline numbers and comps to work out. Everything is based on the theatrical gross. This gives the home entertainment people a context to plug in their numbers. If I can’t solidly depend on the theatrical, I can’t get something made or I can’t buy anything. At this moment, no way [would I] propose to do anything that would threaten partnership with my exhibitors.” As far as a paradigm shift that would affect distribution windows, Berney defers. “That’s going to have to be from the studio level.”

While autonomy used to be the battle cry of the generations of both John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese, today’s indie studios are in a better position to expose a film to an array of audiences. No two outfits share the same business model, even though they do share a mission of broadening the audience for independent film. Of the relationship between indies and their parent companies, Picturehouse’s Berney speaks for all: “As long as we can remain creatively independent, it makes sense.” But when will traditional models across the industry collapse? IFC’s Sehring chuckles: “It’s going to be really fun to see just how long it takes to move the Titanic.” MM