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Bright Lights, Small Community

Bright Lights, Small Community

Articles - Directing

“People living in New York are a certain type of artist,
a certain type of people. They’re interested in being
inspired.” — Gary Winick

Oscar may not want to set foot in new york,
but the juries at Sundance have taken a different view of Gotham.
When InDigEnt’s Personal Velocity received the Grand Jury
Prize in January, it marked the eighth time in the past nine years
that the festival awarded a New York-produced movie its coveted
top prize.


While the Oscars won’t be moving to the Big Apple,
the Academy has richly rewarded the city in each of the past three
years: the companies responsible for In The Bedroom, You
Can Count on Me, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
and Boys
Don’t Cry
all base themselves in New York City.


New York’s presence is also being felt at the box
office. The three highest grossing indies of 2002—Monsoon Wedding, Y Tu Mamá También and My
Big Fat Greek Wedding
—were each distributed, or produced in
part, by IFC Films. New York, the American capital of finance
and fashion and the brightest star in the theater galaxy, can
also lay claim to being the heart of American independent cinema.


“New York stands for a certain kind of filmmaking,”
says John Sloss, co-founder of InDigEnt and president of Cinetic
Media. “That’s been the case, and I hope that will always be the
case.”


In the past decade a series of successful companies,
including Good Machine, Killer Films, The Shooting Gallery, 40
Acres and a Mule, Open City Films and Hart Sharp Entertainment
have maintained an independent film community in New York as an
antidote to the studio culture of Los Angeles. Although Good Machine
and The Shooting Gallery have now closed their doors, other promising
companies such as GreeneStreet Films, InDigEnt, Forensic Films,
Blue Magic Pictures, ContentFilm and Tribeca Productions are prospering.


The events of last September had a profound effect
on the city as a whole, but took an especially large toll on the
city’s film production community, as many groups reside in Tribeca,
the neighborhood north of the World Trade Center. Though business
slowed as the city tried to recuperate, one year later the industry
has nearly recovered. “It’s very fulfilling to see how the industry
has rebounded so strongly,” says John Penotti, co-founder of GreeneStreet
Films. “There was a slowdown in production anyway—before September
11. Now the city is back to full capability, even if it’s not
back to full capacity.”


Open City’s Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente are leading
the way in capturing the story of 9/11, cinematically-speaking.
Their film, The Guys, about a fire captain who lost eight
men in the collapse and the editor who assisted him in writing
their eulogies, debuted in Toronto. Kliot also wrote and directed
the short film Site, about the events of 9/11.


Unlike other cities where competition runs fierce,
the New York film community often works together to produce a
film. Boys Don’t Cry is one example: Killer Films’ Christine
Vachon and Pamela Koffler, John Hart and Jeffrey Sharp from Hart
Sharp Entertainment and IFC’s Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan
and John Sloss all share producing credits. For Jesse Peretz’s The Château: Forensic Films produced, GreeneStreet
provided the funding and IFC acted as distributor.

Blue Magic Pictures founder Lemore Syvan
on the set of John Sayles’ Casa de los Babys

In New York, producers not only pool resources for
projects, they also seek each other out for basic information.
“It’s a small community and everyone knows each other,” says Koffler.
“We keep in contact on everything from dealing with unions, to
the names of crew people.” This type of communication doesn’t
exist everywhere.


“We spend part of the year in Paris,” says
Scott Macaulay of Forensic Films. “The producers don’t talk to
each other in France, and the directors are closer. In New York
it’s the opposite.”


In an attempt to bring even more cohesion to the
film community in New York, one company, GreeneStreet Films, has
built a film center in Tribeca. Located at 9 Desbrosses Street,
the center houses not only production companies, but also writers
like John Leguizamo, directors, actors, casting directors, a PR
firm, special effects company and many other film-related businesses.
It also contains a production facility that GreeneStreet rents
out to studios when they shoot in New York. They are currently
using that space for their own feature, Molly Gunn.


“The concept was this: put enough under one
roof to assure that critical momentum needed to get a film off
the ground, to have it supported on every level from development
to casting to financing to production to distribution,” claims
Penotti. “We have established a base to demonstrate to our LA
counterparts that we have the structure and functionality for
creating these films. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel with
each film,” he says.


InDigEnt is another company that seeks to pull
the individual resources of the city’s moviemaking community together.
The company was created by Gary Winick with the purpose of creating
ten $100,000 digital feature films using gifted actors and minimal—but
talented—crews. While the films are fully financed by IFC, all
the profits are divided on a percentage basis among the cast and
crew.


Winick states that he started the project because
he “realized that there exists a technology that could be used
by this great independent film community here in New York to come
up with some really wonderful stories.” Personal Velocity and Tadpole are two recent InDigEnt projects.


While the project is not limited to New York moviemakers,
New York, according to Winick, is the best place for such a film.
“People living in New York are a certain type of artist, a certain
type of people,” claims Winick. “They’re actors, directors, producers
and craftspeople interested in good work as opposed to high-profile
or commercial work—and who are interested in being inspired.”

IFC President Jonathan Sehring has collaborated
with Killer Films and Hart Sharp Entertainment to produce Boys Don’t Cry, and Forensic and GreeneStreet
Films on The Château.

This commitment to moviemaking—driven more by the
material of a film than the bottom line—is commonplace in New
York. Producers value their independence from the studio system
and its creative restraints. “Here we just go out and do it,”
says Susan Stover, who produced Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art and her upcoming Laurel Canyon. “In LA, things get
shot down a lot quicker because the only model is the studio model.”
“The studios just aren’t interested in what we’re producing,”
agrees Lemore Syvan, founder of Blue Magic Pictures, which helped
produce Personal Velocity and is currently working on John
Sayles’ Casa de los Babys.


The flip side of this creative freedom is creative
financing: money often must come from alternative sources like
Wall Street, side projects or out of an independent producer’s
own pocket. The advantage to this system is that it forces companies
to produce work to survive—there is no blockbuster cushion to
fall back on if a movie fails to materialize.


“In New York, you have to make movies. We’ve
put out 10 to 12 in the past nine years,” says Macaulay. “Hollywood
spends a lot of time on films that aren’t made.” Forensic Films
is financed in part by Macaulay’s partner Robin O’Hara, who line
produces Hollywood projects, as well as through a side business
of service work for European films shooting in NYC. Many do whatever
they can to stay in New York.


“In the beginning, I collected unemployment,”
says Katie Roumel, who started as an intern at Killer Films in
1993 and is now a partner. “It was a scrappy way to keep together
and keep making movies. With more recognition, we were able to
make deals that covered our overhead. Through it all though, the
focus remained on telling the stories that we wanted to tell.”


Although New York lacks the support of a well-financed
studio system, they benefit from being part of a city that isn’t
entirely centered on movie production. “New York is not a company
town,” states Koffler. “Film is one of many businesses and pursuits
happening.”


New York’s gigantic visual arts and theater scenes
provide for non-film related artistic endeavors, and a chance
to escape the movies. “New York’s a tough town, but it’s easy
to be completely fulfilled and constantly inspired here,” says
Fisher Stevens, a theater refugee and John Penotti’s co-founder
at GreeneStreet. “You don’t have to eat, breathe and drink show
business. It’s much easier to find a balance.”

Producers Pamela Koffler, Stan Wlodkowski
and Christine Vachon on the set of One Hour Photo.

In addition to coexisting with the arts world, New
York’s moviemakers are part of a significant film scene that includes
a burgeoning underground movie network. From cutting-edge spaces
like Rooftop Films and Ocularis, to more established venues like
Anthology Film Archives and The Whitney Museum, there is ample
opportunity to see work from new moviemakers all around the city.


The curators of these venues recognize the importance
of local producers and vice versa. “It’s good for New York underground
cinema to have people like Todd Haynes and Todd Solondz and producers
like Christine Vachon doing what she’s doing,” says John Mhiripiri,
administrative director at Anthology Film Archives. For their
part, many producers cite the underground community as one of
the reasons to stay in New York.


Occasionally a film will get its start on the underground
circuit and end up on a production company’s distribution slate.
David Maquiling’s Too Much Sleep (produced by Open City
Films) had its theatrical premiere at the New Filmmakers series,
and was afterwards picked up and released by The Shooting Gallery.


In addition to the permanent venues, there’s no
shortage of festivals in the city. These vary from the more traditional
New York and Tribeca Film Festivals, to the less mainstream New
York Video, Brooklyn International and now decade-old New York
Underground Film Festivals.


Despite, or perhaps because of all this activity,
the primary reason producers stay in New York is because it’s
home. “[John Penotti and I] started the company to stay in New
York,” says Stevens. “We both like to visit LA, but we wouldn’t
want to live there.” “I was born in New York,” adds Christine
Vachon. “And I can’t drive.”


So LA can keep the Oscars and the studios. New
York City has enough to offer. Despite the recent closings of
Good Machine, Lot 47 and The Shooting Gallery, the city continues
its tradition of producing financially sensible independent movies
that don’t compromise creativity. Concludes Lemore Syvan: “Film
is a business. But at the end of the day, it comes down to inspiration.
My inspiration comes from New York City and the community around
me.” MM

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