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The State of the Non-Union: Independent Film in a Changing World
by Chris Parry

If there's an area that the South By Southwest Film Fest kicks Sundance's behind, it's in the area of 'da bidness' - that is, getting real power players in the film biz to sit down with an audience of people who want (or need) to hear what they have to say. At Sundance you'll hear from writers and documentary-makers and stars. At SXSW, you hear from the people that keep those people in rent. Newmarket Films hotshot Bob Berney, Magnolia Pictures President Eamon Bowles, United Artists honcho Bingham Ray and Marc Halperin of Magic Lamp Distribution gathered to talk about what's going down in indie town, and the one word summary is "lots".

In the mid 80's, indie film went through a decade long boom period, similar to the boom from the mid 60's, where indie directors, writers and producers connected with audiences in ways that the studios no longer could. Eventually those 'connectors' were brought into the establishment and the studios once again took over, integrating what would work and destroying what wouldn't. Well it's a new century now and with the cost of digital filmmaking plummeting and the accessability of output going through the roof - the indie kids are back. But what traps should they steer clear of?

"There are a lot of guys I meet that think they know it all," says Newmarket's Bob Berney. "There are also plenty of really savvy guys around that have done their research and do know what they're talking about, to a surprising extent. Christopher Nolan was really savvy when he did Memento, Todd Solondz really knows the theater, but then there are those people that think they know more than they do, and their people tell them they should keep control of everything, when in reality... we're paid to know our side of the business. We went through some tough times with Donnie Darko. I think [writer/director] Richard Kelly, he wanted to have the poster his way and the trailer his way and in the end he went through a little humbling process."

Bingham Ray, who started up October Films before moving to United Artists, concurs. "I like working with Mike Leigh because he just doesn't want to know about publicity or posters. But a lot of people are the other way; Woody Allen used to have a deal where his people would deliver the trailer and poster. I think New Line when they produced Magnolia had a deal with PT Anderson where he had complete control over everything to do with the film's release, which is astonishing to me because he'd done, what, three films?"

"People do a lot of shooting themselves in the foot," echoes Bowles, "but ultimately this is a business. The people you see as true poets are often really savvy businessmen. There are also a lot of executives who think they're filmmakers. No names... Harvey Weinstein."

So what's the state of indie filmaking? "It's alive and well. The high level has risen markedly," says Ray. "It was only a few years ago that the record for a foreign film was $20m in box office. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon killed that. My Big Fat Greek Wedding, everyone passed on that, and I probably would have too, but it's made something like $400m worldwide. Bowling For Columbine has pulled in $20m so far, which is great for a documentary. The records keep getting smashed."

So why are there still films like Kangaroo Jack?

"The studios, what they do is basically branding," says Halperin. "They package it and promote the heck out of it and there are explosions and car chases and, that's the business they're in."

Says Ray, "What we do is somewhat different. Our audience is more discerning. The teenagers will go and see anything, but our audience is looking for something different. The word 'artfilm' used to be something that was a negative term, but nowadays the studios are looking towards artfilms too. Every studio has an arthouse distibution arm. The lines are blurring."

And so are the expectations on the return of your investment. "You can never tell what a film will do. With Interview with the Assasin, we brought it out when there was a lot of paranoia bout the political situation, a lot of attention came to us, we got 100,000 hits on the website, then we only got a thousand people into the movie in New York. We tinkered with the ads and kept pushing the film, but the gestalt just wasn't there at all. Sometimes you can make your money back, especially in DVD, but the bottom line is that, if you spent $1.5 million on your movie, you could lose the lot."

Berney adds, "On Memento, they sold foreign rights and raised maybe 90% of their money before they started. Nowadays, that foreign money source has dried up. Canal's in trouble in France, lots of companies that were hot a few years ago are flat now. If you did what they did on Memento today you might raise 10% of your money, not 90%. You have to get more creative with where you get your money from."

"There were a lot of ponzi-like schemes a few years ago where one raised money from another that raised money from another and eventually it all fell down. There's always a new scheme every few years - German money! German money! - Then there's no more German money."

So how are the indies affecting the studios today? The concensus is that they're leading the way - still. Distribution boss Mike Barker explains, "Before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was produced, Ang Lee was telling people he wanted to make a film that would be a huge commercial film in Asia and an arthouse film everywhere else. After he made it, he said to me "I got two things wrong. First, I made a film that was considered an arthouse film in Asia and a huge commercial success everywhere else. Secondly... what have we wrought?" His point being that now there would be this long line of imitation films. And that's happened to a large extent.

Says Bowles, "Miramax had bought a whole lot of Hong Kong films, perhaps for TV distribution, ten Jet Li films, a whole bunch of old Jackie Chan's, and I think they saw the potential of them suddenly."

Of course, if you went down the list of films Miramax has bought and not released, it would be a long list. In fact, many associate doing a deal with Miramax to selling your soul to the devil.

Says Bowles with a grin, "That's a pretty unkind thing to say about the devil."

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originally posted: 03/09/03 10:44:25
last updated: 12/30/03 11:00:22
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