Autonomy Lessons

Paying the Price of Independence

But what happens if all of that seed money buys no hits, and then runs out? The specialty-indie-dependie market is such that anyone who approaches it for profit alone might be better off investing in Florida real estate. Still, companies are diving in all the time, including Good Machine, Cowboy Booking, Attitude Films, and so on.

Strategies abound. It's hard to imagine that the control-freakish Disney doesn't enter into paroxysms of frustration over the Miramax method: to buy dozens of films for huge amounts of money (as in a reported $6 million for The Castle, which, as Abramowitz notes, "you could've gotten before Sundance for half a million"), shelve hordes of them for sometimes years at a time, and then let one crowd- pleaser's box office carry the loaded raft of no-shows. Of course, it's worked so far, and the enthusiasm is infectious: in a shrinking market, many companies, Stratosphere among them, are buying by the armful, to no great success. "The mistake indies make," Sackman says, "is using Miramax as a reference." According to Film Comment's "Grosses Gloss," perhaps 10 out of over 60 true independent films released in 1998 were significantly profitable. And five of them were IMAX films, including the only real cash machine in the entire industry, Everest.

Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo of steadfast indie Zeitgeist
Robin Holland
Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo of steadfast indie Zeitgeist

If you can't dependably take money home, at least you can take your peace of mind. "There's not a film in our catalogue I wouldn't stand by," says Milestone's Heller, who with her husband started the company with money from their wedding, and who prioritizes releasing fascinating artifacts like I Am Cuba, The Bat Whispers, and Antonio Gaudi over targeting the Life Is Beautiful audience. "We're a part of film history. I am satisfied aesthetically. But we've got four people working here, and a three-year-old. I live in the Bronx, in a one-bedroom apartment. Anyway, in terms of being bought up, so far, no one's offering."

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