Autonomy Lessons

Paying the Price of Independence

How misleading is the phrase "independent film"? Now that Kevin Smith's Christian-doctrine satire, Dogma, has scared the pants off the Disney executive board and has thus been expelled from the Miramax lineup, any remaining suspicions that corporate ownership and "independent film" distribution do not and by definition cannot be in the same bed are summarily confirmed. Clearly, the minor-league farm system comprising studio arms (Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight, Paramount Classics, Gramercy, et cetera) and acquired cash cows (Miramax, October, et cetera) can no longer be defined as "indie"— if we must call these companies something, let's call them "dependies." This clarifies what has been for some time irritatingly muddy waters, irritating particularly for the forgotten staff-of-three niche shops, the real indies who, it would strangely seem, are less interested in pure profit than in being proud of the movies they've bought. In the business of the business, they might be the last movie lovers.

To be an authentic indie, ranging from heavy hitters like Lions Gate to boutiques like Strand, New Yorker, Zeitgeist, Milestone, Kino, Artisan, First Run, the Shooting Gallery, and so on, is to struggle financially and ethically with a marketplace that doesn't particularly crave what you offer. It's a small pond of desperate fish, with casualties.

Artificial Eye, for instance, which had a leg up a few years back with the nice run of Rohmer's Rendezvous in Paris, hasn't distributed any new titles here since last May, when its American office closed (the British head office is still active). Nobody gets rich distributing spe- cialty titles, and the cash required to buy even a small film, make prints, and, most costly of all, publicize it can be awesome. But the profit margins are there, and so the corporate hounds come sniffing. Do you sell, sacrifice auton-omy, and enjoy swollen coffers? Or do you stand alone, free to pick the films you want and live hand to mouth?

"I don't want anybody to buy my company," says Nancy Gerstman, copresident of Zeitgeist Films, perhaps New York's most daring and idiosyncratic indie. "I can't even imagine it. It's not our goal to get bought up, but rather to get more capitalization and look for more investors. Sometimes when a company is bought by a corporate entity, people end up without jobs." Bingham Ray and John Schmidt of October Films, who lost their company's autonomy after signing it over to Universal (see the Happinessdebacle), are expected to leave when Barry Diller takes over the company. Aries Films founder Paul Cohen resigned a decade ago amid his investors' seizures over Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, subsequently Aries's biggest moneymaker. (Last December, Cohen was ousted from his 15-month-old start-up, Stratosphere, by billionaire Carl Icahn— not for controversial films but for poor performance.) Still, today, if the Weinsteins make the most of the corporate-takeover scenario, what's happened to October, once one of our nerviest indies, is the cautionary tale.

The fact is, a corporate octopus will not sacrifice itself for one small tentacle, and so movies that might attract controversy and consumer protests will be shunned like the late-capitalist here-tics they are. Dogma's treading upon Catholic waters has caused the Weinsteins to again set up an entirely separate company to get the thing into theaters, perhaps in partnership with a real indie. They invented the ironically named Shining Excalibur label to distribute Kids, rather than taint their recently minted Disney deal. When Lo-litaentered the marketplace, no studio or dependie would go near it; of the real indies, only Samuel Goldwyn could come up with enough cash. Something as innocuous but potentially libelous as Kurt and Courtneygave everyone pause; only San Francisco mini-indie Roxy Releasing dared to pick it up.

Still, who wouldn't be tempted to compromise for vast amounts of capital? Who wouldn't want to spend like a drunken sailor? "We have incredible freedom," says Amy Heller, president of Milestone, "and after a while you take it as a given. But you don't take financial stability as a given. Every time you take on a big release, you risk the whole company. We did it with Fireworks, and I'll never do it again. We did all right, but with those kinds of odds, you could go to Atlantic City."

Hollywood naturally has an appetite for the mainstreamy indies, which makes Lions Gate, with its recent Oscar nominations, a likely target. Niche carvers, like the homocentric Strand and the old-school, Euro-auteur-heavy New Yorker, have small enough profit margins to guarantee being passed over. To survive, many distributors make the most of nontheatrical avenues: Artisan has its LIVE Entertainment video library, New Yorker has an imported-film catalogue going back 40 years, Milestone has its own thriving video line. "Nontheatrical is huge," Gerstman says. "Our 16mm prints of Taste of Cherryand Fireare booked up all the time."

Hugeness is relative, of course; income that makes a difference to Zeitgeist probably wouldn't to Lions Gate. "We're probably the biggest, probably the most significant real indie right now," boasts Lions Gate president Jeff Sackman. "But if you bring us a film and say that it will only gross $3 million, we'll say great. We're not interested in getting bought up right now, not even tempted. But like everyone else, we can't afford to have a bad year." Still sailing on Icahn's massive infusion of Wall Street cash, Stratosphere won't sell out any time soon either, or bother with sending 16mm prints out for campus screenings. "We can go after films some of the other companies can't," says company bigwig Richard Abramowitz. "We're just financed to that extent. Personal taste, cost, the market— there's a price that makes sense for each company. Take Hideous Kinky: we paid out for it, but it's Kate Winslet's first movie after Titanicand now that every audience is essentially a subset of the Titanicaudience, if we do 1 percent of it, we do all right."

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.

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 Beautifulaudience. "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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