Sweet Release

Distributing the Art-House Wealth on the Cheap

Wit Labor Day already a distant memory, Hollywood studio suits are trying to ignore their less than stellar summer box office grosses—down 5 percent from 1999—while rushing into production with next summer's versions of the same old blockbusters. No matter that the scripts need tweaking, the imperative is to get something in the can before the mother of all strikes brings the industry to a standstill in the spring.

In the tiny world of independent film distribution, people aren't tracking the Variety top 10. Instead, they're scouring festivals like Toronto for the next Croupier or The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. Croupier, Mike Hodges's nasty and sexy neonoir starring the saturnine Clive Owen, and Hank Greenberg, Aviva Kempner's documentary about the Jewish baseball Hall of Famer, are the indie film success stories of 2000. Croupier, distributed by Shooting Gallery Films, had grossed $5.4 million by September and, in its 20th week, was still going strong. Hank Greenberg, after eight months, has grossed $1.3 million. Its distributor, Cowboy Booking International, expects it will go to $1.7 million. For a documentary, that's extraordinary.

These would hardly seem like huge numbers to indie movers and shakers Lions Gate and Artisan (the latter was catapulted into the big time by last summer's The Blair Witch Project) or the indie divisions of major studios such as Miramax (Disney) or USA Films (Universal). But like the studios themselves, these indie boutiques have such heavy overheads and throw so many marketing dollars at their releases that they have a hard time turning a profit at the box office. Not to mention that when you're releasing blatant commercial packages (Miramax's Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle Boys and Girls, for example), you can't tell yourself you're in the game because film is your passion.

Coup de Croupier: The Shooting Gallery’s Eamonn Bowles
photo: Robin Holland
Coup de Croupier: The Shooting Gallery’s Eamonn Bowles

Film-buff fetishism and an addiction to the adrenaline rush that comes with putting something you love in the marketplace are what all small distributors have in common. Or as Bingham Ray, one of the founders of the late, great October Films, once put it: "Even when you're doing terribly and you don't know how you're going to pay the rent, you're just one film away from turning everything around."

New York boasts more than a dozen distributors specializing in American independent and/or foreign-language feature films made for theatrical release. (Several more are based in Los Angeles; the best known is Strand Releasing.) All of them will tell you that there are too many films vying for the attention of an audience that is no larger than it was in the '70s. The pie is the same size, but it's being cut into smaller slices. The problem for the indie distributor is how to capture an audience without spending a fortune on TV spots or full-page ads in the Times.

"I hate to sound like a dinosaur," says Eamonn Bowles, president of Shooting Gallery Films, "but 20 years ago, you'd put a film out in a couple of theaters and make an effort to keep it alive for a few weeks. Now when films fail, they fail abysmally, and in the first weekend."

Croupier is the first success story of the Shooting Gallery Independent Film Series at Loews Cineplex Entertainment, an ingenious scheme that Bowles, Shooting Gallery CEO Larry Meistrich, and president of Worldwide Entertainment Paul Speaker cooked up to minimize the risk of releasing art films that lack an obvious marketable hook. They persuaded Loews Cineplex to commit one screen in each of 16 major markets (including New York and L.A.) for 24 weeks a year. The films in the series play in the spring and the fall in packages of six, with each film guaranteed a two-week run in each city. The Shooting Gallery also made cable and video deals for the series.

"Presenting the films as a package gives them a festival cachet and also helps keep the advertising costs down," says Bowles. Using the old film-club model, Bowles organized advance membership screenings and discussions at each of the participating theaters, which helped get word of mouth going.

The series kicked off last February with Eric Mendelsohn's Judy Berlin, which grossed a respectable $500,000. By the time Croupier—the last film in the spring series—opened, the audience was already in place. After an initial two weeks at the Loews theaters, the film broke out into other venues. Croupier's success surprised even Bowles: "The films that profit from word of mouth are usually more warm-hearted," he says.

The Shooting Gallery picked up Croupier three years after it was completed. Its producer, Film Four, seemed to have no interest in getting it out into the world. "I got a fax about a screening for distributors and I saw Mike Hodges had directed it, so immediately I was interested," says Bowles. Hodges's Get Carter (1971) has legendary status with connoisseurs of small, dark genre pictures. (It's been remade as a Sylvester Stallone vehicle with Michael Caine, who played the lead in the original, in a supporting role.)

The buzz around Croupier means that Bowles, who less than a year ago was having to lasso filmmakers into a package deal, is now being courted by name directors. The series this fall includes three English-language and three foreign-language films, among them Human Resources, Laurent Cantet's engrossing father-son drama set in a French factory during a labor strike, and Non-Stop, by Japanese director Sabu, which Bowles describes as the model for Run Lola Run.

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