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.

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.

Bowles has been in the distribution game since the late '70s. Noah Cowan and John Vanco, copresidents of Cowboy Booking International, are babies by comparison. Cowan was a programmer for the Toronto Film Festival. He became a distributor, he says, because he got frustrated watching films die after their festival screenings. Vanco, inspired by hearing Sarah Eaton (now of the Sundance Channel) talk about the difficulty marketing Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, went to work at New Yorker Films, moved to Fine Line, and then Miramax before starting Cowboy with Cowan.

"We conceive of ourselves as distribution partners rather than distributors. In our first year, we worked closely with Rolling Thunder, Quentin Tarantino's imprint at Miramax," says Cowan. "He wanted to rescue movies. We did Jack Hill, Takeshi Kitano. It was fun to work with someone who had so little concern for the economics of the industry," adds Vanco.

Cowboy also programs the Screening Room's second theater. "We told them that the way to make a mark was to have a calendar [i.e., repertory] screen like Film Forum or the Castro in San Francisco," says Cowan. Cowboy opened Benjamin Smoke, a film that it also distributed, at the Screening Room, but it doesn't monopolize the schedule with its own releases. And its big film of the year, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, opened at Film Forum.

Cowboy started small, with only three prints of Hank Greenberg. It didn't follow the pattern of the usual art-house movie. "We didn't begin to make money until we expanded to the suburbs and found an older Jewish audience. We ran six months in one Boston theater. Florida will be our biggest state," explains Vanco.

Cowboy's latest project is Code Red, financed by Jeff Levy-Hinte of the downtown postproduction house Post 391. Code Red will release packages of 10 movies a year. It's aimed at the ancillary markets—cable and home video—that find packages of films more attractive than one-offs. Like the majority of distributors, Cowboy operates on the principle that you have to be crazy to depend on theatrical distribution to make a living.

Unlike their Hollywood counterparts, indie distributors seem more like film enthusiasts than business types. "I had wanted to be a film critic," says Vanco, "but when I was working for New Yorker I realized that this 10-person office had affected film culture in a big way. I can't imagine anything better than being Dan Talbot and Peter Bogdanovich programming the New Yorker Theater in 1962."

Talbot, who runs the 35-year-old company New Yorker Films, backed unwillingly into distribution. He fell in love with Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution, but the film's producer refused to allow him to play it at the New Yorker (the '60s mecca for film buffs on Broadway at 88th Street) unless he also agreed to distribute it in the States. Operating out of a tiny room above the theater, New Yorker Films built its reputation on its collection of Western European art films (it brought Godard and Fassbinder to American audiences), as well as films from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

In the '60s and '70s, Talbot says, he scooped films up for relatively little money. When the studios began their classics divisions, however, Talbot, who refers to himself as "the last of the cheapskates," was priced out of the market. Since he always made money from exhibition—first at the New Yorker, then at the Cinema Studio theaters, and now at the Lincoln Plaza multiplex—he's perfectly happy to play films from New Yorker competitors such as Sony Classics and Strand. (He would rather call them colleagues.) "We have a loyal audience at the Lincolns. They trust us and come to almost anything we program. I just bought the new Oshima film that's going to be at the New York Film Festival. I don't know how well it's going to do in distribution. I belong to the Saul Steinberg school: Whatever happens beyond the Upper West Side is of no use whatsoever." But Talbot also admits that what has kept New Yorker Films going for the past decade is its in-house video label, nurtured into being by José López, who's been with the company since the '60s.

Longtime indie distributors Don Krim of Kino and Seymour Wishman of First Run, as well as Wendy Lidell of the new company Winstar and Amy Heller and Dennis Doros of the more specialized Milestone (which thrives on the rediscovery and restoration of classic films), agree that their in-house video lines provide financial stability. Wishman says that he wouldn't know how to start a distribution company today; he's dependent on revenue from the 350 titles in First Run's extremely diversified video library. "I try to make money theatrically, but it's difficult," he says.

Sande Zeig of the tiny company Artistic License explains that theatrical release is the essential prologue to a film having a successful life in the ancillary markets; it's also the only way to get the critical response on which a director builds a career. Artistic License is considered the class act among distributors that do service deals. (In a service deal, a film's producer pays to have the film released. The distributor provides labor, contacts, and creativity.) Because Artistic License had a breakout success with Kore-Eda Hirokazu's After Life—it made $800,000 theatrically—Zeig now has room to operate in more-ambitious ways. In partnership with the start-up company Offline Releasing, she'll distribute Agnès Jaoui's The Taste of Others (a New York Film Festival selection) in the fall.

Although they make ancillary deals, Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo of the 12-year-old Zeitgeist Films are dedicated to theatrical distribution and insist that you can make money on the art-film circuit. Zeitgeist is currently having what promises to be one of its most profitable releases with Aimée and Jaguar, which recently moved uptown from the Quad to Lincoln Plaza. "It's attracting the gay and lesbian audience, the Jewish audience, and the art audience," says Russo.

Winstar's Lidell takes the least romantic position, bluntly stating that "theatrical release is a loss leader." Lidell used to run International Film Circuit, which distributed touring packages of films that were considered difficult even for the art-film market. Two years ago, the IFC collection was acquired by the indie video and TV company Fox Lorber, which in turn was acquired by Winstar New Media. Winstar's theatrical division has recently released six films by Hou Hsiao-hsien and two late films by Kurosawa: Ran and Madadayo. The first foreign-language film to play the Loews Union Square multiplex, Ran is also Winstar Video's current bestseller.

The new kid on the block is Lot 47, run by antsy, ambitious Jeff Lipsky. "While some intensely talented distributors are content to live hand-to-mouth," he says, "I think of my competitors as Lions Gate and, to a certain degree, Artisan." Lipsky started out in 1974, helping John Cassavetes self-distribute his great A Woman Under the Influence, and stayed with him through The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night. After that, he ran theatrical distribution for New Yorker, went on to Samuel Goldwyn (where he released Jarmusch's Amerindie landmark Stranger Than Paradise), and then went to Skouras Films. When he couldn't interest Skouras in Mike Leigh's Life Is Sweet—a film that he decided he had to be a part of when he saw it in rough cut—he called up an old friend, Bingham Ray, and that was the beginning of October Films. In the mid '90s, Lipsky left October to write and direct a feature of his own, Childhood's End, which he maintains was the best experience of his life, despite the fact that the film had little critical and no commercial success.

Two years ago, Lipsky became intense about another film, Tim Roth's agonizing incest drama, The War Zone. He got his brother, Scott Lipsky, a honcho in Seattle's new media and technology community, to raise the money to distribute it. Even though The War Zone—which went out unrated—didn't turn a profit, Scott got interested in the film business. "In two months, he found the money to finance Lot 47, more money than Bingham and I could raise for October in two years," says Lipsky. Lot 47 has already bought over a half-dozen films, including New York Film Festival entry Chunhyang and The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, which is currently in theaters. "I haven't had this good a time," says Lipsky, "since I was working with Cassavetes."

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