Ghost of the Machine

Mourning Has Risen for Independent Film

"When you start in this business, you're very scrappy in the way you get your movies made," says producer Scott Macaulay, who has produced the work of Tom Noonan (What Happened Was), Harmony Korine (Gummo), and Jesse Peretz (First Love, Last Rites). "But at a certain point, you realize, 'I am in a business. How do I employ my staff? How do I pay my rent?' It's very hard for medium-sized companies to exist in the current market." Macaulay's own company, Forensic Films, continues to subsist with only four employees, through a combination of line producing and consulting work on foreign films shooting in New York. "The business plans for independent films are totally specious," he adds, "because there is no distribution in place beforehand. That market dynamic is fine for companies that have very small overhead, but when you get to a bigger size, you begin to look for alliances with a larger corporation."

And those alliances inevitably make for movies with more commercial concerns and constraints. In a 1991 Voice profile of Good Machine, Hope acknowledged, "It's important to find a way for first-time directors to protect their vision and not to be pushed into the commercial binds that $2 million brings." Today, there's a vicious circle of casting demands that often pushes budgets past $8 million. Most independent films need to make their money back by selling to overseas, TV, and cable markets, but the only way to make those initial deals is to cast relatively big-name actors. Producer Tim Perell (who recently finished shooting U.S. auteur Lodge Kerrigan's latest, In God's Hands) says recognizable talent has become a necessity for getting newcomers' work off the ground. "If you're working with first- or second-time directors who aren't the catalyst for launching the movie," he says, "you need something else on which to sell it." And famous actors mean soaring budgets. "The days of getting some movie star to work for scale plus 10 because they love the project are over," notes Macaulay. "Actors and agents are savvier and have come to make more demands."

illustration: Jack Black

Many in the industry have turned to digital filmmaking as the last safe haven for independence, where budgets are often below a million dollars and as Kliot puts it, "we don't need name actors to green-light the movie. We green-light the movie and they come to it." But even Kliot, whose Blow Up Pictures produced the digital Chuck and Buck, concedes, "I don't have any aesthetic desire to see a digital movie. It's not prettier. Film really is more beautiful." He says the format remains most useful as a means of leveraging funds: "Blow Up was a trick. How do we trick these people into giving us money? Let's use the hook of digital technology and let's use the hook of making films cheaper." But the creative rewards, Kliot believes, will eventually come. "In the next year or two, we're going to see some geniuses. There's always that fringe."

The success of this year's high-profile American digital movies, Sundance Dramatic Jury Prize winner Personal Velocity, Miramax's $5 million purchase Tadpole, and Blow Up's Lovely and Amazing (starring, respectively, Parker Posey, Sigourney Weaver, and Catherine Keener), remains unproven. And for many filmmakers, DV isn't suited to their work. Christopher Münch, director of The Hours and Times and last year's The Sleepy Time Gal (playing at the Pioneer Theater through June 4, and on June 8 and 9 as part of the Voice's "Best Undistributed Films" program at BAM; see review on page 119), feels that new directors face increasingly restrictive choices. "An emerging filmmaker is faced with the option of shooting a film in an impossibly short period of time or doing it as a digital video film with no crew, rather than being able to make a traditional film in an untraditional way," he says.

Furthermore, the availability of digital technologies has contributed to an already glutted marketplace. "It's gotten harder and harder to release films theatrically," says Perell. "And because there are too many movies and too many unprofitable movies, companies are much more careful with what they're making." Münch, who continues to struggle with distribution every time out, is well aware of these market realities. "I know how difficult it is to make money theatrically, so I can't really blame anyone for not wanting to spend money on a film that has more hurdles to cross," he says. "The goal of distributors is to grow their businesses and make money, and to go about that in a way that's going to involve as little risk as possible. Nobody is engaged in a philanthropic effort here."

Schamus agrees. "We ain't the NEA and we're not a replacement for it." In fact, after Good Machine's own 1995 common-denominator success story The Brothers McMullen and 1999's no-budget horror blockbuster The Blair Witch Project, the industry's economic aspirations have risen exponentially. As Münch says, "There's an expectation that films should perform in a certain way. And the expectation is as common among filmmakers as it is among distributors."

As bleak as the picture looks, some in the industry still hope that the presence of people like James Schamus in the studio system heralds a new era of access for the next wave of American auteurs. Others feel a fundamental paradigm shift is necessary. "The future lies in whether or not this type of filmmaking goes back to its roots of pushing the envelope," says Andrew Fierberg. "When is everyone going to decide it's not good for everybody to be commercial, and be a little edgy again?"

Related Article:
"Credit History: How to Make a $100,000 Movie" by Dennis Lim

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