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Risky Business

Young executives keep cinephilia alive in the indie film industry's post-bust recovery

Market watchers called 2003 a rebound year.

But tell that to the ailing film industry, which faced its first downturn since 1991, with attendance dropping 4.25 percent nationwide. New York's indie community shouldered some of the bad news, from floundering Lot 47 (which hasn't released a film since 2002's Inuit epic, The Fast Runner) to Artisan (The Blair Witch Project), consolidated into Canadian conglom Lions Gate, to bankrupt micro-distributor Cowboy, known for such risky gems as Morvern Callar and Fat Girl.

"The business is cyclical," says Reid Rosefelt, who ran PR company Magic Lantern Inc., which repped films by Errol Morris and Ang Lee before closing shop last May after seven years. "Wall Street is the engine behind independent film, and as Wall Street surges, so too will indie film."

Indeed, the industry's recovery looms, along with further corporate buyouts. In September, ad agency Deutsch Inc. combined with Open City Films to form a new production entity called Deutsch Open City. Only a month after downtown theater the Screening Room abruptly shuttered last October, the Tribeca Film Festival's power trio Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff scooped up the venue and announced the creation of Tribeca Cinemas. Cablevision's IFC will launch the IFC Center at the former site of the Waverly Theater this spring. And Warner Bros. and DreamWorks have formed their own indie divisions, Warner Independent Pictures and Go Fish. Now every studio has a stake in so-called "specialized" film.

But additional Hollywood subsidiaries don't fill the void left by Lot 47 and Cowboy, which put out challenging foreign fare (Chunhyang, Devils on the Doorstep) and Amerindies (L.I.E., The Slaughter Rule). Cowboy also booked an esteemed repertory calendar at the Screening Room, which included Abbas Kiarostami and Kiyoshi Kurosawa retros. With the corporatization of indie film, that kind of idiosyncratic cinephilia is increasingly rare. But in the last year, two young distribution executives, Wellspring Media's Marie Therese Guirgis and Palm Pictures' Ryan Werner, have carried the mantle of art cinema with daring vigor.

Guirgis, who took the reins of Wellspring's acquisitions in March, most recently picked up Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye Dragon Inn, voted Best Undistributed Film in last month's Voice critics' poll. The purchase continues the company's commitment to auteur cinema. Wellspring opened Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold last week (following their release of the Iranian director's The Circle in 2001) and has distributed all of the works of Bruno Dumont, even partially financing his latest Twentynine Palms (due out this March), and had a banner year with Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark, one of the top-grossing foreign releases of 2003. "I would be lying if I said we knew it would be a hit," admits Guirgis. "I like to think of it as karma."

Guirgis, who did post-grad work in film studies at the University of Iowa, has ratcheted up her share of good karma releasing the kind of "new classics," as she calls them, that the studio art-house divisions have since abandoned. "No matter what it makes in the short term," says Guirgis of Dumont's divisive Twentynine Palms, "I still think he's a major filmmaker. For us, it all comes down to the director."

It also comes down to the company's long-established video label, an asset that Cowboy Pictures painfully lacked. "They had great taste, but it's hard when you don't have your own video division," explains Guirgis. "We can release Goodbye Dragon Inn on a small level, and make money later on video. These are not films that have to succeed in the first six months."

Palm's Werner agrees. "If we didn't have a DVD division, there's no way we could release the movies we did last year," he says. "They give the films a level of safety." Hired a year ago, Werner, with the aid of Palm's head of acquisitions, David Koh, has transformed the film division of Chris Blackwell's entertainment firm from a peddler of alt-music docs (Scratch) and offbeat genre items (Third World Cop) into a foremost art-cinema purveyor.

Palm offered Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien his first ever U.S. commercial exhibition (Millennium Mambo), turned Matthew Barney's epic museum-movie series Cremaster into an art-house event, and rescued Olivier Assayas's film maudit demonlover after its lambasting at Cannes 2002. Says Werner, "Cannes is a really bad place to watch movies, and I knew if the critics saw it again, they might change their opinions." (And they did: demonlover was voted the third-best film in the Voice's annual critics' poll.)

However, demonlover didn't draw as many viewers as Werner had hoped. He says the competition was especially fierce this year: "There's more movies opening every weekend than ever before." To match the increased supply, multiplexes are dedicating more screens to off-Hollywood movies, and art-house chain Landmark Theaters (recently purchased by a pair of dotcom billionaires) continues to expand.

But as Guirgis attests, additional venues don't address the underlying crisis. "The problem is that there is this bleeding of the definition of an art film," she explains. "You have The Matrix at the Angelika or Bend It Like Beckham at Lincoln Plaza. There's nothing 'art film' about that movie; it's a teen comedy. Adaptation, Lost in Translation—these are Hollywood movies, with Hollywood stars, and they're financed by Hollywood, but they're taking up those screens, because those studios want a piece of the pie too."

 
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