The New American Realism

Backed by producer Paul Mezey, a group of like-minded filmmakers work outside of the indie machine

Marston admits that he's been frustrated with the industry. "Ultimately, I realized that I was trying to make something too risky," he says of the "Iraqi Convoy Project," as it was known. "That is to say, I was trying to make a realist movie for Hollywood. And realist movies, I realized, can't be made above a certain budget level."

McKay, whose intimate Brooklyn-based dramas haven't played much beyond HBO, agrees. "That whole genre of filmmaking—neorealist, humanist, whatever you want to call it—it's a tough nut to crack. We're making anti-epics, you know, and it's a challenge." Indeed, Chris Smith, who credits Mezey for bettering all of his films, is still awaiting a release of his 2007 Sundance Special Prize winner, the Satyajit Ray–inflected The Pool.

Mezey, too, feels the frustrations of an indie industry that increasingly demands more box office. "A hit nowadays is considered Little Miss Sunshine or Juno," he says. "That's what has ridiculously changed." According to Mezey, Maria's Oscar nomination, $6.5 million in U.S. ticket receipts, and plenty of DVD sales no longer add up to a viable plan: "They're really looking for movies that are going to gross $30 million," he says. "But we have to exist outside of that reality. And you can pull power away from the studios. If you keep making these films and they're getting the ink on the editorial and review pages, it's going to draw attention."

Sugar, just one of Mezey's films to make an impact at last month's Sundance Film Festival
Sugar, just one of Mezey's films to make an impact at last month's Sundance Film Festival

But Mezey can't work on shoestring budgets forever. "There's this survival thing," he says. And many of the filmmakers will move beyond a budget in the single-digit millions: McKay would like to tackle a range of projects, Marston is bound to find another studio division, and Boden and Fleck are currently adapting Special Topics in Calamity Physics for producer Scott Rudin and Miramax Films.

"I would say that Paul wants to make bigger films," says McKay, "but he's taking his time so he can make those bigger films on his own terms. Hopefully, the projects will get bigger and branch out—but made with the same care and humility that the other ones have."

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