Unlike the Cannes or Berlin film festivals, the Toronto Film Festival has never housed a market. The only films that screen at Toronto are those invited by the festival itself (and this year there are more than 300 of them). But in the past three years, Toronto has become the essential North American festival for buyers and sellers, and, for American independent film, at least as important as Sundance.
Among the buyers headed north this week are Paul Speaker and Eamonn Bowles of TSG Pictures, the distribution arm of the Shooting Gallery. They're shopping for films for the "Shooting Gallery Independent Series at Loews Cineplex Entertainment." Last October, Speaker and Bowles approached Robert J. Lenihan of Loews with the idea for a series of independent films that would play in Loews theaters in 15 to 20 major markets, including New York. There would be 12 films a year with each guaranteed a two-week run in every participating theater. The films would be shown consecutively, six in the late winter, six in the early fall, the advantage being that they could be marketed as a group as well as individually.
The plan hinges on third-party sponsorship to pick up marketing costs. By minimizing the risk to the distributor and exhibitor, films without obvious commercial hooks have a chance to be seen in theaters rather than going straight to video. "While the distribution network is shrinking, there's more and more product out there," says Bowles. "I've never seen a buyers' market like this before."
Filmmakers, of course, may balk at the idea of being part of a package-as if their films weren't good enough to open on their own. TSG's answer is that the guarantee of a two-week run in 15 major cities is more than a small distribution company with limited resources could offer them. And there's always the possibility some of the films will attract enough attention to break out after their run in the series. To get a buzz going and give audiences what Lenihan calls "an extended viewing experience," the series will have a film club component. Members get to see advance screenings followed by discussions with filmmakers and critics.
The series is slated for February 21 to May 14 and September 4 to November 19 next year. Two films are locked down-Peter Mullan's brilliant debut feature, Orphans,and Eric Mendelsohn's fragile Judy Berlin. TSG is currently negotiating for three other titles. They're looking for films with major festival support; foreign language films are welcome. When asked about films that have a potential ratings problem, the TSG and Loews guys get a bit nervous but staunchly declare that every film will be considered as an individual case. "The War Zone [Tim Roth's controversial depiction of father-daughter incest] was definitely something we considered playing," says Bowles, "but they went with Lot 47 [the new distribution company headed by Scott Lipsky] instead."
**Veteran indie producer Andrea Sperling is headed to Toronto with a pair of comedies-one bright, one dark, both by women directors. The bright one is Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader,a candy-colored satire about a teenage lesbian (Natasha Lyonne) who falls in love with a girl (Clea DuVall) whom she meets in homosexual rehab camp. (See "The Pleasure Police" in the Voice, August 3, for more on Cheerleader.) The dark one is Mary Kuryla's Freak Weather,about a woman (Jacqueline McKenzie, who made her mark playing a schizophrenic in Angel Baby) trying to escape cycles of abuse in her life.
Sperling, who's often dubbed the West Coast Christine Vachon because of the many gay films she has produced, is an anomaly in L.A., where almost by definition an indie producer is someone who has a deal with a studio. Sperling has been going it alone since 1991 when she graduated from UC Santa Barbara and applied for a producing job that she read about in a trade paper. It was a $60,000 short, directed by Kuryla. From there she went on to Gregg Araki's The Living End. "Jon [Gerrans] and Marcus [Hu] of Strand were the producers but they were busy running their company, so I ended up doing a lot of it."
Sperling met Araki when he was teaching a guerrilla filmmaking class at UCSB. At that point she was writing a lot of film theory and planning on doing a graduate degree in NYU's cinema studies department. "But Gregg's class was so inspiring. He showed his films and Todd Haynes's Superstar and he brought in directors like Everett Lewis and Jon Moritsugu. I started to feel that maybe there was a chance to produce the kind of movies I loved. There was so much happening then. It feels very different now. If Gregg did that class now, maybe he'd bring in digital. But I have such mixed feelings about digital-the tendency now is to say, if worse comes to worst, I'll do my movie in digital, and that's a bizarre attitude."
After The Living End, Sperling produced three more Araki films: Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere. "We broke up after Nowhere. It was very painful because we also were close friends. But we're getting back together. I'm going to produce the script that Gregg is developing now." She has two other projects: a film that Christina Ricci is going to star in and coproduce; and Reagan Youth, a punk-rock movie directed by in-demand music supervisor Alex Steyermark. "After all my hesitation about digital, we're thinking of shooting Reagan Youth partly in 35mm and partly in DV. Digital works for the club scenes, and it will keep the cost down so that we don't have to cast a big star to get financed. Right now it looks as if both films could be ready to go into production this spring."
**If Sperling is the classic model of an indie producer (she has the skills and experience to be hands-on every step of the way and the reputation and connections to acquire financing), Gil Holland is more of a gadfly-the most hardworking, creative, well-educated, and film-literate gadfly in the New York indie scene. Asked what his primary qualification as a producer is, he answers, "I have a really big Rolodex." Holland's major accomplishment as a producer thus far is Hurricane Streets, a film that couldn't have been made without him, but he also has producing credits on some two dozen other films. Holland is on his way to Canada with two films: Diane Doniol-Valcroze and Arthur Flam's Kill by Inches and Tom Gilroy's Spring Forward (on which he's one of four producers.) After that, he's off to San Sebastian with John-Luke Montias's Bobby G. Can't Swim. "Montias came to me with a rough cut that had cost $24,000. I raised an additional $100,000 for him to finish. One critic called it the new Breathless." Last spring, Holland, who doesn't have a trust fund and survives thanks to his excellent credit-card rating, was thinking of calling it a day if one of these three films doesn't find a distributor. Now he's revised his time frame. "I think there's a good chance they'll all sell, but even if they don't, I'm currently involved with six more films. Shooting Vegetarians [which stars Elodie Bouchez] is nearly finished and I'm very excited about it."
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