“Film is one of the last bastions of entrepreneurial endeavor, and it’s always reinventing itself in difficult times,” says veteran producer Ed Pressman, whose credits range from Badlands to American Psycho. “Trying to find a new paradigm of how to make it work during times of flux is a great opportunity.”
Pressman is one of several New York film industry notables who in the last several months have set out on their own with production, distribution, and exhibition start-ups. He and his fellow entrepreneurs aren’t afraid of a floundering economy, bankrupt theater chains, and the demise of long-standing movie companies like the Shooting Gallery. With established track records helping to secure funds during the current financial crunch, they see it as the perfect time to get back into business.
“Ed and I are incredibly energized,” says John Schmidt, who, along with Pressman, created ContentFilm, an “independent studio” with a digital focus. Schmidt was one of the cofounders of October Films, the distributor of such art-house hits as Breaking the Waves and Secrets and Lies, but left the company in 1999 when it was subsumed into Barry Diller’s entertainment conglomerate as USA Films. Schmidt says the new venture arose partly out of the increasing need to counteract the industrialization of independent film. “The mini-studios that essentially run the independent business are guided by the same models and same precepts as [Hollywood],” he says. “It’s an atmosphere of frustration.”
ContentFilm aims to produce 12 to 15 “filmmaker-driven” projects a year, with budgets of under $2 million each and an emphasis on genre fare. For Pressman, the new company and the shift to digital recall the regenerative moment of filmmaking in the late ’60s. “When I first started getting into film, there was a change in the technology,” he explains. “Lighter, more agile cameras allowed for films like Easy Rider, Medium Cool, and a whole new aesthetic. It seems we now have the ability to return to the roots of the process and work with a whole new generation of filmmakers who don’t see the technology as a compromise.”
Looking toward the future of exhibition, the company also recently acquired the worldwide distribution rights to Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo—an arty horror film about a family’s encounter with hunters and evil spirits in upstate New York—allowing for delivery of the film on multiple platforms, from broadband to pay-per-view to DVD. Schmidt believes that, as their company’s name suggests, “There’s a massive yearning for content.” Adds Pressman, “We can build a company to satisfy that need.”
Another new enterprise is Magnolia Pictures, which has partnered with ContentFilm to release Wendigo in U.S. theaters this February. Led by Eamonn Bowles (the former head of the Shooting Gallery’s distribution division responsible for their acclaimed film series), Magnolia will release movies and run art-house theaters around the country. Already on tap for early 2002 are Harry Shearer’s Teddy Bears’ Picnic, Israeli director Dover Koshashvili’s Late Marriage, and the launch of their first theater this month, in Dallas, with more to come. Magnolia has also been hired to program the inaugural edition of Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro’s much ballyhooed Tribeca Film Festival, a five-day event with roughly 40 features and 20 shorts, this May.
Unlike his former employers, Bowles remains committed to keeping his business lean. The distribution unit now includes just one other person, Ryan Werner, who worked alongside Bowles at the Shooting Gallery. “We’re going to be extremely tightfisted,” says Bowles. “We’re paying attention to the details. We want to be in this for the long haul.”
A marketing executive for Miramax in its early days and frontman for downtown garage band the Martinets, Bowles is a fixture of the New York independent film scene and quite familiar with its fiscal challenges. “I think the people that work in film in New York do it not because they are interested in their cool careers, but there is a real love for film,” he says. “Believe me, you can make a lot more money in another profession.”
Mark Urman, another indie executive back in play, agrees. “When you do independent film, it’s never easy. It’s never a good time; the companies that succeed are the ones that perceive challenges as opportunities, because it’s not about money or size or omnipresence; it’s about one’s imagination, marketing flair, and particular style.”
Urman’s new endeavor, together with former Lions Gate Films president Jeff Sackman, is ThinkFilm, a distributor with four movies set for release so far: Laurent Cantet’s critical favorite Time Out will be followed by Bart Freundlich’s World Traveler, the latest Merchant-Ivory, The Mystic Masseur, and Peter Care’s Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.
Urman was co-president of Lions Gate Films Releasing, where he worked on such significant independents as Buffalo 66, Affliction, and Gods and Monsters. He left in July, shortly after the company closed their New York offices, and one month later, ThinkFilm was born. “It can be very exciting to do it by yourself, top to bottom, your own way, without the committees, without the market research, without the wait and burden of an apparatus so large that it is inimical to an individual approach,” says Urman.
He feels a smaller organization is better suited to care for non-Hollywood movies. “It’s not about a giant machinery, where a production division makes a film and the marketing division inherits something that they don’t even get or understand,” he explains. “When you’re a company of our size, everything you do is predicated on the love you felt when you saw the film. It’s your girlfriend: You know what it likes, what clothing makes it look pretty, and where it will flourish and flounder.”
In addition to Content, Magnolia, and Think, art-house audiences must get used to yet another pair of logos. Winstar Cinema, distributor most recently of François Ozon’s Under the Sand and a pair of Jacques Demy rereleases, changed its name to Wellspring Media, ultimately remaining intact after parent company Winstar Communications went bankrupt. Changes are also in store for the newly christened Cowboy Pictures, formerly Cowboy Booking International (whose 2001 titles included La Ciénaga, The Endurance, and Fat Girl). While slight, the name variation signals a shift toward larger distribution efforts. They have ceased programming the art film calendar for the Screening Room and will instead focus on their 2002 slate, which includes the documentary Promises, Shohei Imamura’s Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, and Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou. As to rumors of their involvement in Miramax’s now delayed World Cinema Film Series (a program akin to the Shooting Gallery’s, which will cycle a package of films nationally), Cowboy’s Noah Cowan offered no comment, but said, “We’re expecting something big in the beginning of the new year.”