Ghost of the Machine


The death of American independent film has been prophesied more than once over the last few years, but finally we have a date on which to pin our grief. On May 2, Universal Studios acquired Good Machine, the film company responsible for such low-budget hallmarks as Hal Hartley’s Simple Men (1992) and Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993), as well as recent mainstream successes such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and In the Bedroom (2001). Throughout the ’90s, Good Machine was the much respected heart and soul of independent film, and its final absorption (or as optimists are calling it, “infiltration”) into the studio system defines the end of American independent film as much as the company’s early days marked its beginnings.

“This is exactly where we’ve been heading for 12 years,” says James Schamus, who co-founded Good Machine with Ted Hope in January 1991. “When a seed gets put in the ground, you water it.” Schamus, a producer, Columbia professor, and screenwriter (Crouching Tiger and Ang Lee’s upcoming The Hulk), can now add studio executive to his growing résumé. Along with David Linde, formerly the president of Good Machine International, he now presides over a new “Indiewood” company called Focus (owned by Universal), joining the ranks of such studio specialty divisions as United Artists (owned by MGM), Miramax (Disney), and Fox Searchlight (Twentieth Century Fox). Meanwhile, Hope is returning to his roots as an autonomous producer, with a deal at Focus. “I came to the realization that I had no desire to build an empire,” says Hope. “I felt hampered by the responsibilities of feeding the machine and running a corporate enterprise, and that distracted me from what I enjoyed most, which is making movies.”

But making movies is not the same as it used to be. The golden era of ’80s and early-’90s American independents, in which directors like Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, and Good Machine-nurtured auteurs such as Hartley, Lee, and Todd Haynes flourished, is no longer possible. Where there once was funding for innovative newcomers through foreign financing and the burgeoning video market, overseas funders are now scarce, video sales are down, and there is an increased reliance on foolproof bets. And like the burst of the dotcom bubble, the very success of the independent film has led to its gradual decline, with studio systems co-opting some of the brightest new talents (David O. Russell, Christopher Nolan) and the challenging economics of the film business excluding so many others.

Overtaken by bottom-line concerns and big-budget Hollywood ambitions, the American independent sector is far from the groundbreaking band of outsiders it once was. “In late-’70s and early-’80s New York, there was a genuine desire to create films as art,” says Amos Poe, who made a series of no-budget films at the time. “We were turned on by the street possibilities of filmmaking more than the studio possibilities. We were making pictures for a very small audience initially; we weren’t even sure there was one. The naïveté was liberating.”

“Ten years ago,” says Schamus, “at a time when video and foreign TV sales were fueling that first wave of directors, I wrote an article about ‘Where did all the B movies go?’ Why can’t we look at the Scorseses, Coppolas, Demmes, and De Palmas, and understand that these guys made a lot of movies before they became who they were. They didn’t have to show up at Sundance and be the next Godard. They could learn how to make movies. And now you have people who haven’t yet learned how to make movies, but who define themselves as the next Godard. Why is it more difficult now? Today, people define themselves as having to be both commercially and artistically successful all from their first film. I think it’s a disaster.”

Andrew Fierberg, co-producer of 13 Conversations About One Thing and the upcoming Secretary, blames a Hollywood-oriented ethos for what he calls the “soft and lightweight” work of recent low-budget American movies. “The writer-director pool has headed more toward using independent film not to be edgy or interesting,” he says, “but more to produce a demo reel. We become the minor leagues for the studios, training people that they siphon off.”

The lack of influential fringe work can also be seen as a result of the institutionalization of indie moviemaking: Every director and his or her mother know the secret to success is launching their film at Sundance, creating a bidding war, and then staging a careful platform release. “All these filmmakers know everything about the industry,” says Jason Kliot, co-president of Open City Films and Blow Up Pictures. “What would a Todd Haynes or a Jim Jarmusch do today if they were so aware? There is absolutely no marketability for Poison or Stranger Than Paradise; they’re doomed from the start. So try to imagine someone who is really talented and writes a brilliant script and shows it to their film-savvy friends and they all say, ‘No one is going to make this movie.’ ”

There are also the simple realities of the marketplace. To survive, many producers and production companies are forced to compromise autonomy as well as aesthetic concerns to keep their projects and livelihoods afloat. Killer Films, producer of Boys Don’t Cry and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and the last remaining mid-sized New York independent enterprise, receives development money through a Hollywood company headed by E.R. producer John Wells. In its heyday, Good Machine had similar pacts with everyone from Miramax to Fox to Universal. And fellow indie stalwart the Shooting Gallery was bought out by a Canadian conglomerate last year, but then crashed anyway because of massive debt.

“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.”

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?”

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