A Rebuilding Phase for Independent Film

An article from today’s NY Times

Only five years ago, the center of the still thriving independent film universe lay behind the green doors of a converted TriBeCa warehouse from which the Weinstein brothers, Bob and Harvey, ran Miramax Films. With their possible deal — negotiations continued through last week — to join investors in reacquiring Miramax, which they left in 2005, the Weinsteins are again in the middle of something. But it is not the business they once ruled.

For more than a decade, the indie film movement centered in New York flourished, at times almost eclipsing the output of the mainstream Hollywood studios in terms of impact and accolades. But the financial collapse and the credit crisis had a deep impact on all of the movie world, which has responded with fewer expensive releases and safer bets. And that new austerity has decimated the indie film business, ending with the collapse or downsizing of distributors like New Line Cinema, Picturehouse, Warner Independent Pictures, ThinkFilm and Miramax, all in the last few years.

“The world is different now,” Richard Abramowitz, a new-wave film distributor, said last week. While he expressed regard for the Weinsteins, he said of the possible Miramax purchase, “I don’t see it as the kind of game-changer it might have been a few years ago. And I’ll probably get chased down the street for saying that.”

There are, however, signs of life. The struggling indie scene is getting a boost from fleet-footed, penny-pinching guerrilla operations that are trying to resuscitate the business by spending less on production, much less on marketing and embracing all forms of distribution, including the local art house and the laptop. A result has been a flush of energy reminiscent of early days in the 1990s dot-com boom, with a touch of old-fashioned indie-film spirit thrown in.“It reminds me of the early years of Miramax, where you had to be disciplined,” Harvey Weinstein said. He declined in an interview on Friday to discuss his attempt to buy Miramax in partnership with the investor Ronald W. Burkle.

Indie experiments are being closely watched in the business because what happens in Hollywood often first happens in New York City. While many in Los Angeles continue to struggle with the studio system and the emerging intricacies of 3-D, New York has locked on a different challenge: how to wring even the tiniest profit from that enormous investment in smaller movies. According to Mr. Weinstein and others, the New York-centered independent film world faltered largely because companies, flush with cash from a DVD boom that has since played out, put too much money behind too many films for an audience that was never large enough to absorb them in theaters.

At his own Weinstein Company, said Mr. Weinstein, the best model for an era of diminished expectations is “A Single Man.” That film, written and directed by Tom Ford, took in only $9 million at the domestic box office. But the Weinstein Company acquired the rights for far less and held its promotions in check, rather than spending heavily to chase an audience, and Oscars, as it might have done only two or three years ago. Mr. Weinstein said the film would yield a return both for his company and for its producers.

Independent distributors that survived the great shakeout include Focus Features, a Universal Studios unit that is anchored in Manhattan, and Sony Pictures Classics, a specialty film label based in New York that has consistently released about 20 movies a year with a staff of just 25. Along with the survivors, there are some newly established companies, like Apparition. For many of these companies, austerity is a given, and that means looking at digital distribution.

At Tribeca Enterprises, a sponsor of its namesake festival, the chief creative officer, Geoffrey Gilmore, in March joined the company’s co-founder Jane Rosenthal and others to announce a new distribution unit focused on video-on-demand — where the dollars are small, but the potential audience is vast. Already, Rainbow Media, which operates IFC Entertainment, is feeding about 120 films a year to cable television systems, while perhaps 50 of those movies are shown in one or more theaters. The company, led by Joshua Sapan, also operates an independent theater complex. Producers cannot recoup their investment from the marginal payout from on-demand showings, but a run on IFC’s channels or those of other services brings recognition that helps increasingly entrepreneurial filmmakers make money on DVDs — from foreign release, sales to airlines and, often, at screenings for political, religious or other groups, often with appearances by the writer, director and cast.

“The business is coming back smarter,” said Marian Koltai-Levine, a veteran of Fine Line and Picturehouse, who is now a marketing and distribution adviser through Zipline Entertainment. Zipline is one of the so-called garage companies run by alumni of the studios. Mr. Abramowitz’s company, Abramorama, handles about 20 films a year, on marketing and budgets that are counted more often in tens of thousands of dollars than in tens of millions. Ten days ago, he helped the Producers Distribution Agency, a new company started by John Sloss, the past master at placing films like “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Tadpole” to older-style indies like Miramax, to bypass the big players by releasing a movie, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” directly to a handful of theaters.

The film, an eccentric documentary by the elusive street artist Banksy, took in about $391,000 in its first 10 days. Much of that was attracted by a low-cost Web campaign that drew young viewers so new to indie film that a disproportionate number arrived on Friday evening, thinking the movie, like a Banksy prank, was a one-night event. The attention surrounding the opening was enough to mark “Exit” as a potential winner. The trick will be to expand the theater audience without spending heavily on newspaper ads, a major expense for indie films in the past.

Producers who routinely spent $12 million on a film five years ago are now being advised by Mr. Sloss and others to keep their budgets to a third of that. Thus, “East Fifth Bliss,” a romance directed by Michael Knowles, spent last week shooting in New York, with a budget of less than $2 million, a substantial boost from the state’s tax incentive program, and a cast that includes Lucy Liu (“Charlie’s Angels”) and Michael C. Hall (“Six Feet Under”).

For Sri Rao, a one-time Booz Allen Hamilton business consultant who now writes, produces and hopes to direct films from his base in New York and another in Philadelphia, a scaled-down indie world is simply a better place for low-cost operators like him to thrive. “The independent film landscape is so different than it was, this is not the heyday of the ’90s,” said Mr. Rao. His Sri & Company has made a pair of Bollywood-style films, the second of which, “Badmaash Company,” is scheduled for release by Yash Raj Films of India next month. Mr. Rao’s company is lean enough that it has no office at all unless a film is in production.“It’s an overhead-free world,” he said.

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