Dark plight

Indie films coming under siege from many directions

by Duane Dudek

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

4 September 2008


We all know what an independent film looks like.

They are modestly made and intensely personal. Hundreds are released each year, and countless more are made.

But if no one sees them, do they really exist? This is less a rhetorical cliche than a way of introducing the sad fact that we haven’t seen many of them lately.

These are dark days for those who want to experience films’ ability to challenge, provoke, stimulate, depress or enlighten, with a like-minded audience in a communal atmosphere. There is a retrenchment in the distribution and exhibition of such films nationwide. And the locally tangible evidence of that retrenchment includes a canceled fall film festival and the marquee at Milwaukee’s premiere art house, the Oriental Landmark, advertising blockbusters.

The indie film movement is bleeding from a thousand cuts, and one of them is from “The Dark Knight,” with the budget and box office of a blockbuster but the complex and ambiguous qualities of art-house fare. Mainstream films such as “Dark Knight,” “Iron Man” and “Pineapple Express” were embedded with an indie sensibility by filmmakers from that world.

But if blockbusters can provide our minimum daily requirement of brain food, what do audiences need indie films for?

Below we examine what is wrong with the indie film business model and what can be done to fix it, from a prism of perspectives.


The Art-House Exhibitor

Ted Mundorff, CEO of Landmark Theaters

Landmark has five screens in Milwaukee, and playing “Dark Knight” and “Mamma Mia!” wasn’t their first time at the blockbuster rodeo. In the past, Landmark theaters played “Spider-Man” and the “Star War” reissues.

But this year, the indie films they might have normally played “just weren’t compelling enough,” Mundorff said. “We’re a 365-day business. So ... when there’s lack of product, we will reach out and select movies that we can play.”

But just because they are also blockbusters, he said, “does not indicate we’re going away from indie film; it indicates that indie film isn’t there.”

Indie films are a dime a dozen, but successful ones are few and far between. And since distributors do not spend money here to market a film that has failed elsewhere, they wither and die before they reach us. Theaters “do not participate” in this decision but cannot afford to resist it, Mundorff said.

“We are a tool of the distributor,” said Mundorff. “When a film opens up in New York and Los Angeles and doesn’t perform, smaller markets suffer. The history of a movie will tell us what it’s going to do in different markets.”

Audiences, he said, “will not come in Milwaukee if they do not come in Denver. We know this. It’s historical.”


The Studio Chief

Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics

Smart summer films like “The Dark Knight” are the bane of indie films.

“The stupider the better,” said Bernard. “When they’re stupid, we do great.”

Sony Pictures Classics, a specialty division of Sony, makes about 40 percent of its own films, like “Rachel Getting Married,” the new Jonathan Demme film premiering in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, and buys the rest, like the animated Israeli film “Waltz With Bashir.”

Analyzing the current indie film malaise, Bernard lamented the failure of exhibitors like Landmark to program and promote films for individual cities, and he called the DVD rental service Netflix “the most influential film critic in the country right now” because it recommends things to see based on previous rentals.

Still, Bernard believes the indie downturn is temporary and cyclical.

Until recently, specialty divisions associated with major studios kept indie products out of the hands of smaller companies. But now that a lot of these divisions have been shuttered or are in distress, he said, “you’ll see this new crop of smaller companies cropping up” to bring a new generation of independent film to the marketplace.

“And they’ll go on for a while. And then something new will happen. And then,” said Bernard, “there will be a new metamorphosis.”


The Film Festival Director

Piers Handling, director of the Toronto International Film Festival

Toronto has one of the three top film festivals in the world, along with Cannes and Sundance. And this year, Handling said, it has a “strong cross-section of international work,” especially from countries with a “cultural policy” of subsidizing national cinemas.

By comparison, the free market system in the United States favors blockbusters that “pay the bills” and whose “marketing budgets are enormous.” In such an environment, Handling said, “it’s increasingly difficult for indie filmmakers to get their work out there and have it sustained. Word of mouth . . . doesn’t exist anymore. The days when you could keep a film four or five weeks and have it build are over and numbered.”

Instead, Handling said, an event mentality “has taken over the culture generally. Unless you have a mass event . . . like a football game, it’s really hard to create space and awareness for your activities, especially if they are small and artistic in nature.”

But film festivals are such an event, and Handling believes they have basically usurped art-house theaters as an “outlet for many films trying to penetrate the marketplace.” During a festival, he said, people “immerse themselves, gorge themselves” on foreign, alternative and independent film, after which “they are caught up.” And then they tune out until the following year’s festival.


The Box-Office Guru

Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers

The immigration drama “The Visitor” grossed less than $10 million this summer. But those are blockbuster numbers for an indie film, said Dergarabedian, who tracks box-office data. “That movie started out strong and never slowed down,” he said.

But while a few indie films do well, most don’t, Dergarabedian added.

“Releasing a specialized film and nurturing it is a delicate science,” he said. Such films are “not cost-effective unless you can get a breakout hit.”

And that can depend on reviews. “In the blockbuster world, movies are review-proof. In the indie world, they are review-dependent,” he said.

Newspapers’ cutting back on reviews “is not a good thing for the indie world,” Dergarabedian said. “That might be the X factor. The audiences that gravitate toward them want a respected critic to say it’s a good film before they go out.”


The Filmmaker

Randall Miller, director of “Bottle Shock”

Miller and his wife and co-writer, Jody Savin, mortgaged their house to finance their first movie, “Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School,” and they were “really optimistic” when they took it to the Sundance Film Festival.

“We had a great cast and an amazing audience response. And we got one of those small deals” to distribute the film, Miller said.

The movie still hasn’t made money.

“Which is sad because it was not a very expensive movie,” he said. “It should have paid itself back, and it didn’t. That’s what drove us to this point.”

So, for their wine-country film “Bottle Shock,” they are distributing it by themselves. A studio, Miller said, would have tacked on a 25 percent marketing fee, “so dollar one comes in with 25 percent off the top.” Plus, there are fees for marketing “which you can’t control” and interest.

“And so when you start to do the math . . . you see there’s very little chance that you’re going to get your money back,” Miller said. “It’s worse than any other business in that way. You take out a bank loan for any kind of business and once you pay them off . . . you don’t have to keep paying them.”

Distributing the film themselves lets Miller and Savin see what the cost is. And they can make money “because the profits are in home video,” Miller said.

He compared it to the way Clint Eastwood made “Dirty Harry.”

“The distribution model is really clean,” he said. “It’s like direct receipts. Whatever it makes comes back to the production company.”


The Alternative Distribution Mogul

Adley Gartenstein, president of Film Movement

A great indie film makes Gartenstein feel “that I’m seeing a work of art. That there’s a reason this movie was made. And that my life is better because of it.”

You wouldn’t think there were that many films like that in the world, but the Film Movement movie of the month club - at www.filmmovement.com - has 72 of them in its library.

Gartenstein picks up exclusive rights to mostly foreign-language films that are simultaneously released in theaters and made available on DVD to club members six months to a year before they are released to the public. Subscribers “don’t select it,” he said. “They don’t have to go to Netflix to pick it out. It’s programmed for them by the world’s top film festivals.”

Recent films included “Days and Clouds” from Italy, “The Violin” from Mexico and “The Grocer’s Son” from France.

“Our business is not dependent on having a smash opening weekend,” Gartenstein said. “We buy a movie and put our resources behind it for the life of the film.”

He described the club as “the Miramax of the 1980s . . . when you knew if Miramax was associated with it, it would be a quality movie.”


The Artistic Director

Jonathan Jackson, Film Milwaukee

The new group Film Milwaukee is not only devoted to “creating a great film festival here” in 2009, but to “making a significant impact on the Milwaukee community with year-round” screenings and educational programs, Jackson said.

“I think we’ll be a significant cultural entity in a couple years,” said Jackson, who held the same position at the late Milwaukee International Film Festival.

The “art of independent film ... is as interesting as it’s ever been,” he said. But marketing a film “by a director people never heard of or with cast members nobody knows ... takes a community-based, locally driven” plan, which distributors and exhibitors do not provide. “It’s on individual theaters to develop their marketplace,” he said.

One venue that does is the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Union Theatre, of which Jackson was once director.

“It is the only truly alternative art-house cinema in Milwaukee,” and the school “owes it to the UWM community and the community at large to fund” the program, “with a full-time staff person and a marketing director,” Jackson said, because “the audience is there.”


The Commercial Theater Chain

Bruce J. Olson, president of Marcus Theatres

The Milwaukee-based Marcus chain, which owns or operates 678 screens at 56 locations in six states, is the seventh-largest theater circuit in the nation. And while mainstream films are the core of the chain’s business, Marcus “has an interest in supporting” Film Milwaukee’s plans to develop a new festival here.

“And someday we’ll have a downtown theater and hopefully that will be a centerpiece of the film festival,” Olson said. “It’s going to take some time, but I think it’s good for the city. It’s good for our image. And it’s good for creativity. A city this size should have a film festival.”

Olson, whose area theaters show art-house fare under a “critic’s choice” banner, feels indie film, too, will rise again.

“Just when we think there (are no more) indie movies, there will be another one that comes along. We don’t know what it is yet, but it will come along.

“Art,” he predicted, “will make a comeback.”

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