American Independent Cinema is Nowhere in Sight, Pt. 3

As it turned out, shooting the movie was easy. "There were no crew mutinies," recalls Dante Harper, "no the-director's-insane-I'm-leaving scenes."Having never made a film before, Raleigh's Cambrai Liberation Collective (Steve Grant, Alicia Kratzer, Todd Flinchum and Harper) headed off misadventure by planning The Delicate Art of the Rifle down to the last shot, the last camera movement.Harper pulls from a bookshelf something that looks like a Scrabble board and opens it, saying, "Here's our movie." Inside the Scrabble board is a huge graph, neatly lettered by hand. Across the top march the 14 days it took to shoot Delicate Art; along the side, the variables -- equipment, locations, cast, crew. Anchored to the graph, representing requirements for each scene, are thin strips of paper dotted with Xs. It's beautiful."It's a production board," Harper explains, "They started using them in Hollywood in the '20s." He pauses and looks at me. "We paid attention to these things."That care paid off: By any standard, Delicate Art is an extraordinary film. Based on a short story Grant penned for a writers' workshop, the movie follows a geeky college kid named Jay who struggles to wrap his mind around what he hopes is an impossibility: that the guy perched on a campus rooftop mowing down anyone he can draw a bead on is his roommate Walt. Whom he figured was kind of intense, but OK.Eleven production companies want to bankroll CLC's next movie.Variety, famously unfriendly to indie film, says "Delicate Art is a strikingly intelligent film that, unlike many contempo indies, not only has significant issues on its mind but also exhibits a fresh cinematic voice."Film festivals keep CLC scurrying around the globe.This month, Harper flies to Paris for the prestigious Avignon French-American Film Workshop, the annual gathering where Tarantino first screened Reservoir Dogs. In July, Lincoln Center hosts a champagne party for Delicate Art, one of only 12 films selected for the Independents' Night Series. Starting in August, CLC hops from the Edinburgh Festival to the Toronto Film Festival to Mifed in Milan, a major market where foreign rights to Delicate Art will almost certainly be sold."Delicate Art has lots of friends in lots of places," says film critic Godfrey Cheshire.But Delicate Art is missing something important. Long after lesser indie films have been snapped up, the movie has yet to secure domestic theatrical distribution."They may not have handled the politics of Sundance and Slamdance too well," says John Pierson, unofficial guru of indie film and author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes. "What it came down to was a firm offer from Slamdance versus a shaky, less impressive offer from Sundance." CLC went with Slamdance, Sundance's scruffy, cross-town rival. Meanwhile Bandwagon, a so-so film that lost Best Feature to Delicate Art at the North Carolina Film and Video Festival, hit the Sundance jackpot when Lakeshore Entertainment, a new production company at Paramount, snapped the flick right up.But the real reason Delicate Art may never flicker on the big screen has nothing to do with festival politics."It doesn't have a real hook," says Godfrey Cheshire, who placed Delicate Art on his Top 10 list last year. "It's hard to categorize."Which raises a question. Isn't indie film supposed to be unpredictable, irreducible? What gives?In the '80s, studios (most of them subsidiaries of media giants) gobbled up theater chains. Earlier this decade, smelling big bucks in little films, studios started dining on successful art-film distributors: Disney bought Miramax, Time Warner took over Fine Line. Studios who didn't dine on indie distributors started their own "indie" production divisions.Though DIY filmmaking is healthier than ever ("There are way, way, way more films being made now," says Pierson), the first-tier distributors are picking deadly stuff, replicant films that look and smell like indie film. But try peering deep in their eyes. What flickers there isn't the risky, progressive pulse of indie filmmaking, but the hologram of a corporate logo.Pierson, who hooked up with Disney-owned Miramax in '94, admits that working with the distributor has been frustrating. "When they paid $3.5 million for Johnny Suede, I couldn't believe it." He says, in mock-agony, "Please, God, this can't be true."Then, this year at Sundance, Miramax ignored the really good movies. "There were two that meant a lot to me -- Welcome to the Dollhouse and Girls Town," says the guy who bankrolled Spike Lee's first film. "Miramax had no interest in either one of those films. Which is good for [second-tier distributors] Sony, Trimark and First Look. Miramax is going after mediocre films like The Pallbearer and Beautiful Girls. Their latest films have been embarrassing."Dante Harper pins his hopes on second-tier distributors. "When Miramax was still picking up things like Slacker, no one really had heard of it yet. It's the little guys that will do it for us, probably."Meanwhile, Harper tends bar, waits tables and shares the floor of an old house with Flinchum, Kratzer and Grant. "Everybody's willing to give us money for the next film," he says. "But we want to be able to pay for this one. Just enough money so we can pay off our debts and pay back our investors." John Pierson is skeptical."Dante and his gang may well not get an advance," he cautions. "Take My Life's in Turnaround. It took $37,000 from investors, and I invested $20,000. Nobody recouped anything. But the film got distributed, and that was something. And Eric [Schaeffer] got to make If Lucy Fell."He waits a moment to give full weight to what he's about to say. "It would be great for Delicate Art to be picked up. But what's very important is to see it as a launching point instead of never-say-die-on-this-movie."Public Access, Brian Singer's first film? Delicate Art is way, way better," he continues. "But Singer's second film was The Usual Suspects, and the rest is history."Then Pierson says, in an oddly serious voice, "When a film you really love doesn't see light of day, that's when you begin to doubt the system." Having unhooked himself from Miramax, Pierson is striking out for television.Delicate Art is heading for foreign film festivals. Unless some second-tier distributor wises up, the rest of us, like poor dazed Jay in Delicate Art, are stuck with something we'd rather not believe. American independent cinema may be alive and kicking, but it's nowhere in sight.

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