Whither Independent Films?

You know you are in Hollywood when you have to pass a passel of parked Mercedes to walk through a hotel door. Copies of trade magazines like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are then thrust in your hands. You are surrounded by an army of Armani: shapely starlets and fast talking wheeler-dealers pack the aisles of the Loews Santa Monica, home to the annual American Film Market (AFM). It is here that independent filmmakers from every cutting room, in every town, in every country have come to find "the coin" to finish their project or to find a distributor willing to pay to get their work out there.If Sundance is the Mecca (or was the Mecca) for high artistry in the indie film world, the AFM is the place where the rubber hits the road, where the marketplace of foreign buyers and U.S. media execs determines what ends up in multiplexes and what is exiled to third-tier cable or ignored as just another credit on some wannabe's CV. Annually, this hotel becomes a kasbah of commerce as beds are removed from every room and replaced by desks and video players. Everyone has a B-grade film to sell; buyers are courted as they wander from sales room to screening room looking for the next "Blair Witch Project" or something they can take home to their "territories." Fortunately for them, many of these sales agents know each other from markets past and do some old fashioned horse trading -- you buy one of mine, and I buy one of yours, and we all go home with a commission and some new product. It is what's called a "relationship business." Everyone watches a few films, but the business of the business is transacted during expense-account meals and jogs on the beach. It is there that movies with A-list (i.e., promotable) name talent sell, and the unknowns stay mostly unknown. This year, thanks to all the cost cutting and cutbacks by the studios, some biggies like Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, and Edward Norton were signed to indie deals.The biz talk remains focused on "product flow," while producers, writers and even directors cruise the halls looking for projects to "attach" themselves to. With production deals being slashed in the main tent, they are forced to bottom feed in the sideshow. To get an indie film made, producers and agents create packages, dangle the names of stars, signed or not, and try to find some money with which to get started. It's often a shell game where hype in the form of a trailer and a slick glossy brochure is used to project a reality that may be far shakier than it appears. In this way, deals are structured, names are dropped, and marketing strategies are launched -- well before the movie is in the can or even a reality. The overseas markets want films that can "travel" -- i.e. action flicks and slapstick comedies. They want marquee stars and everyone wants as many territorial rights as they can demand or negotiate. Indie films live or die on their distribution deals, and many are on the resuscitator.In years past, there was more excitement about new movies -- or as they are called here "small pictures." (They are considered "small" because they cost "only" $1 million to $5 million to make.) In recent years, indie film was all the buzz, and the studio old-timers had to step aside to let some upstarts get their 15 seconds of fame and maybe make a buck or two, too. The movies that didn't move at least had a video market to turn to, and a chance for distribution in what used to be called the "Art Houses" -- smaller, independently owned theaters in college towns or European cities. The video market and the art houses have now slowly gone mostly kaput over the last decade, thanks to media concentration. A complex web of strategic alliances and business deals gives studios more and more control over theatrical releases. The big films crowd out the small. In the l950's the movie monopolies were broken up through anti-trust laws, but they are coming back together under new arrangements, ostensibly legal. Fewer companies own and control the outlets, while a smaller number of movie moguls decide what gets made and what gets seen. Through subsidiaries like Fine Line, Miramax, USA Films and Fox Searchlight, the studios are also competing against the indies with indie-type (i.e., edgier and cheaper to make) films. The distinction between what is an indie and what isn't is being blurred, if not disappearing. Many nominal outsiders know that they will have to make major creative compromises to get support from the insiders. Cooption is a verb, not just a noun.The first world is back in the saddle, firmly in control even as it increasingly caters to foreign markets, where the profits are. Increasingly, film financing is becoming more complex and more global. The studios used to be considered banks because they financed production, but because of rising costs they now share that distinction with insurance schemers, licensing opportunists, and merchant bankers who act as co-financiers. These moneymen use behind-the-scenes leverage to greenlight movies, and cut costs to keep profit margins from narrowing further. Even while French intellectuals and European commissioners, for example, decry Hollywood cultural imperialism, French banks and TV channels like Canal Plus help finance Hollywood films. Every few years a scandal becomes public when some of these funds are diverted into the pockets of a few.What drives all the hype and hoopla in the movie business? Film people used to fight over credits, now they battle over grosses. Producer Peter Guber doesn't mince words in the trades. "It's simple greed and avarice," he proclaims proudly. "Not that there's anything wrong with that." Spoken like a true prince of the picture-biz plutocracy.Sorry, Peter, but there is a lot wrong with that! Like all the good films that never get made and never get seen. There's plenty of ambition in the indie world but it is being outmatched by that avarice. The AFM is bigger than ever, up 20% over last year, with 327 exhibitors screening 260 premieres. As it turns out, more is less.Don't let the numbers fool you. According to Variety, buyers say there are fewer worthy movies and that the "the 'short list' of completed films that they're eager to screen for domestic theatrical distribution could fit on a Post-it note." Get that: "only a handful of players offer worthy theatrical product." And even they often have to sell their films for less than they are worth -- just to get them seen. As one investment banker in the film business told me, "The economics are changing. The production business is making an adequate return. Distribution is where the money is."It is not that there is less creativity out there. Far from it: Today's newbie moviemakers are playing in a marketplace structured against them. A screenwriter friend of mine tells me about 40,000 scripts, possibly more, now flood into Hollywood every year. Of those, only about 200 get made. According to Jonathan Wolf, one of the executives of the association that runs the AFM, "The $5 million to $15 million range has become a no-man's land. These titles ... have been squeezed out of the marketplace." Smaller companies are being "winnowed out," says Morgan Rector of the aptly named Imperial Bank.I spoke with a few veterans of the "small picture" industry. They worry that the party is nearly over. "I give it five years," said one new director from South Africa. "This business is going, going gone. Markets like this will be held on the Internet in the future." (Two new dot-com portals are already signing up film producers and distributors. For the state of the art, visit: reelplay.com and filmbazaar.com) But, at the same time, salesmen who are, by definition, kings of schmooze will still be needed. And they will need venues to interact in, to eyeball each other and haggle. As one production assistant quipped, "Many of these people fly all over the world -- to Cannes, Berlin, Sundance -- to see the same movies and talk to each other. That's what they live for."What the American movie companies don't own, they influence, because every overseas filmmaker is conscious of the formulas their films will need to follow to crack into the lucrative U.S. market. So their own films increasingly look like ours, acquiring the talents of U.S. stars or offering lightweight fare or predictable violence-driven action genres. They become clones of Hollywood products just as Hollywood tailors its films for overseas distribution -- which is often where the money is made. This is what is behind the growing homogeneity; though, happily, there are still many diverse styles and points of view all over the world. The festivals (not the marketplaces) are packed with fine films Americans never see. Art still lives even as the markets often muzzle it.The movie industry went global long ago. Like all big industries, it is catering to globalization pressures, which in much of the world is equated with Americanization. American penetration in market after market, territory after territory is already well advanced. Already, almost 80% of movies sold overseas come from the U.S. movie industry. Increasingly, U.S. firms are buying up screens and production entities around the world. Some countries try to resist with quotas, but it's a tough and often losing battle. They have fewer chips to play with than the global media giants.There is another international issue that has Hollywood up in arms: The trend towards more "runaway" production, as the unions call it. This means the use of cheaper, non-union labor, like in Canada. At the same time, many international players resent it when Americans make movies abroad and don't hire local craftspeople, even when they are highly skilled. That was a complaint I heard from someone in the Italian Film Commission who was pushing for more cross-border collaboration. They want their beautiful regions, like Tuscany, used as more than mere picture-postcard sets. The Americans say that the Italian workers probably want to be paid decently. That's what the new bean counters who are looking for cheaper labor overseas oppose.The trade magazines are crammed with news of transactions of the new globalization. How exciting to learn that Hollywood is returning to Serbia a year after the bombs fell. I am sure that war-torn country can't wait for the planned premieres of "The Mummy" and "The World is Not Enough," a fitting metaphor for the industry's ambitions. We learn that Rupert Murdoch has just bought himself entry into Bulgaria's TV market, beating out a European consortium which lacked his capital base. In Italy, veteran movie mogul Vittorio Chechi Gori is suing his own partners, alleging that they are forcing him out of his holdings in a new pay-TV platform called Stream, and integrating it into Rupert Murdoch's empire. The goal, of course, is to get foreign revenues streaming our way. It is a form of cultural colonialism.The movie industry, like other components of the global media landscape, is changing as it expands, thanks to digital technologies and the power of the web. Those changes may open up some more space for innovators and filmmakers with something new to say. But that potential remains circumscribed by the power of the holding companies and bank-like studios who have the resources to shape the market that drives the business.The overlords of the business don't even bother to show up at sales shows like the AFM. Behind the silvery curtains in their dream factory, those powerful "suits" continue pushing their own agendas. It's sad how few moviemakers and moviegoers are able to push back.Variety tells the story of a filmmaker who abandoned the AFM hustle to make wildlife films off the coast of South Africa. The insider magazine asks, tongue in cheek, "Which is more dangerous, the shark-infested aisles of the film market or the shark-infested waters of the Indian ocean?"His response: "I think you are safer in the water because when you swim with the real sharks, you always know their intentions. And I've never been robbed by a real shark."Danny Schechter is the Founder and Executive Editor of the Media Channel and author of "News Dissector" (Electron Press, February).


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