Broker Ace: Dennis Reiff
Dennis Reiff is often not an easy man to get on the phone, but it's usually only because he's so busy working.
Which is nothing but good news for the scores of independent filmmakers and producers he's insuring against everything from annoying equipment failure to full-fledged intellectual property conflict. Since 1970, when he founded his own New York-based insurance brokerage, the modest Reiff has spearheaded a flourishing business tailored specifically for indie nation, whether it's trafficking in feature films, documentaries, television or theater. Not bad for a guy who was inspired, like many of the artists he has helped over the years, by rejection.
"I don't want to date myself," Reiff confides, "but back in the late '70s, I was working for a small brokerage firm and a friend of mine called and asked me to handle insurance for a Bob Hope birthday show and a Barbara Streisand salute to Israel. I made some enquiries to brokers that handle entertainment insurance, and they were rude to me. So I decided to go off on my own and investigate, and I found that there was a niche to be filled. One thing led to another and I eventually formed my own company."
In the process, his passion for what was once an artistic and financial underdog has helped – although the humble broker may not admit it – explode the independent market into a cultural juggernaut. Indeed, the state of independent filmmaking has been changed so acutely over the last couple of decades that it's no longer unusual to see one if not several indies taking up theaters at a mega-mall near you.
"I think if you look at all the multiplexes around the country, you'll see that they're now devoting several of their screens to independent films and documentaries," explains Reiff. "Twenty years ago, that was not the case. You're also beginning to see towns not on the West or East coast exhibiting films that they normally wouldn't have seen before, because the multiplexes will devote that screen or two to them. Which in turn helps out the independent film market, because now they have a place to exhibit their product."
"Exhibiting product" might not roll as easily off a director or producer's tongue as "showing films," but Reiff – a man who helped insure recent indie blockbusters like Morgan Spurlock's 'Super Size Me' and Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 9/11' (to name just a few) – is a seasoned businessman in what can often be an idealist's game. While some critics might pigeonhole Moore and others for muddying, not clarifying, America's political debate, when it comes to insurance, Reiff is all about the numbers. Politics, for all of its galvanizing energy, can sometimes get in the way.
"Keep in mind that insurance companies tend to be very conservative," Reiff says, "and by that I mean they don't want to lose money. They're fiscally, not politically, conservative; at the end of the day, all they care about is making a little money off of the films you give them. And if you constantly give them films that lose money from claims, then you get a reputation for giving them business that they don't want. Even if you do give them a good piece of business. It's a balance that we strike as brokers, between our clients and the insurance companies. We want to make sure everyone's happy."
Reiff and his colleagues usually accomplish that tough task by making sure that a producer or director's bases – everything from worker's comp to general liability – are thoroughly covered, something that's much easier to do in this post-Moore indie environment than it was back the in the '70s when Reiff started out. Back then, "independent" was a dirty word; nowadays, it's almost a badge of honor.
"Independent film is much more prevalent now than it was back in the '70s, "Reiff explains. "Certainly, the boom market and all the cash that was flowing around in the '80s and '90s helped independent producers make the projects that they wanted to make. Budgets were reasonable at the time, and still are. People realized that you could get some things done artistically and commercially in one fell swoop, so they just went out and did it. And there's no formula for doing it; independent producers find their own ways individually, and if they have the wherewithal to make a film, it gets done."
Producers and directors might have the grit it takes to see a project through from start to finish, but Reiff's egalitarian policy of inclusion helps smooth out the often complicated insuring process. Which is another way of saying that the soft-spoken broker is interested in helping out anyone who needs it, not just those, like Moore, with a high profile and significant publicity opportunities.
"It's very rare that we pass on a project," says Reiff, "unless of course the producer has a reputation of handing us a lot of claims or not paying his bills. We try to help all independent filmmakers; that's our arena, that's our market. We go out of our way to help them, because we know if they make one film, they'll come back and make another one."
Reiff understands that many indie artists are just looking for someone to give them a chance in what can often be, even with the significant strides made over the last 20 years, an alienating business. "Making a film is tough to begin with," Reiff adds. "Making an independent film is tougher, just because of all the artistic and financial obstacles that are thrown in the way. We feel for independent filmmakers and try to help them the best we can, especially for those working in New York City, although we work with producers from all over the nation and the world."
Although the broker might have a soft spot for the Big Apple, he harbors an even greater sympathy for clients working in what, before Michael Moore and Errol Morris, was and still perhaps is cinema's toughest genre.
"I happen to particularly like documentary filmmakers, because that's an even more difficult row to hoe than independent filmmaking. Budgets are usually small and the passion for the project is much deeper than one would realize. Plus, documentaries can sometimes drag on for years. Eventually, however, they manage to get made."
Whether they get made because they are compelling exercises or because their directors are unrepentant publicity hounds, as some critics have labeled Moore, does not ultimately matter to Reiff. Although Bill O'Reilly and his ilk relentlessly slam Michael Moore for being a self-promoter, they seem to miss the greater point, which is that indie filmmakers have to use all the tools at their disposal to get the word out on their respective projects.
"Directors like Moore and Spurlock are to be able generate publicity, but that publicity helps to sell their films, so I'm not sure it's working against them. Plus, that ultimately helps the independent market, because budding artists will try to become the next Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore. And who knows? It might happen."
In the end, Reiff is interested in coming down on the side of those who are confident in their approach to their art, whatever it may be.
"We've had a lot of success with clients working with difficult subject matter that have prevailed in the end," he explains. "They get their documentary out, which is what we want. We want to see the men or women that come up in the independent film market be successful. It's a free country. My feeling is that you go out and do what is you think is right and ultimately, if it is right, no one can touch you. The truth usually does win out, regardless of who is president at the time."