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Among Indies, Only The Strong Are Surviving

Only in a home for unwed mothers will you find the term “in trouble” used as often as in the field of domestic independent distribution.

“Independents have always been in trouble, for about the past 90 years,” said Jonathan Dana, who went from the “in trouble” Atlantic to Triton, which is viewed as one of the up-and-comers for one very important reason: it hooked a backer with deep pockets. “You’d have to be blind to miss the fact that 15 or 20 [ independents] have disappeared.”

But the players say it’s just a matter of natural selection. About seven companies do well, each with a relatively short lifespan. When things sour, the same execs pop up all over again, with a new company and new backing. The latest twists include:

* Hemdale, one of the most venerable indies, with such films as “Platoon” to its credit, has been rumored to be having fiscal difficulties. Hemdale head John Daly refutes this with a promise that the company will soon go public.

* Cinecom, which cleaned house and supposedly folded after owner Stephen Swid tired of paying for uncommercial movies, is said to be days from merging with Nelson, and is coming back as a distributor only.

* Circle, best known for distributing “Blood Simple,” is selling titles like “Angel At My Table” to New Line as its heads concentrate on producing, sources say.

* Jeff Lipsky and Bingham Ray, highly regarded marketing/distribution heads of Skouras and Avenue, are making plans to hang out their own joint indie shingle.

* Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment has scrapped plans for its usual slate of small films in favor of one big-budget pic.

Survivors freely admit that raising capital is harder than ever, that expansion of studio releases into normally slow winter months has created a shortage of screens for indies and caused costly delays. Unless you’re Samuel Goldwyn Co. (with a revenue producing film library), Miramax or New Line, or studio-owned like Orion Classics and Triumph, you’re always scratching to stay alive.

‘Almost impossible’ to raise $

“It’s hard [ for indies] to get funding,” said Chuck Cory, a principal at Morgan Stanley. “Regardless of critical success, you don’t rise to the level of the majors because the math doesn’t add up. It’s becoming almost impossible to raise money to self-distribute, so I would say these companies are in for rough sledding.”

Nonetheless, veterans continue to come back with new funding.

Hemdale head John Daly said his company will try going public, as New Line did in 1986. And he argued that hard times aren’t exclusive to the indies:

“Of course it’s a tough time, but the majors are finding it’s been an expensive game they’ve played for the last two years with the cost of films,” said Daly. “It’s tougher for independents to raise money today, no question about that. People are still in a hold-on-to-the-cash frame of mind. There will be a slow turn of the wheel, but all that means is you’ve just got to be more selective on the pictures you go forward with.”

Daly tried to go public two years ago, but the deal was botched. He’s trying again in about a month: “It’ll involve Europeans, and may lead to a linkup with other distributors to make us stronger.”

Rumors denied

Rumors that things are rocky at Hemdale are untrue, he said. “We’ve laid off some additional staff,” he acknowledged, “but they were mostly part-timers.” He said the 25-year-old company has just been “belt tightening.”

Among newcomers, the two with the most stable base seem to be Fine Line, launched by New Line to compete with Miramax, and Prestige, the recent Miramax launch. Others are trying to find a niche as well.

Triton, said company head Jonathan Dana, will capitalize on a thinning field of competitors, plus sufficient backing to carve a niche. It just released “Heaven And Earth,” directed by its backer, Haruki Kadokawa, the Japanese publishing/film magnate. Triton will likely handle non-studio projects done by Kadokawa’s new production company.

Japanese investors have been burned on funding single-pic deals. While funding an indie distrib might seem equally speculative, Dana predicted other Asian investments would be available for indies.

“There are only so many major studios,” said Dana, “and I sense a variety of other types of investment coming true. I think you’ll see investment in production companies, and perhaps some independent distributors.”

Aries is another distrib gaining momentum, say rivals. Paul Cohen, who headed Analysis for eight years, has so far released the critically well-received “Icicle Thief,” and “My 20th Century.” Aries released “Superstar: The Life And Times Of Andy Warhol,” on Feb. 22, the anniversary of Warhol’s death. The company is headed by Cohen, and backed by Robert Rothschild and Oliver J. Sterling, an oilman with whom Cohen became friendly after they pounded each other during a boxing match.

Cohen said he will start slowly, rely on his ability to choose modest films, pay reasonable prices and squeeze a profit through aggressive marketing.

‘Specialized niche’

“We’re going for a specialized niche, with the opportunity to have films that play for months,” said Cohen. “We’ll move slowly, do five to eight films this year. There’s no question there are some companies out there paying unrealistic advances and guarantees. As long as their choices are correct, they go on. A few underperformers, and, well…

“But if we make errors at Aries, it will be something like making up two prints too many,” Cohen said. “We’ll succeed because we’ll do fewer films and give them special attention.”

Another emerging player might be the linkup of Jeff Lipsky and Bingham Ray. Sources said they’re trying to raise money for a company that would distribute avant-garde pics. Both parties are keeping their plans to themselves.

There also still seems to be room for the underdogs. Greycat Films, owned and operated by former Vestron execs David and Suzanne Whitten, put themselves on the map last year by distributing the sleeper hit “Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer.” Though they marketed the film exhaustively, they learned some beginner lessons.

“We made very little off ‘Henry,’ and were put in the situation of having an obligation to push the film wide,” said David Whitten. After “Henry’s” initial run, the Whittens said they poured profits back into the film, planning to package it with the infamous 1972 fright flick, “Last House On The Left.”

“We were going after the hardcore exploitation slasher audience,” said Whitten, “but one week before testing them, we found out that MPI put it out on video. Without even telling us. An entire second life for ‘Henry’ never had the chance to materialize. But ‘Henry’ was the missing ingredient for us to get going. Prior to that, we were making contingency plans to shut down.”

They now have repackaged the Lon Chaney-starrer “The Phantom Of The Opera,” with a musical soundtrack by former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. They are eyeing other pics, overlooked by bigger indie distributors, in an effort to push themselves into the fray.

Will Circle quit distrib biz?

Speculation has been running rampant that Circle Releasing will exit the distribution business. According to sources, it’s negotiating to sell several titles. But Ben Barenholtz said that just because he left as longtime president, Circle still may stay in the game.

“There are still a number of options being considered,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I made the decision to concentrate on producing fulltime, through Circle Films and elsewhere.” But owner Ted Pettis, said Barenholtz, is still deciding on which direction to go. “Those decisions haven’t been made yet. As of right now, Circle is still in the distribution business.”

Jim Glickenhaus, whose Shapiro Glickenhaus has created such fare as “Frankenhooker” and “Basket Case II,” has responded to lean times by cutting his slate back to one big pic rather than several small ones he’ll have trouble moving.

“We’re all on the road to the abyss,” he said. “It’s not that there’ll be nothing after it, but anyone who says there won’t be drastic changes is stupid.”

Rather than assemble the usual full slate of exploitation pics, Glickenhaus and partners decided to sink all their budget into a single pic, the $19 million “McBain,” which stars Chris Walken and Maria Conchita Alonso. Glickenhaus directed it himself.

“We decided for better or worse, if we go down, it’ll be by my hand,” he said. “If you spend $19 million on a film and make it look like $35 million with big names, how much can you lose on that?”

Glickenhaus isn’t quite throwing all his eggs in one basket: he’s leaving the door open for another “Basket Case” sequel.

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