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U.S. Indies Rename And Regroup

Over three dozen independent films will be appearing under the banner of the newly renamed American Independents and Features Abroad – Berlin 1991 at this year’s festival.

The name change reflects a shift in emphasis for the nonprofit consortium (formerly called Americans In Berlin), which operates a market booth and helps facilitate dealmaking between indies and foreign buyers.

The organization’s focus this year, according to AIFA director Lynda Hansen, will be “features and films over 50 minutes in the Forum and Panorama sections.”

In addition to cutting shorts from its festival roster, AIFA is limiting the number of market films to 20 – one-third less than last year’s all-time high. Hansen explains, “We don’t have the personnel or the budget to do more. We want to provide the best services we can, and one way to do this is to reduce the number of films in the market.”

No early consensus has emerged on which of AIFA’s films, if any, will be this year’s independent hit – although various filmmakers claim they have 1991’s equivalent of “Metropolitan,” the Whit Stillman indie which garnered rave notices (and key pickups) last year.

“There are some good, challenging films,” says Karen Arikian, former director of the Independent Feature Project, which works in association with AIFA sponsor New York Foundation for the Arts, “but for commercial prospects, it’s a hard year.”

Diving into deals

Traveling to Berlin’s market are a number of films that attracted attention at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, often a springboard for European deals. These include Nietzchka Keene’s “The Juniper Tree,” a Grimm Brothers fairytale set in Iceland; “Blood In The Face,” a feature-docu on the Ku Klux Klan by Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway; Ilana Bardin’s “Legends,” an offbeat documentary on a Las Vegas club that features impersonators of Judy Garland, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe; and Jan Oxenberg’s “Thank You And Good Night,” on the director’s dying grandmother.

Also expected to come away from the market with healthy sales are “Iron & Silk” by Shirley Sun, “H-2 Worker” by Stephanie Black and “A Little Stiff” by Grey Watkins and Caveh Zahedi. Strong contenders in the Forum and Panorama sidebar are “Absolutely Positive” by Peter Adair, “American Dream” by Barbara Kopple, “Iron Maze” by Hiroaki Yoshida, “Paris Is Burning” by Jennie Livingston and “All The Vermeers In New York” by Jon Jost.

The Yank independents flock to Berlin to drum up co-production deals, find foreign sales reps and garner invitations to other festivals. But most of all, they are hoping to sign deals with European television buyers and arthouse distributors, who have often been more open to independent fare than their U.S. counterparts. “This kind of work is given a decent platform in Berlin, whereas at Cannes you’re one little drop of water in the bucket,” says Arikian. “Berlin is absolutely critical to foreign sales.”

Rafferty’s prior experience with the European market gives him reason to be optimistic about prospects for “Blood In The Face.” His earlier film “Atomic Cafe,” he says, “was better known in Germany after a year than it ever was in the U.S. There were high school kids in Germany who could recite whole sections of it. We sold to television in England, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. It did everything it could do there, theatrically and on television.”

Rafferty is still working out this year’s game plan. He hopes to make “a few key sales” in television himself, and also plans to locate a foreign sales agent to cover additional ground.

Other filmmakers have more limited expectations. As Hansen points out, “Some filmmakers are so thrilled to sell to small stations that they can make their year with it. It depends on their budget, who the filmmaker is and the stage of development.”

First-time director Doug Block came to Berlin after his documentary on low-budget American filmmakers, “The Heck With Hollywood,” attracted the interest of buyers from the BBC, German web WDR and Swedish TV at the Independent Feature Market. “The No. 1 mission is to close the Swedish deal, along with the other Scandinavian countries. That alone is worth going over for,” says Block. “I’ve heard the Europeans love offbeat things about Americana. It’s time to see if they’ve just been kidding me.”

Jost, a six-time Berlin fest veteran, is back this year scouting for arthouse distribution deals and Euro tv sales for “All The Vermeers In New York” and “Sure Fire.” Although “Vermeers” is an “American Playhouse” theatrical production, Jost isn’t getting help from the public-tv outfit in finding buyers. “They were hands-off during production, and they’re totally hands-off here, too,” he laughs.

Thumbs down on ‘Euromush’

Jost is also in pursuit of European co-production money, but feels “vaguely pessimistic.” He adds: “Whatever happens in America arrives in Europe three to five years later, and the Reagan years are setting in. Everyone’s trying to make things that are more commercial. The tendency is to make ‘Euromush’ films – a big star from this country, a director from that – to compete with Hollywood in the U.S. market.”

An added hindrance Jost and others anticipate is the foreign travel moratorium some distributors have in place because of the Persian Gulf war. Hansen reports that AIFA may move a planned seminar out of the American House. “I’ve been told it may be a target,” she says. But despite such rumors, Hansen says no independent filmmakers are planning to stay home.

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