Where Have All The Independents Gone?

The opening of the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 19 was the film industry’s signal to commence its annual discussion on the importance of independent films – a select few will experience a brief rush of attention from agents, production execs and the media that may or may not translate into future gigs.

Back on earth, the environment for indies is decidedly different.

There’s a strong argument that there’s virtually no independent scene left in the U.S., considering that New Line has been absorbed into Turner Entertainment and Miramax was acquired by Walt Disney. Gramercy, a new kid on the block, is a joint venture of Polygram and Universal and the other new entry, Savoy, doesn’t quite fit into the same niche as such specialized boutiques as October and First Look Pictures.

Indeed, mergers, buyouts and other industry developments over the past two years have radically redefined the indie landscape. Scruffy street fighters have gone respectable, studios have re-established classics divisions and a glutted market-place has muted many new voices.

It’s a cyclical scenario: Whenever independent films find an audience, mainstream forces attempt to replicate that success. And if history repeats itself with increasing precision, the majors will phase out their interest in specialty films within two or three years.

“This is one of the strangest scenarios in the industry,” says a producer and former indie distributor. “The studios aren’t really geared for new filmmakers or cutting-edge movies. But they can see that the audience responds to something new and they believe they can buy it. The trouble is that an indie success generally won’t cover the coffee budget (at a studio), and these divisions fade away after a brief vogue.”

In the interim, a lot of blood is spilled. Smaller companies are forced to pay higher prices for movies and take greater risks – winding up with smaller profits or bigger losses. Many simply can’t hang on, and the sturdiest operations find that while the competition may abate when the majors depart, prices for product and talent subside more gradually.

About the only healthy distributor outside the circle of majors is the Samuel Goldwyn Co., whose combined theatrical releases in 1994 represented about 0.5% of the domestic box office. Discounting product from Miramax, Sony Classics, Fine Line and other quasi-indies, Goldwyn had the top indie grosser last year with “You So Crazy,” acquired after Miramax was unable to whittle the pic down to an R rating from the NC-17 it received from the MPAA. The Martin Lawrence standup film had a B.O. of $10.2 million to rank 114th among all releases in ’94.

Goldwyn, which distributed roughly a dozen films last year, has a robust television division fronted by “American Gladiators,” a library of vintage films and an aggressive foreign sales department.

It’s telling that the next ranked indie company, based on theatrical performance, was Orion, which has been struggling with reorganizing and redefining itself. Virtually its entire 1994 slate comprised films produced two and three years ago and held in limbo while the bankrupt company restructured.

In total, 22 indie titles grossed more than $1 million last year – including the Warren Miller ski film “Vertical Reality,” the toon omnibus “Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Animation” and the Quebec-only “Louis 19 – King of the Airwaves.” Collectively, the sector grabbed less than 3.5% of the $5.26 billion theatrical year.

Back in 1992, when New Line and Miramax were bona fide indies, their combined market share was 3.3%. Goldwyn was on the chart with 0.7% of the pie, and an additional 1.6% rolled in from an assortment of other distribs to provide the sector with 5.6% of the picture.

There hasn’t really been a company that has stepped into the breach that New Line and Miramax left behind. Rather, such tyros as Roxie, Mypheduh and Caledonia have sprung up as a result of a diminishing number of distribution outlets; they operate like mom-and-pop shops that handle a couple of titles annually.

They, and others, do a good job considering the onerous task. Roxie totally redefined the possibilities by taking “Red Rock West” to $2.4 million after it had premiered on cable and was already in video stores. October, considering its recent brushes with the Academy Awards and the Motion Picture Assn. of America, could be on its way to replacing the old Miramax. There is a clutch of feisty distribs.

The past five years has seen a staggering list of causalities, not to mention the once-significant distribs that are now on life-support systems. Missing from the roll call are New World, Avenue, InterStar, Triton, Cinecom, Taurus, 21st Century, Vestron and Cineplex Odeon, to name a few. And reduced to a very low profile are Hemdale, Cannon, Skouras, Concorde and others. Today, Miramax and New Line combined account for 10% of the box office, applying rough-and-tumble methods that have effectively eaten into studio and indie performance. Their repertoire includes some indie acquisitions, but the majority of work by new talent simply isn’t getting into the distribution pipeline. That verity is a double-edged sword that cuts one way with the elation of Sundance – and on the backswing when the pictures wind up with limited commercial distribution.

Much will be written about past Sundance award winners that failed to make the grade in theatrical release, as if box office were the only measure of success. In fact, the true oddity is the indie pic that scores on the fest circuit and goes on to reap big commercial rewards. It was because Miramax could generate more than $60 million on “The Crying Game” that Disney was intrigued enough to buy the company. Industry wisdom until then was that an arthouse movie had an absolute ceiling of $30 million.

Low-risk efforts ranging from “Kiss of the Spider Woman” to “Howards End” to “The Wedding Banquet” were profitable ventures in the indie arena. But there are fewer of them, and one reason is that today’s releases simply can’t get on enough screens to generate $10 million-$20 million.

The quality and acclaim is there, as evidenced by such films as “Red Rock West,” “One False Move,” “Go Fish” and “Reservoir Dogs,” which collectively took about $10 million in domestic B.O. But rather than money in the bank, the quartet had to settle for success d’estime – enough to ensure another project.

But, to no one’s great surprise, in most cases the filmmakers weren’t able to cobble together the private financing and opted instead for studio films.

Some may even validate the promise of their early features, but the irony lingers that the big prize for independence is in not having to go down that rocky path a second time.

In the face of such unpleasantness and the impossible odds, one has to conclude that independent movies and filmmakers exist because of some magical sleight of hand, since there is no formula for finding the financing, distribution and theaters.

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