Arthouse Success Comes Back To Bite Indie Hand

While more independent arthouse films are making the crossover to successful mainstream runs, their success makes life harder for the very people who backed them during their years in the wilderness – independent distributors.

Higher prices and increased competition from the likes of giant distributor Roadshow Film Distributors are putting more fare out of the reach of indies. That was evident at the recent Mifed market in November.

Lyn McCarthy, director of indie distrib-exhib Dendy Films, said with steep prices – and a lack of appealing product- her outfit bought only two titles, including Miramax’s “Unzipped,” at Mifed.

“There was nothing of substance there, and the prices were way too high, which makes problems for established players who know what they have to pay to make money,” McCarthy said. “Some sellers go so far above your price range that you don’t even bother offering.”

“It was not a good Mifed for us,” concurred Tony Zeccola, managing director of exhib-distrib Palace Entertainment. “There was nothing there that excited,” the London distrib community wasn’t there and “I left early for the first time in 25 years.”

But New Vision’s Frank Cox snared four pics from the 250 new films on offer, including Helena Bonham Carter starrer “Twelfth Night” and “Small Factor.”

“We did find the prices a bit high, to be honest, but it is partly the way Australia is portrayed overseas,” Cox explains. He claims sellers believed Oz was a land of arthouse crossovers, which indeed have gathered steam since the phenomenal success in 1994 of “Like Water for Chocolate.”

“More arthouse fare is being seen to break out, and the problem is every seller is convinced they have a breakout. Our films averaged between $20,000 and $30,000 in the old days, but now arthouse can qualify for up to $350,000,” he said, citing titles such as “The Madness of King George” and “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“There is room for all of us, but there also is a widening of competition in the marketplace, and that will make it a bit tougher for some of them,” says Richard Sheffield-MacClure of the much larger Polygram Filmed Entertainment. At Mifed he snared only “ID” for his new operation Down Under, but notes he had his own company’s slate to fall back on. “I’d rather be in my position than the smaller companies who deal only in arthouse,” he says. “Lyn McCarthy and Frank Cox got into that and did well, but now our own company and the likes of Roadshow are getting into it.”

“It has been more competitive since the majors cottoned onto the fact there might be some money in arthouse,” McCarthy agrees, but notes there remains a niche for companies like hers to take risks on offbeat fare rejected by others, such as “Reservoir Dogs,” “Once Were Warriors,” “Like Water for Chocolate” and “Lie Down With Dogs,” which she says Dendy made good money on.

“Roadshow has distributed arthouse for 25 years; it is a myth that we only have experience in blockbusters,” counters Alan Finney, managing director of the monolithic Roadshow Film Distributors. “But the independent companies, which come and go, are an important part of the industry that provide variety.”

Among Roadshow’s upmarket successes this year were “Priest” and “The Madness of King George.” Finney also points to the company’s commitment to local production.

Finney claims not to have acquired any pictures for theatrical release at Mifed, although he says several pre-market deals were sealed. Also, Roadshow is the Aussie distributor for Buena Vista and Warner Bros, and has close ties with New Line, Miramax, Majestic and Rysher.

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