Heyman, Corman, others recount indie history

To many, “American independents” had its genesis in the low-budget, character-driven features of the late ’80s and early ’90s. But before the Bingham Rays, the James Schamuses and the Christine Vachons, there was a thriving independent film scene, the likes of which may never be seen again.

“In 1963,” recounts John Heyman, a founder of AFMA, a near-legendary film financier and currently chairman of the World Group, “we would send out 150 telexes to distributors around the world. Depending on how many companies responded favorably to a proposal for a picture, we would make the picture.

“I started foreign sales because I wanted to create work for the lesser lights of the industry. There was always work for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, but for others it wasn’t so easy.”

Hollywood in ’60s was, indeed, a different world. Although some filmmakers today continue to make movies on a shoestring, none have duplicated Roger Corman’s achievements.

“I sold a script (in 1953) for $6,000,” says Corman, now head of Concorde-New Horizon. “I took that money and then borrowed $1,000 from each of six college friends. I arranged a number of deferrals and ended up making a movie with a $30,000 budget.”

When the picture turned a profit, Corman rolled the money over into another film. “I was heavily self-financed, breaking the rule of never investing your own money,” Corman says. “But we were profitable, so who was going to tell me that I was doing the wrong thing?”

As Corman’s budgets increased, he resorted to lines of credit and funding from American Intl. and Allied Artists. The man who provided a launchpad for such high-profile filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard never found much favor in foreign markets, but other producers eventually looked to foreign shores to finance their pictures.

“The independent film industry was originally fueled by small sales companies in the 1960s,” recalls Bobby Meyers, a former employee of Heyman’s and, now, head of Meyers Entertainment. “Then came Lorimar which sold films to independent distributors overseas. Foreign distributors knew that they could depend on a steady stream of product from them, and that lasted for 20 years.”

Since that time, funding schemes have come and gone. Insurance-backed finance went from saving grace to accursed evil a few years ago. Tax shelter opportunities have been created and dismantled in a number of territories as well.

“Once one source of funding dries up, another comes along to replace it,” says Meyers, adding he believes the problems with foreign TV are only temporary. “Now, we’re in the era of billionaires financing films.”

The billionaires, says Heyman, are likely to go the way of other funding sources. “They’ll invest until they get burned. Then they’ll go away, too.”

So, what does the future hold for the independent world?

“We are an industry in serious trouble,” says Heyman, referring to both independents and majors. “It makes no business sense to invest in films today. If I were to ask you to invest millions of dollars, explain that we were going to cross-collateralize your investment across 50 films and then tell you that your return would be 9.6%, you would tell me pretty quickly what I could do to myself. It makes more sense to invest in an apartment building.”

Corman, the man whose $6,000 script sale begat an empire, is, perhaps understandably, more upbeat. “It would be possible, but more difficult today, to do what I did,” he says.

“The biggest problem has been the loss of theatrical distribution for independents,” Corman continues. “Today, a lot of independent pictures go straight to video. On the other hand, the increasingly healthy revenue stream generated by DVDs, the increasing quality of digital shoots and the ultimate digitalization of exhibition and distribution all bode well for independent filmmaking.”

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