Building character

They may confound bean-counters, but human pix are back

While the glory days of personal and political studio pictures like “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy” may seem long gone, replaced by a global-blockbuster mentality, a number of this year’s most accomplished directors resemble ’70-style American auteurs (while some are even the real thing). With character-driven stories rather than “Titanic”-size epics, they’re proving idiosyncratic pictures can earn praise and profits once again.

“I was a teenager in the ’70s, so those are the movies that I thought were cool,” says Alexander Payne, one of many fortysomethings who make up the new wave of studio mavericks.

“In retrospect, those are the films that made me want to become a filmmaker,” he continues. “And now that I can get financing more easily, those are the films I’m interested in making.”

Payne’s nearly $16 million budget for “Sideways” was supplied by Fox Searchlight, one of the many deep-pocketed specialty divisions willing to push provocative film projects nowadays. “Everyone’s been saying that the independent little companies are all drying up,” Payne says, “but look at what the studios are doing: They’re rushing in to fill that gap, and I think that’s very exciting.”

But that’s not to say the studio climate is the same as it was three decades ago. “In the ’60s and early ’70s, everything was less business-driven, less obsessive about cost — it was easier,” remembers Mike Nichols, who helped usher in the New Hollywood renaissance with films like “The Graduate” and “Carnal Knowledge.”

While the financial pressures are higher today, Nichols acknowledges that Sony’s involvement with “Closer,” his scathing four-character drama, shows the studio’s willingness to take chances — that is, if the price is right. “It took a certain amount of guts,” he says, “but I think we made it encouraging for them because it cost very little ($27 million) for a movie with four big stars.”

“We can’t lose money on this one,” agrees Sony Pictures topper Amy Pascal. “The talent didn’t take their full fee. That’s the only way these movies can get made: if the talent is willing to bet on themselves.”

Pascal believes “Closer” is not just an esoteric auteur film, but commercial, too. “I think the audience wants to see good movies. And when you get good filmmakers, lo and behold, you get good films. And when you’re in Mike Nichols’ hands, you just sit back and watch and learn: he is still as cutting-edge now as he was 30 years ago.”

With bloated-budget underperformers such as “The Polar Express” and “Alexander,” it’s no wonder the industry is looking for new low-cost models to turn a profit and distinctive voices, from Clint Eastwood to Steven Soderbergh, to energize the market.

For Payne, such bottom-line concerns are paramount to the studios’ interest in fostering American auteur cinema. “They’re going to make money off it, and that’s the key,” he says. ” ‘Sideways’ didn’t have a big A-list cast and it made money; ‘Sideways’ didn’t pander to the audience and it made money; ‘Sideways’ didn’t have a neatly wrapped-up ending and it made money.

” ‘Sideways’ has to serve as an example to other studios and other filmmakers,” he continues. “If I can be doing it, certainly others can, too.”

Indeed, Joshua Marston, the 35-year-old tyro director of “Maria Full of Grace,” feels empowered to continue pursuing more sensitive work based on the positive feedback he received after making that film. “No one in the industry is trying to box me into thrillers,” he says. “People understand on a larger level what I’m interested in doing: I’m the person who is interested in doing important work.”

Wes Anderson, who is awaiting the release of his third collaboration with Disney, “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” is another one of the new Hollywood filmmakers “lucky enough,” as he says, “to have some autonomy.”

But Anderson admits the studio is taking a risk on his vision. “This is a big, wild movie and it’s something that doesn’t follow a lot of rules and it’s tonally kind of strange,” he says of “Aquatic.” “But at the same time, it’s an adventure, it’s funny, it’s got explosions, and we shoot what is in the script and the studio knows that we’re going to realize it the best way it can possibly be.”

“It is a risk,” agrees Mark Gill, head of Warner Independent Pictures. “But a lot of the reason that we were willing to take that risk is the track record of the director.” Gill says Warner can bet on Richard Linklater to make “Before Sunset” and his upcoming animated Philip K. Dick adaptation “A Scanner Darkly” because, in addition to Linklater’s directorial touch, “the material is strong, so it’s the combination of a great director and a script that you can fall in love with.”

Filmmakers like Payne and Linklater also pride themselves on bringing in films on or under budget — a work ethic the studios no doubt admire. “I’ve always brought my frugal, independent spirit to all the films that I do,” Linklater says.

Still, studios must have insurances beyond a talented, pennywise filmmaker. While Payne was granted the freedom to cast non-stars in “Sideways,” he is the exception, not the rule.

“It depends on the idea,” says David O. Russell. “If the idea is riskier, like ‘I Heart Huckabees’ ” — Russell’s wacky, star-studded “existentialist comedy” — “you have to have names to back it up.”

The industry has also found a safety net in the growth of DVD and other ancillary outlets, which are, perhaps, even better suited to intimate pictures.

“These movies have many ways of going out into the culture in a way that the films of the ’70s did not,” says Fox Searchlight prexy Peter Rice. “Audiences enjoy these movies on cable and they buy the DVDs, and they’re interested in the next film by these directors and I think all of these things feed into each other.”

“All those films are helped enormously by DVD,” agrees Gill, citing the success of Fox Searchlight’s “The Good Girl,” which grossed more than $14 million in theaters domestically, but made “three or four times that on DVD. Even the worst-case scenario is pretty good.”

Gill also points to an aging arthouse population, whose tastes are getting more sophisticated. “And they want something like what the ’70s movies were, which is strong in character and theme, as well as in plot,” he says.

And yet Gill is ultimately skeptical about a ’70s-style revival in Hollywood. “We’re seeing glimmers of that, and it is growing,” he says, “but the bulk of the business is still in wide release, international spectacles, so we’re very much a minority part of the business.”

But as the entertainment industry is in constant need of renewal and revitalization, both filmmakers and studio heads can heed the advice of Mike Nichols: “Elaine May and I had a motto, which really applies to this day: The only safe thing is to take a chance.”

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