Once scrappy Gotham filmmakers feeling newly empowered

The Gotham film scene is all grown up. No longer known simply for scrappy auteurs making black-and-white 16mm movies in the East Village, New York’s edgy upstarts have officially joined the big leagues, roping in A-list celebrities, mounting multi-million dollar international co-productions, distributing box office mammoths and raking in Oscars a plenty.

Hollywood may still be the center of entertainment power, but as NYC-based Newmarket exec Bob Berney, who released boffo breakthroughs “The Passion of the Christ” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” says, “there is a shift in resources out of Los Angeles.

“When you think of a whole bunch of decision makers in one place, New York has definitely increased in greenlight-financing power.”

“It’s lost a bit of the bohemian ragamuffin sensibility,” admits Anthony Bregman, a protégé of producer Ted Hope, fellow This is That founder, and producer of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

“But at the same time, the New York community is more empowered than it has ever been before. It has much more knowledge on how to use the system and leave it when it needs to, and has much stronger connections to the agencies and stars that can make difficult films happen.

“You can make a parallel to the ’70s when Altman, Coppola and Scorsese took over the studios and there was a recognition on a much wider level that these type of movies can be appealing.”

New York industryites point to two shifts in decision-makers’ attitudes that have helped boost their biz: the realization among suits that auteur-driven films can be profitable, and the realization among stars that such movies can benefit their careers in terms of awards and industry respect.

Witness the pay-off of legit choreographer and Hollywood outsider Rob Marshall, who helmed “Chicago,” the accolades heaped on “American Splendor” or the skyrocketing cred that Charlize Theron earned for starring in “Monster.”

“There really wasn’t a precedent for these movies making money before,” says Berney. “Now that riskier projects are more successful, that’s benefited the type of films that were already coming out of New York.”

With the formation of Focus Features out of indie mecca Good Machine, New York has also had an injection of cinema-making capital that, according to Focus co-president David Linde, is free from Hollywood pressures.

“We’re not reliant on Los Angeles,” he says. “We’re reliant on a group of filmmakers based in New York, and a belief in the abilities of certain producers, like Ross Katz, Ted Hope and Michael Hausman, to make very strong movies.”

And with the hiring of producer John Lyons as Focus’ president of production in January, the company plans a major push to capitalize on New York’s legit and literary worlds to “tap a huge vein of underused talent,” says Lyons.

While the New York industry grows out of grubby little downtown offices into posh little downtown offices, yesterday’s indie stalwarts also maintain a commitment to the same filmmakers, projects and low budgets that launched their careers.

“We have created a situation where we can hug the ground and grow at the same time,” says Jason Kliot. His indie concern Open City was bought by advertising guru Donny Deutsch to form Deutsch/Open City, which allows them to pursue low budget HD productions and bigger budget pics simultaneously.

Likewise, John Sloss’ financing and sales company Cinetic Media straddles the $150,000 movies produced under Gary Winick’s InDigEnt banner and international co-financing projects put together for $20 million-$30 million. “We have access, credibility, a lot more attention, and we’re able to do things on a bigger scale,” says Cinetic’s Micah Green. “But we still do tiny movies.”

As evidence of increased opportunity and a fidelity to edgy material, Killer Films’ Christine Vachon has recently set in motion two projects that have been gathering dust since the ’90s: Mary Harron’s “The Ballad of Bettie Page” and Tom Kalin’s “Savage Grace.”

“It’s a minor miracle,” says Vachon, who credits, in part, the presence of “Bettie Page” financier HBO “for taking risks that other companies won’t take.”

But Vachon, whose company continues to thrive via a first-look deal with Warner Brothers, remains skeptical about their newfound power in the industry. “If you’re making films that are provocative and with new talent, you continually run into issues,” she says. “Right now I’m feeling pretty good about everything, but six months ago I wasn’t, and six months from now I might not be.”

East Coast maverick John Sayles says that it may be easier to squeeze $1 million from the maturing Gotham scene, but the $5 million it takes for him to make a movie? “No,” he says. “Unless you had something recently that went platinum, it’s always hard to raise money.”

Still, New York’s film scene continues to benefit from a more intimate and interconnected community, who have realized since the MPAA screener debacle there is power in numbers. “There is a growing awareness that if we don’t join together,” says Jason Kliot, “we’re going to get screwed by the studios. We’re realizing more and more that we need to share information.”

Gotham players also pride themselves on a candor and openness that allows for easier collaboration. “We’re not bullshit artists,” says Green. “In Los Angeles, people have to dress up what they’re doing to make an impression. The culture of New York is different; it’s a lot less glitzy and it’s a lot more brass tacks.”

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