Theatrically challenged nominees abound this year

Kudos may or may not translate into big box office for studio releases. For indies, the glow of awards season can’t even guarantee distribution.

This year’s Spirit Awards lineup is one of the most theatrically neglected in years. Five nominated pics don’t have a U.S. theatrical distrib in place (“Dandelion,” “Down to the Bone,” “On the Outs,” “Robbing Peter,” “Unknown Soldier”); and two others played only on cable (“Cavedweller,” “Redemption”).

“It’s the goal of the Spirit awards to shine a light on the spectrum of independent films and some of those films fall through the cracks of distribution,” says Dawn Hudson, exec director of IFP/Los Angeles. “As the ceiling is rising for independent films, the floor is lowering, too, and if we’re going to allow studio-independent films, we also want to allow those deserving films that played only at festivals.” (Qualifying festivals include New Directors/New Films, New York, Seattle, Sundance, Telluride, Toronto, and the IFP’s own Los Angeles Film Festival.)

But with Fox Searchlight’s “Sideways” poised to scoop up more big wins on Saturday, smaller fest gems find themselves helpless to compete — both for accolades and exposure — in a Hollywood-dominated marketplace. Even at the Spirits, Hudson admits, regretfully, “Films with the highest box office often win.”

“It’s been frustrating for us,” says Susan Leber, producer of Debra Granik’s Sundance 2004 Director’s Award winner “Down to the Bone,” which competes for the Spirits’ actress kudo (Vera Farmiga) and John Cassavetes prize. “So many distributors have come to us and say they love the movie, but they say it’s dark, and it doesn’t have stars, and they’re scared at how they’re going to market it.”

Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik, co-directors of “On the Outs” — which won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance 2005 and is also up for John Cassavetes and actress Spirits — had similar reactions from distribs. ” ‘This is a fantastic film,’ ” Silverbush remembers being told, ” ‘but the issue is not to convince them after they’ve seen it, but to get them to see it in the first place.’ “

Silverbush acknowledges the marketing challenges of the gritty story of three young women locked in a cycle of drugs and violence. “It’s a tough, unflinching, fucked-up view of a complicated situation,” she says. “But on the other hand, from the perspective of being born into the hip-hop generation, I strongly believed my peers would come see this, because they don’t want a sugarcoated version of the world.”

Not so, say indie distributors. “A film that’s hard to take and hard to watch has always been hard to sell,” says Magnolia Pictures’ Eamonn Bowles. “And it’s not that these films aren’t worth getting out. It’s just that it takes $100,000 to find out, and the cost of finding out has not gone down.”

“You can make it for nothing,” echoes Leber, “but you can’t market it for nothing.”

Adds ThinkFilm’s head of U.S. theatrical distribution Mark Urman, “Films like ‘Down to the Bone’ may get nods at Sundance and at the Spirits, and may also — eventually — get small releases. But the public is not supportive of these films, nor is the media. If the distribution community takes them on, it’s a form of philanthropy. These days, the public gets its indie fix from ‘Sideways.’ “

Wellspring Media’s head of acquisitions Marie-Therese Guirgis agrees the high-stakes specialized theatrical market has squeezed out smaller American pictures. “There’s a place on DVD and television for these films, and I think people discount that as a platform,” she says. “We’re well past the point of looking at theatrical as the holy grail. Filmmakers have to realize they have a better chance of making their money back on DVD.”

But buoyed by their Spirit nominations, many of this year’s undistributed films will still try to find theatrical homes. Silverbush and Skolnik have partnered with urban marketing giant Cornerstone Promotion to make themselves more attractive to distribs.And Lisa Garibay, a producer on “Robbing Peter,” which has four Spirit noms, says her team is fully prepared to self distribute.

“Because we made this film as a way of proving that it could be done, it was always made clear, both to investors as well as to artistic collaborators, that this was not to be a moneymaking venture,” she says, “but a stepping-stone towards a hopefully long, solid career.”

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