World-renowned image shaken by market changes

Remember when “indie” was cool? Companies like Miramax, New Line and Sony Classics built their reputations on the independent brand with films like “sex, lies and videotape,” “Sid and Nancy” and “Howards End” — sexy, edgy or arty cinema that proved it was OK, even exciting, to be different from the mainstream. “Indie” fever spread, spawning kudocasts like the Independent Spirit Awards, and even helped brand such pic shrines as the Independent Film Channel.

But today, the once-sacred “indie” tag — with its Sundance stamp of approval — may be starting to feel outdated — like Spandex, Goth and Grunge.

“I don’t think there’s much juice left in that orange to squeeze out,” admits Focus Features’ co-prexy James Schamus, referring to the type of indie films he once produced at his former company, Good Machine — pics like Edward Burns’ “The Brothers McMullan” and Hal Hartley’s “Simple Men.”

“We often find the parochial American indie just doesn’t speak to the rest of the world,” Schamus continues, “and quite frankly, doesn’t have much commercial context here in the States either.”

Focus’ few U.S.-based acquisitions and productions are distinctly high-concept or auteur-driven, like Rian Johnson’s teen-noir Sundance pick-up “Brick” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers.” But even these savvy American indies present challenges.

“Jim’s auteur status may be a commercial factor in Germany,” says Schamus, “but in the U.S., his movies have never grossed a couple pennies more than $3 million.” While that’s changed with “Broken Flowers” (grosses have surpassed $8 million), the film’s healthy box office can be attributed less to Jarmusch’s status as an indie icon than to the strong presence of bankable star Bill Murray and a supporting cast of recognizable female leads.

Internationally, the situation isn’t much different. Execs say that if a movie isn’t by the likes of Woody Allen or Jarmusch, name casts and proven domestic success is key. “The indie brand means very little overseas,” Fox Searchlight head of distribution Stephen Gilula says. “American road movies and rural life — they just don’t relate.”

“It’s often unpredictable,” Gilula adds. “A small film like ‘Thirteen’ actually did more internationally than domestically.” But Searchlight’s domestic winner “Napoleon Dynamite,” with its oddball Americana humor, failed to strike a chord abroad.

Distribution maverick Bob Berney, the new head of HBO and New Line’s Picturehouse Films, says a film’s “indie-ness” isn’t really a factor, anymore: It’s about the films themselves. “I think the audience has grown, and they’re responding to a wide variety of movies. I don’t think audiences say, ‘We’re going to see an indie film tonight,’ ” he says. “Awareness is somewhat blurred. The brand doesn’t mean edgy, hip films, either, as reflected by ‘Greek Wedding,’ or ‘The Thing About My Folks,’ or even ‘Diary of a Mad Black Woman.’ ”

Some industryites worry that the biz’s blending of the once vaunted “indie” label with more commercial product could ultimately jeopardize the health of the brand.

“There’s a danger in a lack of attention to smaller pictures and more attention for the instant home runs,” Sony Classics’ Michael Barker says.

“You have this new weird hybrid that aspires to what the secondary labels at the majors were doing years ago, like Hollywood Pictures or TriStar,” Sony Classics partner Tom Bernard adds. “They’re shying away from anything that they can’t take wide, and walking away from the indie world.”

“I’m a big believer in the world independent scene,” says self-proclaimed indie “purist” Bingham Ray, former topper of October Films and United Artists. “But obviously it’s articulated toward a studio culture and an opening weekend mentality. And I see a real downside to that. We’re indulging a younger audience that has a very brief attention span.”

Indeed, the distinction between independent and studio fare has become so fuzzy that companies have found a way to have their indie cake and eat studio-level portions, too — that is, to appropriate the “indie” brand on certain titles, but also to expand beyond it.

For this summer’s hot-button hit “Crash,” for example, distributor Lions Gate Films crafted a strategy that capitalized on both the film’s independent roots and its ability to be marketed wide as a star-studded drama.

” ‘Crash’ benefited from establishing its indie credibility at the Toronto film festival, where critics saw the film and got behind it,” Lions Gate Films Releasing prexy Tom Ortenberg says.

After learning the New Yorker’s David Denby was a huge supporter, the company set up a national word-of-mouth screening program sponsored by the magazine. “So even while we were opening the picture on almost 2,000 screens, and spending north of $10 million in P&A, we were still very much concerned with the independent aspect of the film,” Ortenberg explains.

Paramount Classics’ David Dinerstein agrees. For “Hustle and Flow,” he says the company touted the film’s Sundance Audience Award in ads. “We were really able to bifurcate the marketing and reach out to that indie audience willing to discover new talent as well as the African-American audience,” he says.

“But the broader you’re going with a theatrical release,” explains Ortenberg, “the less you can wear your indie heart on your sleeve. We’re talking about the marketing of movies, and our job as marketers is to grasp as wide an audience as possible.”

From Focus’ Rogue Pictures to Lions Gate’s horror slate, the specialized divisions’ recent penchant for genre fare functions similarly. While there’s no doubt Rob Zombie’s grisly gross-out “The Devil’s Rejects” comes from an independent vision, it has little to do with the conventional arthouse fare of Miramax yore. “We’re trying to have it both ways,” Ortenberg argues, “to appeal to that independent-minded audience, but also not to alienate a more commercial fan-base.”

So while the old “indie” brand may be out of style, the new hybrid Indiewood label has reached such a level of maturity that smaller films can sit comfortably side by side with big-budget studio product in multiplexes, videostores and retail giants all across the globe. “What has happened with the independent brand is that it’s now strong enough to withstand the mainstream marketplace,” explains James Schamus, speaking of the more expanded specialized model. “And that’s a big deal.”

Schamus points to Focus’ successful promotional push of its Che Guevera biopic “The Motorcycle Diaries” in, of all places, Wal-Mart. “You have an increased sophistication in the way these films navigate the maze of the ancillary windows,” he adds. “Their identity is no longer threatened by a commercial context.”

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