Band of outsiders

N.Y.'s niche players find new strength in numbers

They’re no indie Motion Picture Assn. of America, and they don’t want to be. But New York’s independent filmmakers have begun forming a more unified front.

Two entities, Dependent Cinema, a loosely affiliated group of writer-directors, and the Producers Group, a contingent of New York producers working under the auspices of IFP New York — have recently made their presence known. They reflect a need for increasing convergence in the face of rising union costs, changing tax incentives and the corporate takeover of the niche biz.

“As the independent movement has been co-opted by the studios,” says Ira Sachs, director of Sundance winner “Forty Shades of Blue,” “we felt that by banding together, we could fight to make personal work in an industry that isn’t really supporting that.”

Sachs founded Dependent Cinema along with Jonathan Nossiter (“Mondovino”), Karim Ainouz (“Madame Sata”) and screenwriter-turned-director Oren Moverman (“Hiding Place”).

“The industry was increasingly splintering filmmakers, diminishing any sense of community,” says Nossiter. “So we created a very loose network of directors and film writers to help each other out.”

Dependent Cinema’s efforts thus far have been more friendly than financial: Sachs helped Ainouz garner a prized Film Forum booking of “Sata.” Nossiter aided Ainouz and Sachs in joining up with foreign sales agent Celluloid Dreams. And Sachs and Moverman have since become a screenwriting team.

“It’s not a club and not a business,” continues Nossiter. “We just wanted to pool resources, without obligations that would compromise our individuality or liberty.”

The Producers Group developed from a similar impulse. With momentum from its victory in cutting short the MPAA screener ban, “we realized we could be effective as a team,” says Open City and HDNet Films’ Jason Kliot, who with his partner Joana Vicente spearheaded the first assembly. “It empowered us.”

The Producer Group’s first call to action was precipitated by the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees’ increase of pension, welfare and health benefits by nearly $8 per crew person per hour to productions big and small, which took effect Jan. 1, 2004. Per many producers, the change could virtually shut down low-budget filming in New York.

Adding insult to injury, recently passed city and state tax incentives make it prohibitive for micro-budgeted filmmakers to afford the approved soundstages that would qualify them for the 15% break, not to mention the costs involved in shooting a feature 75% in the city.

First convened in July, the Producers Group now comprises more than 60 members (including major players like Christine Vachon, Ed Pressman and Anthony Bregman) working in tandem with the IFP to address the concerns of New York filmmakers.

Says IFP exec director Michelle Byrd, “The producers like the fact that there’s a turnkey entity where they can quickly mobilize and quickly disseminate information.”

And information is power. “It’s become about data sharing,” says GreeneStreet’s Tim Williams, a member of the steering committee.

While New York producers say they’ve always exchanged information about everything from locations to crews to casting to technology, Williams says the new entity allows for a more consolidated source of info-gathering, plus organizing tools, such as a Web site, to help producers help each other.

Williams is hoping to enlist Cornell University to publish a study on the economic impact of indies. “It became clear to me that if we started putting numbers down on paper, we’d be a significant economic force,” says Williams. “(We could) take that data to the unions, to the Mayor’s Office and the Governor’s Office, and say, look, we’re a body that spends a lot of money and hires a lot of people nationwide. We deserve to have a voice.”

The Producers Group has been lobbying New York’s Dept. of Small Business Services for subsidies, arguing that low-budget pics are training grounds for the future “Ang Lees, Ellen Kurases and Kevin Thompsons who have come up through the system,” says Williams.

“We should get a lower rate because we’re essentially a school,” adds Killer Films’ Katie Roumel, who came up with the initiative. “This is a New York City employment issue, too.”

While the small-business subsidy package looks as if it’s moving forward, the Producers Group’s discussions with the IATSE have stalled.

“The reality is a little less rosy than joining hands and breaking free of our chains,” says Kliot. “Our chains are still here. We’re never going to have the power that Hollywood dollars have.”

That won’t stop New York filmmakers from fighting. The 7th Floor’s Allen Bain, who has collaborated with companies like Hart Sharp (on “P.S.”) and Killer Films (on “Camp”), says any setbacks are outweighed by the potential benefits of bringing the community closer.

Nossiter says the Dependent Cinema functions “as a way of focusing energy and cementing the idea that any time one of us gets a film going, it’s good for all of us — and others.”

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