Micro-indie films offer creative freedom, but plenty of fiscal hurdles

Given the usual summer glut of superheroes, CGI animals and cars, you might not think there’d be much room at the multiplex for Susan Seidelman’s micro-budget geriatric comedy of the sexes, “Boynton Beach Club.”

But thanks to a grassroots marketing campaign and a distribution deal with a Florida theater chain, “Boynton” has taken in more than $600,000 in the Panhandle State. It even caught the interest of Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films. The two distribs announced last week that they plan to give the pic a national release.

Seidelman’s well-reviewed comedy is part of a growing wave of features and docus on the low-budget fringes of the theatrical market.

It’s a field crowded with filmmakers shooting and editing their projects with inexpensive digital equipment. Some, like Seidelman, are industry vets. Others are self-taught. All are trolling the festival circuit, angling for bargain-basement distribution deals with the likes of Netflix, the Sundance Channel or IFC.

They may in the end be self-distribbed by an enterprising filmmaker. Or they may get a bare-bones theatrical rollout from a small distrib: no junket, no fancy premiere, no TV ad budget.

But with the right fiscal discipline and guerrilla marketing, more of these pics are clawing their way out of the cellar.

Take Andrew Wagner’s acclaimed mockumentary “The Talent Given Us.”

The director was unable to find a distrib at Sundance, so he walked into Gotham’s Angelika theater and asked if they would show his film. Miraculously, they said yes. After strong reviews from Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis and a solid limited Gotham run, Landmark agreed to expand the pic to 20 cities around the country.

Wagner calls the economics “basically a wash” — he wound up spending about $180,000 in production and marketing and the film earned only about $65,000 at the box office — but the title got snapped up by the Sundance Channel. And the theatrical run led to a deal with Gotham digital shingle InDigEnt, the company behind “Tadpole” and “Pieces of April.”

Wagner’s next project is “Starting Out in the Evening” for InDigEnt. Pic stars Frank Langella and Lauren Ambrose, and it has a whopping budget compared to his last effort — $500,000.

Then there’s the success story of “What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?” The New Age doc raked in $1 million in self-release in 2004 before it attracted the attention of Roadside Attractions for a bigger push that brought in more than $10 million.

The advent of cheap digital cameras and desktop editing systems has opened the door for a scrappy new generation of filmmakers desperate to get their work into theaters.

It’s a group that just might include the next Jim Jarmusch or Peter Jackson. But the odds are not in their favor. There were more than 2,600 feature film submissions to Sundance last year, a 30% increase from the previous year. Only 120 got in.

Even for those, many don’t get distribution, and those that do don’t get released — or struggle in self-release. The latest example is Iraq war docu “The War Tapes.” Pic won the Tribeca Film Fest’s top nonfiction prize, and 95% of critics have given the pic solid reviews, according to RottenTomatoes.com. But the movie has earned only about $22,000 theatrically since opening June 1.

“No one’s doing (self-distribution) because they want to, or because it’s a really exciting option,” says Roadside co-head and former agent Howard Cohen.

“You see what the marketplace says, and you accept that verdict or you go out to prove something. But the economics are against you.”

With the growth of cable, digital downloading and DVD, helmers today have more distribution outlets than ever. The paradox is that it’s a theatrical release that remains essential (mostly for critical and marketing reasons) even as its relevance to a film’s overall revenue fades.

“The importance of the theatrical market is as strong as ever, but the economics are not what’s driving it anymore,” says Bill Banowsky, CEO of Landmark Theaters and Magnolia Pictures. “If you’re an indie movie, you just hope to get out of a theatrical release with a break-even.”

Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 Entertainment, parent of Magnolia Pictures, has launched Truly Indie, a kind of intermediary for producers who want the control of self-distribution with the services of a traditional distrib — what one might call the Kinko’s of film distribution.

The unit takes a flat fee but no percentage of the box office, in exchange for providing consulting, marketing and publicity services, as well as the ability to place the movie in a network of theaters that includes Landmark houses.

Like Magnolia, other nonstudio distribs such as IFC Films are embracing the idea that the theatrical window is basically a marketing channel. Companies like these with active cable arms are using theatrical as a promotional platform for ancillary markets, and in some cases experimenting with simultaneous release on TV and DVD. Debut Truly Indie release “Cavite” has already been sold to Magnolia’s homevid division.

What the micro-indie market realizes is that there’s an opportunity in the widening gulf between the stand-alones and the studio specialty labels.

Ten years ago, indie execs would pile into film fests duking it out to discover indie gems by unknowns and looking for the next “sex, lies, and videotape.”

Today, most heads of studio subsids have boiled down the acquisitions game to a science. They want to get involved in pics long before they’re finished, and are targeting pics only with name casts and “commercial upside.” They track potential projects from the earliest stages and buy few finished films.

That leaves the smaller stand-alones to prowl fests for foreign pics and less star-studded fare to buy at sub-basement prices — even though, as one exec warns, such pics can be a tough sell.

John Cameron Mitchell’s sexually explicit experimental “Shortbus” shored up the best buzz of any American film without distribution in Cannes as others fell flat. But the pic’s inevitable NC-17 rating — and nonexistent value as a TV property, due to sexual content — allowed ThinkFilm to come in, weeks after Cannes closed, and mop up North American rights. Studio subsids admired the pic, but saw it as off-limits.

Most of the micro-indies these days are following a model that’s a small-scale version of the one pioneered by Tom Bernard and Michael Barker’s Sony Pictures Classics. SPC still sets out to create a large and eclectic library, mixing bigger pics with foreign language and more esoteric arthouse fare without high pricetags.

“Our goal is to have as eclectic a library as possible,” Barker says. “You should see what some of these pictures throw off in the DVD library for years and years. When you have a collection of films, things that are unpredictable happen in the marketplace.”

When Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity” appeared in 2002, SPC saw sales of its own 1998 Franka Potente starrer “Run Lola Run” spike.

“The luxury of building a library is that you set your long-term goals,” says Marcus Hu, co-head of Strand Releasing. “It may not be a short-term game plan, but it works for companies like us.”

For Netflix, a key micro-indie player, assembling a library has become an essential part of its business plan.

The netco has made a cottage industry out of pics with tiny budgets. Last year the company picked up about 90 films for a mix of homevid and theatrical distribution.

Netflix is ratcheting down that figure somewhat to about 70 this year, as it concentrates on slightly more high-profile titles such as the Maggie Gyllenhaal starrer “Sherrybaby” and Sundance darling “The Puffy Chair,” both of which it bought in 2006.

Each deal is structured differently, but in a typical case Netflix will act as distributor of record for theatrical and homevid, paying a flat fee to a company like IFC to handle a limited theatrical release. It’s unlikely to make serious money on a given pic. But there’s a larger calculus: Buy rights to a lot of movies, flog some of them and hope one becomes the next “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Bahman Naragi, the former Miramax and Intermedia exec recently hired to supervise distribution, says the theatrical window is simply a promotional platform for Netflix.

But he says the company can use limited releases to attract media, then turn around and make money in homevid. Says Landmark’s Banowsky: “If we’re smart about how we distribute movies, we can get a lot more quality films to more people.”

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