Studios insist that the future belongs to franchises

Whether you’re studying the Oscar race or box office results or simply scanning headlines, one question keeps reasserting itself: What ever happened to “indie” cinema?

With the departure of Daniel Battsek, Miramax has now gone the way of Vantage and Warner Independent. Fox Searchlight is having an ominous autumn (Peter Rice knew when to jump ship) and the bloggers keep composing dirges about the Weinstein company (though most of them have not seen “Nine” or “A Single Man”).

The major studios, having vandalized the indie sector, now insist that low-budget dramas are toxic and that the future belongs to franchises (remember the era when the only “franchises” were sports teams?).

Virtually the last mainstay of the indie world is Sony Pictures Classics, a company built on the heretical thesis that “great indie films just happen, you can’t make them happen.”

Those are the words of Tom Bernard, who with partner Michael Barker, have steered their little label through 20 years of cinematic cross-currents. Their excellent Brit picture, “An Education,” surely an Oscar candidate, directed by an obscure Danish filmmaker, happened to find several puddles of financing before Sony Classics seized distribution rights for the U.S..

Then, of course, there’s the ultimate indie happening — “Paranormal Activity,” which was made on a tab of $11,000 and is headed for $100 million through an astonished Paramount.

Similarly, “Precious,” a true long shot, was financed by heirs to the Celestial Tea fortune and is being distributed by Lionsgate, which hopes to make it their “Crash” of 2010.

When compared to the carefully orchestrated government subsidies and lotteries of foreign countries, the American method of nurturing art films seems haphazard, if not downright uncultured. But it’s the only way that works.

When the “majors” tried to develop and package indie films, the budgets quickly became too lofty, the casts top-heavy and the marketing spends self-defeating. Too many of the studio-backed art films were star-driven passion projects; the random passions of actors — even top actors — are at best erratic.

I discovered this some years ago when I was a studio executive and Paul Newman had a passion to star in a film with the unfortunate title “WUSA.” I told Newman that while I admired his movies, “WUSA” was a tedious political polemic that no one would pay to see. He replied that I was an ignorant asshole. Given his vehemence, I told myself, “Newman is a star, he’s working for nothing, how bad can it be?”

The answer: really bad.

Today’s few and far between indie hits aren’t star-driven — their only common denominator is that they’re accidents of history. Take “Slumdog Millionaire” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or look back to the days of “Sex, Lies and Videotape” or “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”

In years past, the indie world was bolstered by some shrewd decisions and also some good luck. Sony decided to set up an indie label and not mess with it. Harvey Weinstein decided that Oscars could be important to indie films and that Oscar showmanship represented a sound business investment.

It would be hard to imagine another autonomous Sony Classics being formed today. And though Harvey’s hypothesis worked brilliantly for him in its time, the majors don’t seem to covet statuettes any more.

To be sure, while orthodox methods of marketing indie films are being disdained, no one has really worked out a new strategy. Viral praise on the web and fierce Facebook advocacy can provide magic boosts for an art movie, but engineering all that is far from a science. Not even the youthful gurus of the web have managed to package Instant Zeitgeist.

And meanwhile the indie world continues to struggle along, its sagging fortunes buttressed now and then by happy accidents. Maybe, as Tom Bernard suggests, art is indeed an accident.

In the brave new world of 10 Oscar nominees (not just five), the accidents better happen with greater regularity.

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