Indie biz bazaar fuels key cultural shifts in cinema

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The first American Film Market in 1981 was a modest affair, but the big news was the blockbuster pre-sales achieved for a $15 million Sylvester Stallone actioner by an upstart outfit called Carolco.

The success of “First Blood” didn’t just turn Carolco into a major Hollywood player; it also defined the style and commercial ambition of the independent film business for years to come. Its influence is still felt today: At last year’s AFM, one of the big sellers was another Stallone action vehicle, the $80 million-budgeted “The Expendables.”

Michael Ryan, then of J&M Entertainment and now of Sequence Films, recalls how the atmosphere at that first market in the Westwood Marquis was electrified by those Carolco pre-sales.

” ‘First Blood’ was a phenomenon that kind of created the business for all of us,” he says. “In those days, we were existing on fairly small stuff, but Carolco created this huge vehicle, which made us all realize that it was possible to get really large sums of money together from the international market to make big films.”

There were just 21 sales companies at the first AFM. Lorimar, then an indie giant, was flying all its foreign clients over for an annual confab at the La Costa resort in Southern California. The other sales agents decided to take advantage of the fact that all their key buyers were passing through L.A. at the same time, so they all chipped in $25,000 apiece to create their own market.

That first event was, Ryan recalls, “small beer,” and despite its tenfold growth over the past 30 years, the AFM has never attained anything approaching glamour. Whereas Hollywood has embraced Cannes, the AFM remains on the other side of the tracks. Yet the cultural and commercial impact of the films financed and sold there has been huge.

For some, the idea of indie film refers to a low-budget aesthetic, or an ideological concept of artistic integrity outside the studio system. But for the diverse players at the AFM, from the arthouse moguls to the schlock merchants, it’s simply an entrepreneurial model supporting any kind of filmmaking that a patchwork of distributors, private investors and subsidy orgs can be persuaded to pay for.

That created not only Carolco’s pumped-up franchises and action superstars but also the phenomenon of “Dances With Wolves,” a brilliant piece of global salesmanship by Guy East at the service of Kevin Costner’s personal vision, which cost just $22 million and was rewarded with seven Oscars and $424 million in worldwide B.O.

Costner’s Oscars combined with his vast slice of that income gave the indie biz a credibility in Hollywood talent circles that even Carolco’s success never achieved. The film also made so much money for its distributors worldwide that they were eager and able to come back for more, investing through the 1990s in ever-expanding slates from companies such as New Line, Miramax and Polygram, reaching its zenith with “The Lord of the Rings.”

For many years, the indie biz was supported by a cushion of video and TV revenues that has now largely disappeared. While this often paid for boilerplate genre fare, it also permitted the kind of risk-taking that produced genuinely fresh and original work, like “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “The Shawshank Redemption” or “Strictly Ballroom.”

The Independent Film & Television Alliance, which runs the AFM, compiled its recent list of the 30 “most significant” independent films of the past 30 years to highlight this range of pop cultural achievement — everything from genre groundbreakers “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Terminator” to foreign-lingo pioneers “Das Boot” and “Life Is Beautiful.” IFTA members have won the best picture Oscar 18 times in three decades, from “Gandhi” and “Amadeus” to “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Hurt Locker.”

The major studios have often followed where the indies have led, whether financially or creatively. The success of indie producers in opening up sources of foreign money and mining cut-price talent from overseas has had a big influence on contemporary Hollywood. Even Troma’s “Toxic Avenger,” which got a controversial mention in IFTA’s honor roll, is being developed for a big-budget remake.

In many respects, indie film has changed beyond recognition since that first AFM. Companies have come and gone, yet many of the individuals remain, adapting to new circumstances and reinventing themselves under new banners. The indie biz has become straighter and more meticulous than in the days when simply slapping up a poster with a couple of names on it was enough to close a sale, often paid in cash.

Whether this more staid and professional indie culture will produce as many iconic films as the last 30 years, or indeed more, is impossible to predict. But one of the defining characteristics of indie film is that success always comes as a surprise, as Carolco proved back in 1981 with “First Blood.”

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