Producer battled to get challenging pics made

Just over five years ago, on Feb. 10, 2005, as Berlin Film Festival director Dieter Kosslick stood waiting to begin the event’s opening ceremony, he received word that his friend Humbert Balsan, one of France’s leading producers and chairman of the European Film Academy, had hung himself earlier that day.

“I got the message onstage and it nearly wiped me out,” Kosslick recalled. “This was one of the big horror stories of my life.”

As he made his opening speech that night, Kosslick paid tribute to his friend and commented, “I’d like to think that the Berlinale embodies the spirit of producers like Humbert.”

In some ways, Balsan stood for all that is noble in independent cinema — brave, adventurous and enterprising, he introduced fresh filmmakers from new moviemaking regions, as well as championing difficult work from challenging auteurs from Europe.

But he also battled with the less pleasant aspects of independent filmmaking, such as enormous financial pressures and the capricious nature of the industry.

December saw the release in France of a film inspired by the life and death of Balsan, “The Father of My Children,” and in May IFC Films releases the pic in the U.S. The director, Mia Hansen-Love, one of Variety’s 2010 10 Directors to Watch, got to know Balsan when he backed her first film, “All Is Forgiven.”

“He was more than a producer,” she said. “Somehow he was an artist. His way of producing films was his art. He was taking crazy risks to make these films.”

She said that toward the end of his life Balsan was no longer facing reality. “He just kept on making films for which he had no money. He was running on empty.”

Although some of those who knew Balsan, including Kosslick, had tried to persuade the producer to discuss the financial issues that afflicted him, Balsan had brushed aside these invitations to confide, insisting that the difficulties he faced were no worse than those that any producer had to deal with.

His reaction came as no great surprise to other producers as they say it is not advisable to be too honest about the issues that keep them awake at night.

Philippe Carcassonne, a French producer with a track record as long and as impressive as Balsan’s, speaks for many in saying that it is important to keep up appearances or else risk losing the faith of those involved in developing a project.

“We are not candid because we assume that most of the business is merciless. So we usually pretend that we are doing better than we are doing,” Carcassonne said.

Producers know just how skittish many in the biz can be, and if word gets out that there may be problems then the fragile web of relationships that support a project can atomize.

“It is about confidence, trust and even superstition, because there is this bizarre belief that success goes to success. Either you are hot or you are cold, so you want to appear as hot as possible,” Carcassonne said.

Nik Powell, who as a producer experienced his share of the ups and downs of the business and who now heads the U.K.’s National Film and Television School, knew Balsan through the European Film Academy, and also tried to get him to talk about his mounting difficulties. Powell said that although there is an esprit de corps among producers, they are also rivals, and so there is an understandable reluctance to open up.

“Unless the problem is solved while it is hanging there and threatens to cut the cord that is holding the whole thing together, you don’t really want to disclose those things to a competitor, for fear that someone inadvertently drops something that undermines confidence and the whole thing unravels,” he said.

The vicissitudes of the independent film business have always been present, but in some ways market conditions have improved over the past few decades, with such developments as the rise of tax incentives, regional and other state funds, festival-backed funds for less developed nations, like Berlin’s World Cinema Fund, and improvements in support for first-time directors. But, on the other hand, these same measures may have made life for leading indie producers more difficult.

Philippe Bober, a French producer who also runs sales company Coproduction Office, said there are too many films being produced today, and because of the conditions of their funding, they have to be released theatrically. On top of that, Hollywood and other mainstream pics swamp the market with prints, forcing arthouse pics out of theaters after a few weeks.

“It is not that people are not interested in our films,” Bober said. “It is that the access to people has become much more difficult.”

Problems also have grown in the home entertainment and television sectors, where independent cinema has been pushed to the margins, making it harder to recoup the budget and P&A, and contribute to producers’ overheads.

Added to that the presales market has largely disappeared, although there is still a need to maintain the cashflow during the early stages of production, and the recent financial crisis has made banks more reluctant to lend against projected future earnings. This has created a financial trap that is catching an increasing number of producers.

That said, the state of the independent film sector is still good, said Kosslick, judging by the quality of the films being produced.

“When I look at these films, it is fresh air, the window is open and people are making interesting films. So, no crisis, much more hope and creativity and new talent, and so, you can say, in the words of one of the Sundance titles, ‘The Kids Are All Right,’ ” he said.

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