Nu Image @ 20

Nu Image chairman Avi Lerner and the head of his Millennium Films banner come from opposite poles of the independent film world: Mark Gill worked on the prestige end with Miramax and Warner Independent before striking out on his own with the short-lived Film Department, while Lerner made millions on the company’s low-budget action films before moving the company upmarket. Todd Longwell recently sat down with the pair, along with Lerner’s fellow Nu Image co-founder Trevor Short and the company’s longtime head of development Boaz Davidson, to discuss where independent film is going and where it’s been.

Variety to Mark Gill:
When you were at Miramax, it was kind of the golden age of both that company and the arthouse indie film biz. Why do you think that fell apart?

Gill:
It was three or four things. Technology is the biggest incursion. So much of what we’re competing against now isn’t just other movies, it’s the Internet and Facebook and videogames, and you name it. The second thing is that television also had competition and realized it and got a lot better and is amazing — particularly with drama, which used to be the staple of a lot of what we’ll call the high-end of the indie film business. So now if you have a drama, you’ve got to be one of the five or seven best of the year or forget it.

Variety:
It’s less heralded and less romantic, but Nu Image was at the epicenter of the golden age straight-to-video business in the ’90s. Why did that go to pot?

Lerner:
Very simple: there’s no demand for it. (Laughs) What can we say? The whole world … people don’t like straight-to-video. They want the production value to be straight-to-the-theaters when they buy.

Short:
The decline in straight-to-video movies was largely a decline in video as a business. People can’t pay you for video rights, because they’re not making money in their own country because the stuff’s available on every street corner before they’ve bought the rights. So it’s a big impact on that level of filmmaking across the board, but specifically on what used to be the straight-to-video movie. Straight-to-video means straight to piracy now.

Variety:
You just signed the $100 million co-production deal with West Coast Film Partners, and the studios are doing similar deals. It seems like the line between indie and studio is being blurred.

Gill:
Very much so. Certainly, a lot of what they used to produce and release is now what the independents are doing, whether it’s with us or Lionsgate and anybody else. And the other thing, as you pointed out, is the financing structure of the studios is no longer “they have all the cash, they don’t care.” Everybody is taking on partners these days.

Lerner:
If you look at the last few weeks in the box office, the No. 1 movies were “Looper,” “Expendables,” “End of Watch.” They’re all independent movies. When we cannot compete with the studio is during the summertime and the holiday time. That’s where the studio is releasing the event movies.

Variety:
At Nu Image, the motto has been sell it for X, make it for X-minus. You don’t make art for art’s sake.

Davidson:
Every day, we have people come into this office — directors, producers — and they say, “This is the Oscar winner. Make this movie.”

Lerner:
I give them the address of Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount — they make the Oscar movies.

Variety:
What about you, Mark? Are you still attached to the romance of indie prestige films?

Gill:
First of all, you can’t really stay in this business if you don’t have that discipline and that is the No. 1 lesson of the last 30 years of independent film companies. When they lose that discipline, they die. Harvey and Bob [Weinstein], for all the romance of Miramax, were the same way. The second thing is, the bar for what is a theatrical necessity is much higher than it was 10 or 15 years ago, so it’s not just the romance of wanting to have a good story, it’s essential. If you don’t have it, they’re not going.

Nu Image @ 20
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