New indies find fertile ground

Shingles tailor biz to new rules

Reports of the death of New York independent filmmaking have been greatly exaggerated.

Jolted by startups like Celine Rattray and Trudie Styler’s Maven Pictures, suddenly adventurous financiers, record-high state tax credits, lower budgets, revamped business models and reopened distrib pocketbooks, indie film producers are experiencing a renaissance.

Yes, outfits like New Line Cinema and Rattray’s former shingle Mandalay Vision are still being consolidated into their parent companies’ Los Angeles homes. Producers’ fees are lower, and overhead deals are nearly impossible to find. But as they make painful adjustments to post-recession realities, emerging producers are adapting, finding funds and having their first big breakthroughs.

“The old model of how an independent producer grows has changed a lot, and new producers are navigating new territory,” says producer and Filmmaker Magazine editor Scott Macaulay. “Making a first-time film for $2.5 million wasn’t a crazy idea, but now a number of people say you should make it for $600,000 or $300,000. New technologies and digital projection at festivals have allowed budgets to come down.”

The first big ray of hope came with last fall’s sales boom in Toronto. The watershed was Sundance, where low-budget narrative films without big-name stars were snapped up by specialty divisions like Fox Searchlight (“Another Earth,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and Focus (“Pariah”).

Combined with niche hits like “Winter’s Bone,” these deals offered further encouragement to producer/financiers like BCDF Pictures (“Higher Ground”), Maybach Cunningham Entertainment (“Martha …”) and Super Crispy Entertainment (“Like Crazy”), as well as individuals who can now afford to play patron of the arts on very low-budget projects. Features from upstart Gotham-based outfits like Red Bucket Films (home of the picmakers Joshua and Ben Safdie) and the nonprofit Artists Public Domain (“Another Earth”) suddenly seemed like much safer bets.

“There’s a real outlet for movies at this budget level on VOD and in a festival platform,” says “Tiny Furniture” producer Alicia Van Couvering, whose $50,000 film earned about as much from on-demand rentals as from the $392,000 it made in theaters.

Some producers are setting up shop because of the lack of Gotham opportunities, not in spite of them. “It didn’t make sense to go out into the marketplace hoping a production company would hire me,” explains Table Ten Films co-founder Molly Pearson, who raised funds for her upcoming debut feature, “The Green,” through her theater company’s investors. “It seemed like the safer thing was developing content with (partner) Paul (Marcarelli) and having that potentially function as a calling card.”

Others are encouraged by the overall economics. “I’ve made three movies in Michigan in the last two years. (State tax credits there are) now capped and much harder to pull off in terms of a guaranteed rebate,” says Maven’s Rattray (“The Kids Are All Right”). She loves the record high $420 million annual cap on New York State’s 30% film tax credit enacted last fall, and that it won’t expire until December 2014. “It makes so much sense to shoot here now, just from a financial standpoint.”

Styler (“Moon”) says Gotham has financial advantages that London (home of her other production shingle, Xingu Films) and other cities don’t. “There are more supporters of the arts here who will have a punt because they’re passionate about movies, so you have a bigger list to draw from for equity,” she says. “You can find money in some unexpected places.”

Paper Street Films co-founder Austin Stark has one partner (Benji Cohen) from Bear Sterns and another (Chris Papavasiliou) who still works at Goldman Sachs. (A fourth, Bingo Gubelmann, focuses on producing such films as Tony Kaye’s “Detachment”). “The main reason we wouldn’t move (to Los Angeles) is that without our investor base, we wouldn’t be making films,” he says.

But Wall Street friends aren’t always essential. Parts and Labor co-founder Jay Van Hoy (“Beginners”) notes that production partners, grants from New York-based nonprofits like Cinereach and even the online fundraising site Kickstarter can be essential to many of the low-budget films that drive his prolific company. “Twenty-five thousand dollars is a major help for a film (that costs less than) $700,000,” he notes.

Indie film outfits are adapting and surviving primarily by diversifying, with an increased focus on more lucrative television, commercials, branded entertainment and Internet projects.

“At Sundance, everyone saw that you can have a business making movies for a couple of hundred thousand dollars and not a couple of million, but those movies are hard to make,” notes Van Couvering. Her sophomore producing effort, “Nobody Walks,” is funded by Super Crispy and stars John Krasinski, yet she still needs to write for magazines, ghostwrite and consult on film budgets and scheduling to pay the bills.

Even more established Gotham producers need creative ways to supplement the industry’s less-than-steady income. Swarovski Entertainment, the branded-content division of the crystal house, hired Primary Prods. founder Amy Kaufman (“The Whistleblower”) as an consultant for its features. “I think you have to be incredibly crafty in these times,” Kaufman says. “That’s been my little side business, which has worked out really nicely.”

Producer Noah Harlan (the Cannes entry “Return”) develops mobile apps through his Two Bulls outfit. And newer players like Toy Closet Films use branded entertainment to fund their inhouse development slate, which includes George A. Romero screenplays.

Many Gotham outfits that set out to exclusively tackle film have turned to TV for the larger, often more reliable income it provides. Locomotive’s Lucy Barzun Donnelly and Joshua Astrachan got into it when their first planned theatrical outing, “Grey Gardens,” ended up at HBO. They are now considering a reality series, though their main focus will remain on features like the upcoming “Friends With Kids.”

Commercials and musicvideos are now essential for several New York-based film companies. One of Sundance’s biggest success stories is Brooklyn-based Borderline Films, a collective run by director/producers Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin and Josh Mond, who’ve been able to pay crew members more on commercials than features.

“We’re paying our rent just to survive with commercial work,” said Campos in January, shortly after Fox Searchlight nabbed their “Martha Marcy May Marlene” for a reported $1.6 million. “My phone literally shut off about an hour into the negotiations because I couldn’t pay my phone bill,” he added. Things have changed: Mond says they’re now looking for their own Brooklyn office thanks to the Searchlight sale.

Speak to any New York producer and themes you’ll hear time and again are community, collaboration, mentorship and unselfishly sharing information with others — more what you’d expect from Peace Corps volunteers than the cutthroat film industry. Many extol organizations like IFP and their shared hardships during dire economic times seem to have only strengthened their bond.

“We borrow a lot from what Silicon Valley does when small startups there share information — it’s one big think tank,” notes Toy Closet partner Ryan Silbert. “That’s going to be the future for producers in New York.”

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