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A Community of Risk Takers

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New York City has carved a niche as a filmmaking center. And it's not just a "Hollywood East," though major studios often shoot in the Big Apple.

There is a strong sense of community in New York's independent filmmaking world, according to a panel of producers. While the panelists were pragmatic business people whose films have been distributed by such now-established companies as Miramax and Artisan, they did not sound jaded. They expressed a drive to find new voices and new stories to tell, and to do the hard work of turning those concepts into widely distributed films. Producer John Hart noted that during the making of a New York film, the mindset of those involved often resembles that of the theatre world.

The discussion was part of a series, "Film in the City," co-sponsored by Women in Film and Television and the City University of New York Graduate Center. The panels give aspiring filmmakers an idea of the modus operandi of feature production companies in New York City, ranging "from small independents to boutique divisions of monumental studios."

A glance at even a skeletally abridged list of the Jan. 11 panelists' extensive credits is worth a moment to get an idea of the vast range of East Coast-based filmwork. Several of the panelists had collaborated with one another, a further sign of the sense of community they pointed to as a reason to work in New York.

John Hart, producer with partner Jeff Sharp for Hart-Sharp Entertain-ment, was a key force behind last year's acclaimed "Boys Don't Cry," which brought Hilary Swank an Oscar as best actress, and behind recent Sundance winner "You Can Count on Me," directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Hart's Broadway producing credits include "Hamlet" with Ralph Fiennes and the current revivals of "Chicago" and "Annie Get Your Gun." Off-Broadway, he was involved in "The Laramie Project." Scott Macaulay is a principal of Forensic Film, editor of Filmmaker Magazine, and winner—with his partner, Robin O'Hara—of the Independent Film Project/West's Independent Spirit Award for such works as "Chasing Sheep," "Julien Donkey-Boy," and "Joe the King," which received Sundance's Best Screenwriting Prize and starred Val Kilmer, Ethan Hawke, and John Leguizamo.

Larry Meistrick is chairman of Shooting Gallery Entertainment, a film, television, and music development-production-distribution company. With Shooting Gallery President Stephen Carlis, he received the 1999 New York City Entrepreneur Award and Crains' 1998 Small Business Award. The company's producing credits include "Sling Blade," "Laws of Gravity," "Julie Johnson," and "You Can Count on Me." The Shooting Gallery Film Series at Loew's Cineplex Entertainment has led to distribution for many seemingly "noncommercial" films.

Panelist Joanna Vicente is co-founder with Jason Kliot of Open City Films, seeking "ground-breaking" films such as "Down to You," which opened to number one box office receipts last year. "Chuck and Buck," the first product of Open City's digital division, Blow Up Productions, received national attention. John Penotti, partner and president of GreeneStreet Films, has produced "Company Man," starring Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, and Woody Allen, and executive produced Fisher Stevens' "Just A Kiss," as well as two official selections of the Cannes Film Festival—"Illuminata," written and directed by its star, John Turturro (1998), and Griffin Dunne's "Famous" (2000). Producer-director-writer Cynthia Griffin served as moderator.

New Stories to Tell

The panelists were clearly proud of the contrast between their approach and what they view as Hollywood's penchant for formulaic scripts. Several noted that the big studios "go for blockbusters" using minimal language, with the overseas market in mind.

"The film community in New York takes chances they don't usually take in L.A.," said Hart. "Working on Broadway, I found that people there, too, were reluctant to take creative chances, because of cost." Hart finds an "ensemble feeling" in making independent films that resembles the dynamics of tight-knit, small theatre companies.

"In Hollywood, stars often film their scenes and leave." He finds less of that in New York. "There's more willingness to share the risk."

Macauley spent some time as "part of the script development community in L.A.," only to encounter a gap between that community and the people involved in production. In New York, the two components are far more likely to be entwined.

Penotti and Meistrick both started on the "physical production" side of the fence. Penotti wanted to become more involved in the creative process. He and Vicente discussed the advantages of digital shooting—less expensive than film in many ways, allowing more "coverage" (more takes, different angles)—but, Penotti pointed out, the script and the director's choice determined which was best. Although a strong partisan of digital production, Vicente agreed.

Griffin noted the tension between "aesthetics and economics." Meistrick stressed, "This is a business. You always have to think about marketing." Panelists spoke of the all-or-nothing hopes many pin on being noticed at Sundance. Meistrick said festivals held in Berlin, Cannes, London, and Toronto are equally major springboards.

Cable networks such as HBO and Showtime are also major supporters of independent filmmakers' efforts and draw large audiences.

But even Entrepreneur of the Year Meistrick, who described pop music tie-ins and other marketing drives for distribution and box office, said he always includes a documentary among his productions. "Documentaries don't make money," he said. "But they are important." This feeling of mission emerged repeatedly.

Anne Bobroff-Hajal of Women in Film and Television, who produces the panel series, and board member Marcie Setlow, also spoke, describing the organization. Associate Provost Stephen Brier expressed CUNY Graduate Center's support for New York-based filmmaking and the study of film.

Judging from the attentive crowd's questions and panelists' enthusiasm, the determination is strong to make films giving voice to writers and directors with many perspectives, and to do so in New York City.

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