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Indie Jones

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It's a bright day for filming in New York: According to the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, the city rakes in $5 billion a year in production revenue and will bend over backward to get producers what they need. But on a gray, rainy Tuesday in July, five of the Big Apple's most respected independent film veterans -- above, from left, Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard, GreeneStreet's John Penotti, Cinetic Media's John Sloss, Killer Films' Christine Vachon and This Is That's Ted Hope -- met with The Hollywood Reporter's Ian Mohr and Randee Dawn at the ultra-trendy Meatpacking District eatery Spice Market, taking up chopsticks to lunch and a hammer to preconceptions of New York as a movie haven.

The Hollywood Reporter: Independent film ascended to a new level 10 years ago, in the wake of "Pulp Fiction's" success. How do you define indie film today?

John Sloss: The most reliable way of defining independent film is not about the method of financing (and) not about the method of exploitation. It's ...

Tom Bernard: It's how can you make money on it.

Sloss: It's about the method of creation. To me, independent film is something that springs from a singular vision that isn't necessarily calculated to get the broadest demographic possible.

Bernard: That phrase, "independent film" -- the definition changes every day. I got involved in the business back in the early '80s, and what it meant then was somebody who was making a film who had a vision -- who had something to say -- and they had to do it themselves. Flash forward to today, and "independent film" (describes) a business that is very lucrative in the marketplace; very few independent voices that are out there totally run their movies the way they want to. Guys like Jim Jarmusch (and) John Sayles, they do it with their money -- and that's the way it is.

Sloss: By that definition, then, even guys like Steven Spielberg (are independent).

Bernard: I don't think so because John Sayles would rather eat his movie if he can't get distribution.

Ted Hope: When we got started, initially, what independent film looked at was auteur cinema and an idiosyncratic, unique vision. Then it moved more into the Sundance Film Festival, which incorporated the beginning of a more do-it-yourself aesthetic. Then it became what I call the "cinema of quality," the idea of making an undervalued, low-budget film that has two or three star turns that will get nominated for an Academy Award. Frankly, I've been told by the studios that what they look to us for is to develop these star vehicles because they don't develop star vehicles anymore because stars are so fickle and the scripts are so hard to achieve, and they won't pay for development of these (films) -- but if you make one, they'll very much want it.

THR: Are the major studios looking to your companies to provide Oscar-worthy films?

Sloss: The studios themselves have moved into the event-film business -- six or seven sequels a year -- where they can do commercial tie-ins and really scale up the revenue streams. What Ted says is exactly right: They have relegated to the specialized divisions of the independent world the character-driven, quality-driven films that they used to make as well.

John Penotti: Is it really necessary to have what Ted is saying -- a complete delineation? I always question if the studios are really going to allow projects like that to bubble up.

Bernard: I don't know about the whole Oscar thing with the studios; I think that's forever evolving. The studios feel that because of Miramax, they have to be in the Oscar game -- but a lot of studios would prefer not to be in that game if they're going to lose money, and they want to have their commercial movies like (DreamWorks' 2000 release and best picture winner) "Gladiator" be that movie. And if it's not going to be those, then they don't want to make a prestige movie that's going to lose $25 million to try and win the Oscar game.

THR: The five of you got into the business for different reasons. Is it better now because your movies are seen by more people or frustrating because you increasingly must be involved with studio subsidiaries that might influence your work?

Christine Vachon: I did an interview about 10 years ago with Larry Gordon, the producer, and he said, "I always thought an independent movie was just a movie brought to the marketplace" -- and I think that's all it is. I think these distinctions are really false and silly, and you know it's impossible to not be dependent on some sort of financing. I don't mind studio interference -- I don't think it's any worse, frankly, than investor interference. Sometimes, (when) depending on the studio, the studio is better.

Hope: Yeah; I've sworn off private investors.

Vachon: I don't feel things have changed that much since I started. It's the same merry-go-round, and it's gone from one thing to another.

Bernard: There's a rock-star mentality that's created by Sundance: (Filmmakers are) not really trying to make that movie that has an important message; they're trying to get that movie that's going to win the prize or is going to get them the attention of someone who's trying to sign them up as an agent.

Sloss: I think it's more about the media than it is about the filmmaker; the filmmaker's intentions are still more pure than that. Jared Hess, who made (Fox Searchlight's) "Napoleon Dynamite" -- I guarantee he did not make that film with the end that occurred in mind. He made that film because he had a bunch of friends at Brigham Young (University), and they'd had a lot of fun making short films, and they decided to make a feature out of these characters. They were not cynical or calculating about what path they were going to take.

Hope: Here's the difference: 10 years ago, I sat down with a filmmaker; now, I sit down with a filmmaker, and what I hear is a marketing strategy. What I love is filmmaking; I love to see someone getting excited about how they're putting images together. I'd like to hear that.

Sloss: I think the media has prompted them to sell that way; they're still out there and desperate to find someone like you who can ...

Bernard: They're just not in the obvious places. Sundance used to be a place where a filmmaker could find a home and get a message out.

Sloss: If filmmakers are becoming more aware of the marketing challenges before they start a film, (then) I, for one, applaud that.

Hope: Well, it doesn't have to be a negative, but it shouldn't be at the expense of ...

Bernard: If you make $15 million off of Sundance, it's a great place to do business -- but there needs to be a place that goes back to the roots of independent film.

Sloss: If I made $15 million off of Sundance, I wouldn't be sitting next to you. (Laughs) What was the question?

Hope: Marketing, marketing.

Sloss: Look, not everybody is Todd Haynes. If there were more visionaries who didn't have to reverse-engineer from the audience back to the scale of their movie because they were just pure cinematic geniuses, that would be brilliant.

Hope: I actually disagree: I think there are far more great directors out there who have not been truly produced in a collaborative, challenging way or have been discouraged by what they feel the system is than we ever get access to. I always encourage other producers to move to New York -- to get involved -- because there's far more people that need direct relationships in exactly the way we all did when we started than exist here right now.

THR: The New York indie film community banded together last year when the AMPAS screener ban was proposed. Do you believe that unity will grow into an unprecedented era of cooperation, or was that a passing connection?

Bernard: All of the people in the independent community are independent groups. I think this affected everybody, so people from different ends of the Earth showed up and said, "This affects us being able to do what we want to do as individuals." They brought that group together, and once (the ban) was solved, they went back to their business.

Hope: It reminds me of things like MoveOn -- the power of the Internet. Christine and I were commuting in alternate directions to Baltimore when that happened, and we each had this two-hour block of time without much to do. We were talking back and forth, and we had time to reach out to the different communities. I did feel that the New York community did take it as a point of pride. There were many participants in Los Angeles who appealed -- so there was legal maneuvering there -- but the plaintiffs in the case didn't feel a threat from the studios. They felt they were always in the right -- felt it was a "winnable" case -- and everybody on the list pledged money if need be for the case and were willing to go forward with it. I did feel that afterwards, in subsequent e-mails, people were thinking that there is a force -- and something comes from it when people get behind it.

Bernard: What I saw that came out of the screener ban is that the IFP got a lot more clout and a lot more voice in the marketplace for the independent community, especially on the West Coast. They really stood up and went to the newspapers; they published that ad and got money, and they were spokespersons for a lot of groups saying things that maybe individuals without the same clout couldn't -- and I think it put them in another spot today to speak for the group.

THR: How do you feel MOFTB commissioner Katherine Oliver and the city are doing in terms of making movies in New York?

Sloss: I scratch and claw every week to get clients to keep their productions in New York, but there has not been enough done by the city.

Bernard: Why are people not staying here? What does the city need to do?

Vachon: Rebates.

Penotti: Absolutely.

Hope: You need a regular supply of production to build the apparatus, (and) you need the apparatus to maintain a regular supply of production. We're in a dwindling state where the facilities everywhere took a real slump, and the people who depend on the film jobs for their bread and butter don't have a regular supply of films -- so what ends up as a result is (that) they work on a carpetbagger movie of someone from out of town coming in, as opposed to the homegrown talent who'll be making a film for $500,000. If that film works, they might be the next Spike Lee, and they'll continue making movies in New York. There has to be a combined system of tax incentives, rebuilding the infrastructure and a way to foster homegrown talent.

Bernard: The mayor's office says things have never been better.

Vachon: They're wrong.

Sloss: They're wrong, and the government subsidizes stadium-building, subsidizes all sorts of things. ... This is an industry that brings a lot of collateral revenue to this town, and they need to realize that they can't rely on this being the greatest backlot in the world visually to keep production.

Bernard: And a lot of the productions that do come into town bring talent from the West Coast with the production, so they don't hire in New York.

Penotti: I don't know if you all have been solicited by Katherine Oliver and the commission to come up with ideas. I know one they keep talking about is (that) they hired Boston Consulting to help them devise a plan, which is insane because it's so simple. There are so many models that already exist; you don't have to start a study to figure out the models.

Hope: No, Katherine Oliver hasn't called me to ask ...

Sloss: She hasn't called me, either ...

Penotti: The development fund is interesting because ostensibly, the bigger picture is: Can we get better in there? But there are a number of problems that still make sense for development that is palatable, even in this financial environment.

Bernard: Has anyone spoken out? There are lots of opportunities in stories for people to talk out about the mayor's office, to say, "Hey, you're not serving the needs of this community." Nobody speaks out, and the silence is the doom.

Penotti: Listen, to give Katherine Oliver some credit, she did try some outreach.

Vachon: She came to my office and talked about rebates.

Penotti: But I think they do need help from groups like this to have them jump over some of the bureaucracy.

Bernard: The IFP needs to call attention to the problem because there is no problem as far as the media is concerned, and the people on the industry underbelly are afraid to speak out because they're afraid they'll be penalized. I was at an event with one of the unions there, and this woman raised her hand -- (a representative of) the mayor's office was on the panel -- and she wanted to know why production was leaving Manhattan. The guy asked her name, and she ran out of the place crying. She was terrified; she was afraid she would get on a list and not be able to work anymore.

THR: In light of all of that, what are the business advantages of working out of New York?

Hope: There aren't any. (Editor's note: Last month, New York Gov. George Pataki signed off on $100 million in tax incentives and write-offs for film and TV projects produced in New York state during the next four years. The bill also allows the city to provide as much as $12.5 million in annual tax credits for production.)

THR: Are you five only in New York for personal reasons?

Sloss: It's the biggest backlot in the world, you know.

Vachon: Maybe there's a little bit of a chance that there are some actors who would rather stay here.

Sloss: I see that every day. People above the line don't want to relocate to Toronto for three months, and to rely on that is a mistake: It costs 120% as much to make a film here, (and) eventually, it's going to catch up with you.

Hope: It depends on your incentives; if you can design a production so that it's affordable to shoot in New York, like (Focus Features' March release) "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," then you have to decide that New York is one of the reasons you want to be here and design your production around that. Unfortunately, you can't quantify that to a studio -- saying that, numberwise, it makes sense to do this. A lot of it is things you don't even really see, but of the 15 films I've been involved with, we've never shot a film outside the United States -- we haven't had to.

Sloss: That's amazing; we're setting films in the (United Kingdom) all the time because of that.

Vachon: (But on) a film like (Killer Films' 2001 release) "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," you really could have shot that film anywhere.

Penotti: So why shouldn't it have been here?

Vachon: Because we get more days by going north, and I don't think there's anything wrong with making that decision. I don't wear this badge of honor necessarily: I use New York a lot, but it certainly cost us less to shoot "Hedwig" elsewhere (the film was shot in Toronto) -- not cost us less, but got us more.

Hope: It's a trade-off.

Sloss: There are certain things inherent to a lot of large metropolitan areas, but it's frustrating because it took decades to pry production out of (Los Angeles), and instead of being able to pull it to New York, it's completely decentralized.

THR: We began this discussion by comparing today's indie film with that of 10 years ago. How do you envision the business 10 years from now?

Bernard: Things are going to change technically. Are you going to be able to get a movie directly through your television?

Sloss: I think that's how it's going to happen. It's going to evolve so that there are two ways to see movies -- privately and publicly -- and they may well be day-and-date with each other, and all of these other distinctions will vanish.

Bernard: Hopefully, there will be new and inexpensive ways to advertise movies. As technology becomes more universal, there's a whole generation of people that are going to be totally computer-literate; (studios will) need to change the way they advertise movies, rather than just putting an ad in the New York Times. To be able to click on a Web site that shows, "This is what's playing in New York; here's all the information; get the trailer" -- that's how habits are now.

Hope: The reason we came here today is (that) the five of us want to announce the formation of a new company ... (General laughter) John is going to be the CEO, and Tom is the president. We're not planning to release any films theatrically.

Sloss: We're going to release them by rumor. There is a much more efficient system that allows the making and distribution of these films and allows a level playing field for equity investors to come in and partner with these studios to get these films made.

THR: Where do you envision yourselves in 10 years, when all of that is going on?

Vachon: Retired.

Sloss: Working for Tom.

Bernard: (turns to Sloss) I'd hire you.

Sloss: You would? That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me.

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