Indie Filmmakers Brace for Hit from Recession

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How vibrant is the independent film scene? How much does it depend on the major film festivals? How useful are the markets that accompany them?

On the eve of the Cannes Film Festival and its attendant market, The Hollywood Reporter discussed those matters with four experts: Newsweek film critic David Ansen; Kirk D'Amico, president and CEO of Myriad Pictures, a production and sales company; talent agent Cassian Elwes, co-head of William Morris Independent; and Mark Gill, CEO of finance and production company the Film Department.

THR: Let me throw out a statement: the independent film scene is as flourishing as it has ever been. True or false?

Gill: True, with a bullet in the wrong direction. There's more money in it, certainly, than there ever has been before. There's more studio interest than there has been before. But there are two parts of it that are falling apart: One is that the sort of movie that's really hoping to get into Sundance, of which there are 5,000 a year, can't seem to find distribution or a way to get to the audience. And the other is that all the money that's fueled a lot of this boom is about to go away.

THR: The movies that can't get into sundance being the ultra-low-budget movies?

Gill: The under $7 million or $8 million movies. The market for those is extremely tough. Every now and again, there's a "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006) and everybody gets excited and thinks: "I could have that too."

Elwes: One out of thousands.

THR: And why is the money going away?

Gill: Well, welcome to America! Wall Street money is done -- there's not going to be any more of that.

THR: But does that really impact the independent scene?

Gill: There's a lot of money that's been sloshing around from Wall Street and all the high-net-worth individuals, and you'll start seeing them gradually fade out. It will be better than it was 10 years ago, but it won't be as good as it was last year.

THR: Can less money be a positive?

D'Amico: It will be more market-driven, the buyers having to step up and replace some of that money.

Elwes: I actually think all of this is a good thing for the business, because less films are going to get made that should never have been made and the ones that will get made are the ones that actually do have a market. The biggest problem facing us is the distribution of these pictures in America. The DVD business is flattening out; the theatrical business is becoming increasingly difficult for independent films. As the studios release more tentpole pictures, it really squeezes the independent films out of the marketplace and forces independent distributors to spend more money to get recognition in the marketplace. And what we are seeing is, the numbers are going down for the acquisition prices and that again forces us to rethink the types of films that should be made.

THR: David, how has this impacted the quality of what you see? Has it been a great time in film?

Ansen: Not a great time, no. Last year, actually, was a good year, and it was a pretty good Sundance this year; but there is so much product out there -- there are weekends when there might be 17 movies opening in New York or Los Angeles, and the audience has no idea how to distinguish between the good and bad. It's getting harder and harder for us critics to point that out. I always felt critics meant a lot for foreign films and independent films. But I am not sure our influence is what it was.

THR: Kirk, how dependent are you on critics like David?

D'Amico: For a certain kind of film, we're dependent initially on festivals. But then, what's the response coming out of the festival? At a festival, if we have a film that's available for domestic, oftentimes the buyers will know what the critics are thinking even before we do, because they are out there testing the waters, talking to the New York Times or Time magazine.

Elwes: Increasingly in the festivals, with the pictures we are trying to find distribution for, a lot of the distributors are waiting to go online that night to see what the reviewers are saying, because they don't want to look like complete morons when they pick up a movie and find out the next day that everybody hated it.

THR: Does that encourage you to put it in a festival?

Elwes: You have to. A small independent film made for $5 million or less has to go into some type of festival because then the Good Housekeeping seal of approval has been stamped on the picture.

Ansen: You could see very clearly in Sundance this year, the art house films -- the less commercial but critic-generated movies -- got picked up, the ones that got the good reviews, like "Momma's Man" or "Ballast," and it's entirely because of critical reaction.

Elwes: There was a stampede toward those pictures because the reviews were coming in and they were so great.

D'Amico: With those little films, the critics act as a substitute for spending money on marketing.


Stephen Galloway writes for The Hollywood Reporter.

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