Here's hoping the indie film industry can retrofit its financing puzzle pieces

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Growing up, I was good at geography. One of the reasons was I played as a child with a giant puzzle whose pieces were individual states, each with a design indicating what that state was known for.

As I recall, Louisiana boasted a beignet, Ohio ball bearings, Washington an airplane, Michigan cars, North Carolina a piece of furniture, New Jersey a bottle of pills, Massachusetts some precision instrument like a microscope and California a movie projector. Folks in the U.S. made a lot of things back in the day.

Later, I graduated to a world puzzle, and in that one China was repped by a rice paddy or a rickshaw, India by a temple, Brazil by a beach, Japan by a geisha with a fan, Russia by a bear and so on.

Things have changed: Those other places make a lot of the things we used to, sometimes better than we do. Cars and clothes, certainly; liquid-crystal televisions, too.

One thing, though, hasn't changed: They don't make better movies or TV shows, or at least not ones that travel as widely and profitably as American-made ones do.

I say this to remind myself that despite the problems that plague the entertainment biz -- piracy, broken economic models, fewer funding sources, runaway production, labor strife, vapid vampire pics or whatever -- the industry still ticks along without TARP money or other handouts.

Because the creative juices are still flowing in Tinseltown and those who support that stream know how to channel (as in market, promote and distribute) the torrent that ensues -- and, let it be said, because we don't seem to sell much else abroad anymore except planes and guns -- Hollywood content nowadays is the No. 1 export of the U.S.

Does Hollywood have the same clout in D.C. as, say, the gun lobby, drug companies or airplane makers? Like these others, I'd say the major showbiz players generally get their cases heard and come away just fine. As ever, it's the little guys, in our industry as in others, who are left to fend for themselves.

I say this after visiting the American Film Market, where it does become obvious that the so-called independent film business is dicier than ever before. It always has had a schlocky side, but somehow it managed soaring achievements, too. Not so much anymore, if one judges simply from the posters and hall traffic.

So much money in terms of slate financing from outside sources has been siphoned by the major studios, and so much other money simply has been sucked out of the indie biz by struggling banks that no longer can afford or justify investment in the picture business, that many companies have gone to the wall.

Even high-profile, prolific ones.

"Who would have thought that Miramax, once the boisterous embodiment of the indie spirit, would be relegated to a quiet corner of the Mouse House and eventually forgotten?" one AFM-er asks.

The fadeout of that moniker follows those of several other shingles once proudly hung out or snapped up by major studios as a way no doubt to stifle outside, obstreperous upstarts as well as funnel more creatively challenging material from the producers and actors they wished to coddle.

But even that effort takes patience and nurturing, characteristics in ever shorter supply among studios bent on hoisting tentpoles and getting the biggest bang for their buck in as short a time as possible.

As for the truly "indie" indies, it's an ever harder slog. Beating the bushes for money to make their movies is a Herculean task; not only have the banks skedaddled, but foreign presales have dwindled to a precious few dollars.

Perhaps most importantly, audiences in whatever niche, demo quadrant or corner of the globe are ever more picky and easily put off by substandard fare. (Even "Bitch Slap" has to be good on some level for there to be a "Bitch Slap 2.")

On the upside, audiences are "paranormally" and unpredictably enthusiastic if something strikes a chord. Right now, vampires do, and a lot of folks in Santa Monica this week are rushing to open those caskets.

Also, the current shakeout in the ranks of indie producer-distributors hopefully will mean that those who do survive will attract the best talent, and those wannabes who don't cut it will be left simply to scrounge or go into another field.

Tolerance for projects that never should have seen the light of day (hopefully) will be in shorter supply. As with biotech start-ups, if a pill doesn't work in the first phase, they drop it, go back to the laboratory and start over.

Not that newcomers should be discouraged from entering the fray, but that arena needs more Simon Cowells and Len Goodmans to dispense the bitter truth when need be.

And that fray could use more crossover talent.

One of them, longtime international dealmaker and consultant Gordon Steel, is setting up as a producer with a company called Compass. He might have his directions right, at least on paper: Steel's view, and I'm paraphrasing, is that there needs to be rigor in matching the money available to the likely audience appeal of a project but, even more crucially, there has to be laserlike attention paid to the story being told.

Easier said than done, we all know. But may the money start flowing again so the focus can be on the latter.
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