Midrange-budgeted indies a thing of the past, thanks to recession

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The bottom hasn't dropped out of indie filmmaking, but the 
middle has, and that's even worse.


That's writer-director Noah Buschel's take on how the
 recession has impacted independents. Talking about his post-9/11 film noir 
"The Missing Person," opening Friday in L.A. via Strand Releasing and 
already playing in New York, Buschel says $2 million pictures like his are 
an endangered species.
           

"Missing," which premiered at Sundance in January, stars Oscar 
nominees Michael Shannon (supporting actor for "Revolutionary Road") and Amy 
Ryan (supporting actress for "Gone Baby Gone"). Ryan, who starred in Buschel's
 2007 drama "Neal Cassady," is also an executive producer on "Missing,"
 having brought Shannon and others on board.
        

Asked about financing "Missing," Buschel replied that a few years 
ago it was still relatively easy.
 

"We made it right before the indie world crashed. I don't actually think
 we'd get the movie made at this point."
 

Reflecting on that, he concluded that maybe it would have worked out given 
Shannon's great reviews as Kathy Bates' outspoken son in "Revolutionary 
Road."
 The real problem today is trying to finance midrange indies.


"We made it for a little under $2 million. That kind of midrange budget is 
almost extinct at this point. It's like $500,000 or $10 million at this 
point."


The old model of selling small films for big money at festivals, Buschel 
points out, no longer works.


"We weren't at Toronto, but from everyone I've heard from it was kind of a
massacre. I think one film sold at Toronto."


Budgets of $5 million, which once defined the midrange indie, are now 
largely history: $2 million's the new $5 million, and it's very tough to
 raise. 
On the other hand, thanks to inexpensive digital cameras there are new
 opportunities to make films at the lowest end of the budget scale.


"People can just go out and shoot stuff for $50,000 or $100,000 because the
 equipment's so great," he told me. "But I like to make movies with actors 
and not with friends."
         

Mini-budgets make for quite different movies: "It's very hard to
 make something for $100,000 that's cinematic. It's easy to make something
 where people are talking in a room."
         

With most specialized distributors shuttered or cut back and with 
exhibitors playing fewer art films on multiplex screens, it's harder than
 ever for indies to find their audience.


"I don't know who would want to invest in the indie film world right now,"
 he observed, "because there are no theaters to play in."
         

Nonetheless, Buschel got Strand to acquire "Missing" after it
 played well at Sundance. He did a great job of evoking the gritty film noirs
 of the '40s with their hard-drinking hungover private eyes, tempting femme
 fatales, cigarette smoke and afterhours jazz clubs.


Shannon as detective John Rosow is hired by a high-powered lawyer with a
 sexy assistant (Ryan) to tail a mysterious man on a Chicago to L.A. train.
 His job: Force him to return to New York where his wife's been trying to 
track him down since he disappeared on 9/11.
          

How'd he get so much on the screen for $2 million?
          

"The trade-off was that it was rushed," he acknowledged. "Like
 when we were shooting on the train we really had to hustle. Instead of four
 or five takes there were two takes a lot of the time."
 

It helped that both Shannon and Ryan had years of theater experience and
 "you can't really feel the performances being limited. I guess the trick is 
to cast theater people when you don't have time."
 

Buschel also benefited from being well organized when he went on set. He
 didn't storyboard, but shot-listed to orchestrate each day's shooting in 
advance.
 

"It got less and less flashy as we went along and with not so many camera 
moves," he explained, citing the need to save money by moving quickly.
 

Shannon made a big difference: "It sounds like a little thing, but time 
and time again he saved us so much time with these long monologues, which he
 would just be able to run off and hit his mark."
 

Buschel cut costs by doubling Brooklyn for Chicago. The train actually ran
 from L.A. to San Diego not Chicago. Everything else was shot in Manhattan,
 Santa Monica and the California desert.
  One compromise he didn't have to make was shooting on film instead of
 making it on the cheap, digitally.
           

"Every DP I've worked with has always wanted to shoot on film,"
 he emphasized. "We didn't have the budget to shoot 35, but we ended up 
preferring Super 16 because it gave a kind of gritty look that really went
 well with Rosow's hangover."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on ZAMM.com.
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