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