Indie fare choking pipeline

Panel: Star power is a double-edged sword

Months before IFTA's Jonathan Wolf revealed that this year's 1,022 AFM titles completed in 2008 was likely a record, film execs feared the slew of features already crowding theaters were smothering the industry.

Five veteran film execs examined the phenomenon at "The Indie Glut: Distribution at the Crossroads," a BAFTA/LA panel moderated by filmmaker John Alan Simon Sunday at the Le Merigot Hotel. Aside from the phenomenon of easy money that's now drying up, they pointed a finger at a phenomenon most thought would give indie films a bigger audience, and the hopes many hang their financing on: star power.

"Five years ago we could tell financiers ... if they made a movie for a budget that causes the movie to look something like a studio movie ... it would get some kind of theatrical distribution," said agent Dan Steinman from CAA's film finance group. "[Now] you're not assured of that ... even with stars in the mix. [The industry is] a victim of our success. Players in the past who might not have elected to go this route are electing to go this route," he pointed out. "The industry is kind of flocking into this space, and then there's the bottleneck at the end of the distribution chain." The main bright side, Steinman noted, is that it's still fairly easy to project a star's value for a video release without theatrical, but he admitted may not remain constant given changes in the DVD market.

Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen said slipping DVD sales for artier fare aimed at older audiences was a bigger problem for him than too many titles, but said the glut was still an issue. Without calling out CAA clients, Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen said stars were fueling production. "A-plus, B-minus stars are doing independent films without distribution because they can't get work," he said. "Studios have stopped making films with actors over 35, so only the biggest ones can get work in studio films."

"Bottle Shock" writer/director and panelist Randall Miller chose to bypass a traditional distributor and signed a deal with Freestyle Releasing, which relies upon the indie world's often undiscussed vehicle: the service deal. Instead of a distributor picking up a film's rights, they take a fee for distribution services. Some examples of a few films that've hit the jackpot with this method are "The Passion of the Christ" (released through Newmarket) and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (released by IFC Films).

Half of Roadside's films are now service deals, said Cohen, limiting a potential downside (shelling out money for a bomb) and upside (only taking a fee if it's profitable), but Cohen recently turned down a film where a producer had a $10 million P&A commitment because he felt it would be too tough to book.

So how will all these indie films be released? If they get distribution, odds are IFC Entertainment will be picking them up. IFC vp acquisitions and production Arianna Bocco said she'll be acquiring around 100 films next year (half of them foreign) for the company's IFC In Theaters simultaneous VOD/theatrical release program, its straight-to-VOD Festival Direct program and the upcoming Sundance Selects program IFC is launching, a byproduct of its Sundance Channel purchase this year. Some films can do so much more if they go through other revenue streams," said Bocco. "It's not an exercise in 'Let's get theatrical distribution.' It (should be about) 'Let's make some money.'"

Lionsgate Motion Picture Group president acquisitions and co-productions Jason Constantine, whose company has a minority stake in Roadside, offered one bright note on the marketplace. "Just as in this financial freefall it's a great time to buy a house, it's never been easier to make an independent film," he said. "The budget is irrelevant, though. Filmmakers have to ask: what film will people go out of their way to see?"
comments powered by Disqus