Indies say thanks to exhibs

Theater owners helped recent surge

LAS VEGAS -- The recent success of independent cinema in the commercial marketplace owes as much to the exhibition community as it does to the quality of the films themselves, according to a group of key indie players who took part in a ShoWest panel Wednesday afternoon.

The seminar, titled "Independent Film Takes Center Stage," featured actors Jennifer Lopez, who produced and stars in the upcoming film "El Cantante"; the film's director, Leon Ichaso; David Duchovny and Judy Greer, who both star in the new comedy "The TV Set"; and executives including Picturehouse's Bob Berney, ThinkFilm's Mark Urman, Focus Features' Jack Foley and the Yari Film Group's Bob Yari.

The Hollywood Reporter film editor Gregg Kilday served as moderator for the session, which took place at the Paris hotel.

Throughout the wide-ranging, hour-plus conversation, the panelists agreed that independently made productions continue to face significant challenges -- namely, securing financing and distribution, then finding a way to compete against bigger-budgeted studio films and their customary multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns. But the panelists also said that today's independent films are no longer ghettoized the way they once were and that exhibitors across the country now seek out any kind of product that can successfully appeal to audiences.

"Exhibitors get these films better than they ever have," Foley said, adding that theater owners are crucial partners when it comes to releasing movies like the specialty distributor's upcoming drama "Evening" from director Lajos Koltai and the Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene biopic "Talk to Me," starring Don Cheadle as the revolutionary 1960s radio personality. Movie theater owners are evincing a clearer understanding of what kind of programming will appeal to their patrons

The panelists praised Berney's recent campaign for the Oscar-nominated R-rated fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth" as a shining example of the kind of marketing campaign independent films deserve. Berney appealed to several "core constituencies" when promoting the movie -- art house enthusiasts, genre fans and Spanish-language speakers. He said he intended to use some of those same strategies to get out the word about the company's planned August release, "Cantante," the story of Puerto Rican salsa music pioneer Hector Lavoe (Marc Anthony) and his lover Puchi (Lopez).

The film also could benefit from the release of its soundtrack, which features Anthony performing classic Lavoe songs.

Lopez said the project represented the culmination of more than five years of work, during which she collaborated closely with Ichaso. "I knew this was a story worth telling," Lopez said. "It was the first story I, as a producer, wanted to be involved with."

"Cantante" was shot over 33 days in two countries and features 15 musical numbers. Picturehouse acquired the film after it screened at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, and Lopez said Berney's impeccable track record gave her confidence that he would be able to bring something that is "not a traditional story" to a wide audience. "We knew it would be handled in the right way," she said.

Duchovny echoed those sentiments with regard to Urman's ThinkFilm and its release of Jake Kasdan's new industry-centered comedy, "The TV Set," which is due out April 6 and has already garnered comparisons to Fox Searchlight's 2006 release "Thank You for Smoking." "I knew Jake wouldn't choose a distributor that wasn't perfect," Duchovny said.

Urman said he is trying to make the most of his relatively limited marketing budget with a targeted campaign that will utilize the Internet and an April Fools' Day promotion on Comedy Central in order to appeal to fans of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report." "What we're selling is the unique comic sensibility on a medium that's all about smart humor," Urman said.

Yari said that for any independent film, finding the right release date in an increasingly crowded field is critical, and he referred to his successful late-August opening of the period drama "The Illusionist" last year by way of example. The $16.5 million film, directed by Neil Burger, went on to gross nearly $40 million domestically.

"When you look at the landscape of releasing motion pictures, every weekend is a challenge," he said, noting that exhibitors have greeted his new distribution venture with enthusiasm. "I think they want to see companies that are making quality films and promoting and standing behind them."