ShoWest unspools look at indies in the spotlight


NEW YORK -- Independent movies are crashing the party. At last month's 79th Annual Academy Awards, indie fare rubbed shoulders with studio films as such nominees as "The Queen," "The Last King of Scotland," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Pan's Labyrinth" took some of the night's biggest prizes.

Independent movies and films from the studios' specialty divisions also are contributing to a surge in the number of films released annually -- a number that was up by 11% to a total of 607 titles in 2006, according to the MPAA.

On Wednesday, at a panel titled "Independent Film Takes Center Stage," ShoWest will focus on the latest trends in the indie arena. In the meantime, tonight, the convention offers its annual "Evening of Independent Film," screening six features at the Cinemark Orleans 18 Theatres in the Orleans Hotel. Grab your popcorn and check out the following films that will be hitting theaters later this year.

"Away From Her"

"It's the feel-good film of the year," jokes Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg, imagining potential reviews for his Alzheimer's

disease-themed drama. While that blurb might not end up on the poster, reviews at last year's Toronto International Film Festival noted the Oscar-level performances in actress Sarah Polley's feature directorial debut.

Julie Christie and Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent play Fiona and Grant, a couple married for four decades who slowly discover that her forgetfulness is the first stage of dementia. Despite Grant's protests, Fiona is determined to check in to an assisted-living facility, but as her memory diminishes, she becomes close with a fellow patient (Michael Murphy), leading her tortured husband to find solace with the patient's wife (Olympia Dukakis).

"It's an award-caliber film with award-worthy performances," says Ortenberg, who has no apparent qualms about releasing the film May 4 in Los Angeles and New York before a platform rollout, long before awards season begins. "It's great counterprogramming to some popcorn movies," he says, "and as we showed with 'Crash' a couple years ago, it's not a far-fetched strategy."


"Gracie" is a family film in more ways than one. It is inspired by the true story of the Shue family, starring and produced by Oscar nominee Elisabeth Shue with her brothers (Andrew and John Shue), her husband (the film's director, Davis Guggenheim) and a woman who could be her distant cousin (Lemore Syvan).

Guggenheim recently joined the Oscar family with his best documentary winner "An Inconvenient Truth," as did "Gracie's" two-year-old distributor Picturehouse with its three trophies for "Labyrinth," putting high expectations on what Picturehouse president Bob Berney calls "a classic sports movie."

"Gracie" follows a 16-year-old girl (Carly Schroeder) in the late-'70s who, like Shue, overcame a family tragedy and became a pioneer for women's soccer.

Berney, who acquired North American rights to the film in May, says it is an ideal film to premiere at ShoWest with exhibitors because "it's a crowd-pleaser as opposed to a more arty or smaller film." Berney plans a grass-roots campaign with soccer leagues and a product tie-in with Gatorade before releasing the film June 1 on about 1,000 screens.

"The Valet"

Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard have wanted to release a film by French comedy director Francis Veber since their time working at United Artists, which released the hit comedy co-scripted by Veber, "La Cage Aux Folles."

With his latest feature, "The Valet" (La Doublure), the pair finally got their chance, nabbing North American rights in June from French producer Gaumont. The farce stars Daniel Auteuil as a tycoon caught kissing his well-known mistress (Alice Taglioni). To prevent his wife (a French-speaking Kristin Scott Thomas) from seeking divorce, he bribes a parking valet (Gad Elmaleh) to pose as his mistress' lover.

"His films are always so entertaining in fresh and new ways," Barker says. "That's why so many of them are remade in America." "La Cage" turned into the big hit "The Birdcage," but there also have been big misses, such as "The Toy" and "The Man With One Red Shoe." The Farrelly brothers plan to take a stab at a stateside version of "Valet" for DreamWorks.

But SPC has the original, which made nearly $27 million since its overseas release last spring. That bodes well for the film, which bows domestically April 20 in Los Angeles and New York.

"The TV Set"

Jake Kasdan's "The TV Set" was one of the highest-profile films at last spring's Tribeca Film Festival, and by summer's end ThinkFilm made a low-seven-figure purchase of North American rights for the dark comedy.

The film stars David Duchovny as an idealistic writer whose dream TV project is slowly dismantled by interfering network executives, including a president (Sigourney Weaver) who takes pride in hits like "Slut Wars." Justine Bateman plays his pregnant wife, and Ioan Gruffudd ("Amazing Grace") plays one of the nightmare execs.

"We saw it not long after 'Thank You for Smoking' was released, and it potentially could reach the same audience," ThinkFilm theatrical head Mark Urman says.

Duchovny and Judy Greer, who plays his manager, will host an April Fool's Day marathon on Comedy Central, with original introductions highlighting the film and accompanying commercials. Duchovny and Weaver also are doing "a ton" of print and TV press, Urman says, tied to the film's April 6 opening in New York and select Southern California cities and platform expansion April 20 and May 4.

"Goodbye Baby"

Writer-director Daniel Schechter's seriocomic coming-of-age drama is the odd movie out at this year's Evening of Independent Film. The feature, made for slightly less than $1 million, premieres without a distributor and will be shown in a slightly unfinished version.

Making her feature film debut, Christine Evangelista stars as Melissa, a girl just out of high school who decides to bypass college and move from the suburbs to New York to pursue a stand-up comedy career.

New production outfit Renart Films made the feature in association with Gigantic Pictures. It is the first producer credit for 23-year-old Tim Duff. The filmmakers, having securing funding through an unnamed private financier, say they are entertaining offers from several indie distributors.

"Talk to Me"

The biopic of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, an ex-con-turned influential '60s radio DJ, was executive producer/star Don Cheadle's passion project for years before Focus Features, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and "Eve's Bayou" director Kasi Lemmons helped bring it to life.

The Mark Gordon Co./Pelagius Films production follows the controversial Washington personality as he champions civil rights and soul music while battling the white owners of his radio station. Two-time Golden Globe Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Kinky Boots") plays Greene's producer, leading a cast that includes Cedric the Entertainer, Mike Epps, Vondie Curtis Hall and Martin Sheen.

A period soundtrack is set to be issued on Atlantic Records, and Focus already has begun a campaign to raise awareness about Greene, sending an article about his life to black groups during Black History Month.