FUTURE 2: The Brothers Lipsky, Lot 47 Films
by Eugene Hernandez and Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 01.09.01) — “Mark, come here!” cries a voice in the background of the offices of Lot 47 Films. It’s a strong, urgent call, whiney, but emphatic — the kind you might expect from siblings shouting to each other, so they don’t have to move to communicate. It is a fitting analogy considering that the voice came from Jeff Lipsky, co-president of Lot 47 Films, and that the Mark he was shouting for is, in fact, his brother. Jeff, Mark, and their other brother Scott are all co-presidents (what ever happened to sibling rivalry?) of the fledgling small distribution company, Lot 47 Films, releasing independent films in independent ways. The company’s only been around since 1999, but the brothers Lipsky certainly have experience.
Jeff’s background in distribution goes all the way back to John Cassavetes‘ distribution company, Faces Distribution, the first specialized distributor ever to market its films nationally without any sub-distributors, beginning with Cassavetes’ landmark film “A Woman Under the Influence.” Since then, Jeff has been at the forefront of independent distribution, working at New Yorker Films, Samuel Goldwyn, Skouras Pictures, the Independent Film Channel and most notably, he founded the once successful October Films with Bingham Ray nearly a decade ago. (Lipsky wanted to call it “Revolutionary Cinema.”)
Now, Jeff has his revolution and he’s starting it with the family. Mark is the marketer, and Scott is the techie. Mark headed up marketing and P.R. for everyone from Cinema 5 to New Yorker Films to Miramax. He founded a consulting firm, was the director of consumer marketing for Bravo Networks and the VP of marketing at Singingfish.com, a multimedia company. Scott is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Avenue A, a new media company. He was at the beginnings of Amazon.com, founded Omni Information Group, a software company, and got his start at Babbage‘s, a consumer software chain.
Together, they make up a formidable trio, looking towards the future of independent film with sometimes very idealistic goals. indieWIRE’s Eugene Hernandez and Anthony Kaufman spoke with the brothers about new ways of marketing and acquiring independent films, cultivating new audiences, and evolving with the way we receive and see movies.
indieWIRE: We want to start by looking at distribution and what sort of challenges the distribution business, as it relates to independent and specialty films, has faced recently, and what challenges that it faces going forward?
Mark Lipsky: Let me just quickly comment on what’s happened to lead us where we are now, and then Jeff can probably take it from there. But I just thought it was the most ironic thing I’ve seen in a long time, Harvey Weinstein quoted in Variety as saying that somebody has to do something about the woeful nature of the fact that there’s now a blockbuster mentality about independent films, without, of course, mentioning that it’s all his fault. And you know what, God bless him, I don’t begrudge them their success, but it is something that they invented and perpetuated and continue to.
iW: What was your role in that Mark?
Mark Lipsky: I’m not at all responsible [laughs] for that blockbuster mentality. It was that kind of thing that I was fighting with myself about. So I wound up gravitating away from it as it was occurring and felt that a different kind of challenge was what was interesting to me. And what we’re doing here is the most exciting thing that I can imagine since 1986 at Miramax. Because there are very similar things going on. The most core thing is that we have the freedom to do what we think is right to do, in every situation, beholden to no one, and that gives us incredible freedom, and it’s very empowering. And the question is how will we use that power and freedom?
Jeff Lipsky: So that being the introduction, I just wanted to bring up a few thoughts that I have. I think that my brothers and I share some of these thoughts and each of us have our own perspectives and points of view on some of these things. In terms of the recent past and the recent future, this is what I think that some of my pet areas of concern are. First of all, I think that true independent distributors and so-called independent distributors, we’ve all become lazy. We’ve become exceedingly lazy about mining grassroots methods of maintaining and expanding audiences for our film, and particularly in the acquisitions area. I can count on one hand the films that have been acquired, not produced or co-produced or pre-bought, but acquired by independent companies, my own companies included, in the last 5 or 10 years that were not anointed or given some imprimatur by a major film festival or that did not feature major, major star names. We are talking about 1,000 celluloid independent features completed in this country every year now, and that number has probably doubled with the advent of DV features, and the bottom line is that 80-90% of them are god-awful films. My question is, are we really acquiring and releasing the 10-20% that are good and marketable movies? We have to get out of this film festival mentality. We have to start boycotting the Stardance Film Festival, whoops, did I call it the Stardance Film Festival? Sorry about that [laughs].
But I do believe we have become very lazy. I take great pride in the fact that this year, and it happens to be a French language film, but this year we at Lot 47 saw a review of a movie that opened in France, no film festival exposure, no high profile names involved, no controversial subject matter. It sounded interesting, it sounded like a good film, we got a cassette of it that was subtitled, we watched it on tape, we all loved the film, we said, you know what, this is a crowd-pleaser and a quality piece of work, let’s see if we can buy the film. And we did. And we are going to release it this summer. And that’s the first time in my experience since I believe it was 1988, and the film then was “The Unbelievable Truth,” that I can remember seeing a film, discovering a film, getting one of those over-the-transom kinds of films. And I think that when we let, and the media lets, film festivals do their work for them, we have to get out of it. Because you know what, there are more agendas that film festival selection committee people have or as many agendas as any other faction of the film business. And it’s a very destructive kind of mentality. I’d like to see us veer away from that and start using our imagination again.
Secondly, with the multiplexing and the megaplexing that went on over the last 5-10 years that is now destroying the exhibition community from within, it has afforded independent or so-called independent distributors the opportunity to get more screens in more smaller C and D markets, more diverse markets across the United States than ever before, not just for films like “Blair Witch” or “Crouching Tiger,” but for small independent films and small foreign language films. But just because you can get that play time, and there is a huge opportunity being squandered right now, there must be introduced on that local level, marketing expertise. The only expertise on that local level now, at the theater level, is how to repair the popcorn machine. They must in cities like Waco or Enid or Duluth or Roanoke, they must instead of playing “Bullwinkle” on 4 screens, play it on three screens. You have a free screen 52 weeks a year to mine a great audience. People in this country are not stupid. They don’t mind the subtitles, but they are people that need to be led by the hand to know what to go to see.
And right now the only exposure they get to marketing and advertising on a local level is the $25-30 million worth of national advertising that comes along with every major studio film and all too often these days, so-called independent films. So that’s a major issue. I think that that’s another area where distributors are not working towards addressing this area that’s being squandered, this potential that’s being squandered. And, of course, the next thing that really we have to work on as distributors, as every other end of the business, is the cost of advertising movies. We have to get back to using our talents and our imaginations and our resilientness to restore the notion of grassroots marketing and word-of-mouth movies, and it seems like every time newspapers and television stations raise their advertising rates, distributors are now spending even more money and taking out bigger ads and taking on more television advertising. The whole idea that independent distributors now know what the definition of up-front TV buys are, tell me about an independent distributor 20 years ago that knew that definition. I don’t believe there was one out there. I think it’s frightening that everybody uses that expression like it’s having scrambled eggs for breakfast now.
The other thing that we have to do and be aware of and be conscious of, and I’d love for Lot 47 Films to take a real aggressive position in this, is to educate or re-educate a brand new burgeoning potential audience for our movies, and I’m not talking about college graduates or people with high net incomes, or people who are senior citizens; I’m talking about junior high school students and high school students. Again their only exposure to movies and media is what they see on television advertising. I’d like to see a national initiative created with the help of the independent distribution community — some area of government, the exhibition community and educators — where we instruct students as to why independent American film is so important, and why it has moved the world in so many ways. Why it has changed the whole art of motion pictures on this very urgent, passionate, low-budget, spirit of independence basis. We have to have in 200 cities, a year-round, educational effort. You know, 35mm prints of classic American films, 40 years ago, Cassavetes, or two years ago, Steven Soderbergh. We need to get those prints out of cold storage and moth balls, and we need to get donations by independent theaters all around the country, or mall theaters all around the country, on Saturdays and Sunday mornings, get high school and junior high school students in these theaters. Make them buy the popcorn, the theaters will be happy, but they should be seeing these films for free. Let’s create study guides for those films, let’s have local teachers, local educators or local filmmakers introduce the films, talk about the films. Let’s get kids away from the television set, let’s get them away from national television advertising and let’s get them excited about what might be around the corner, and not just around the corner in terms of star vehicles, but around the corner in works of great discovery.
And then the final thing as an introductory thought [laughs] is, yes, we have to address the general glut of movies in the marketplace. Not Lot 47. I defy anybody to say that we’re to blame, but other companies I have been with are to blame, are responsible for perpetuating mediocrity in movie theaters, on movie review pages, and the independent community has to stop it. Just because movies are independently financed and independently made, doesn’t mean they’re any good or any better than studio movies. We’ve all complained that 90% of all Hollywood’s movies are crap. I think that’s true. But 90% of all independent films made are crap, and we can’t pick them up just because we have 30 films a year to release, just because we have more films it’s going to mean we get better video deals. It irritates the reviewers and, it irritates and alienates audiences. And if we want to re-educate people and we want to educate people, we can’t do it with trash.
iW: I want to elaborate on the film festival area a little bit. How do we find films that engage us? Sometimes it’s very easy for us to decide that when we go to Park City in two weeks, that we’re seeing the best that is out there, and we go and we choose from what’s been chosen for us to view. Jeff, what would you suggest or recommend or hope that the media and the business would do, or how people would go about finding films that are of interest and challenging work?
Jeff Lipsky: The same way we all used to find these films, which was over the transom. It was independent filmmakers doing their jobs. They can use the Internet now; we don’t have to spend as much time as we used to in tracking films or in following the production of films, because of the Internet. Now our acquisition executives have that access instantaneously, 52 weeks a year, and that’s something that filmmakers, more specifically their producer’s representatives, should be taking advantage of. You don’t have to spend $3,000 to go to Park City, Utah or the south of France to attend a festival and hope to get someone to see your trailer in a condo. You can put it on the Internet, you can make it more attractive, you can send out to the 30 or 40 independent distributors out there or not so independent distributors out there. Get on the Internet, on this date, the trailer is going to be up this day only, or we’re going to put a camera on the set of our movie, you’ll see an EPK. You have so many other areas besides having to succumb to this film festival dog eat dog mentality these days. And the more resourceful ones will find those methods of getting the attention of distributors. Then the distributors will see the film and they’ll make their own mind up about whether they have a passion for the film, whether they think it’s marketable and whether it’s affordable. You can always screen for independent distributors in New York. How come the filmmakers are so offended at the idea that they have to send us cassettes, they want us to see it on the big screen, but they send the film festival selection committee cassettes. What’s the difference?! Why are they able to have that kind of discerning nature, when in fact, as I said in the beginning, there are as many if not more agendas on their end than there are on our end.
Mark Lipsky: In terms of the film festivals, the establishment runs the film festivals, and in the establishment, a lot of them came into the film festival world at the time that the Miramax-ization of the so-called independent film industry was changing so radically. And the people who run that festival have been doing it for a really long time now, and I think part of what will change it is to see either a new generation of festivals be born that are built with a different kind of sensibility or the established festivals, the folks running them will pass along the baton, although that’s unlikely since it’s a real comfortable, cushy place to be. So what I’m looking forward to is little explosions of that new sensibility popping up in areas around the country that don’t necessarily have or aren’t necessarily known for their film festival strength or importance in the industry.
And something else that I picked up on that I wanted to mention before I forget, Jeff was talking about the independent film community, and I think the biggest problem is that there really is no independent film community anymore. It’s largely studios and studio-owned companies, and we are among a very, very, very few, we are a small minority who are truly independent film companies who think that way and act that way. So the struggle continues, the struggle returns, and that’s what’s exciting for us.
iW: I wanted to bring up something about the way film festivals function. More films are going to be made, more digital films are being made, who is to sift through all of the films, who is to look at all of the web sites, and find out what’s good? At indieWIRE, we get lots of pitches and sometimes I go, “Okay, send us a tape,” and we’ll look at it, and it’s really bad. Like Jeff was saying, 90% is bad. How do we find the good films?
Mark Lipsky: You’re going to see what you’ve been seeing until those at the top pass the baton along, or through force of will and strength new entities are born and come in with a different attitude or a new attitude or a broader attitude about what’s good, what’s bad — who don’t have those so well-established agendas that Jeff was talking about. You pretty much know what you’re going to get at Sundance, you pretty much know what you’re going to get in New York and Seattle and San Francisco. It’s not that they do a bad job, it’s just that there’s not a lot of wow factor, I don’t think. Nobody’s going in there and making a lot of discoveries.
Jeff Lipsky: You’re on the Internet. indieWIRE is a notion born of the Internet, and that’s what I was referring to before. Maybe it’s a hassle for you to watch all these bad movies, but the bottom line is that’s where we’re going to be looking to find our movies, sitting in our office where we don’t have to spend hours and hours and hours on planes and schmoozing people and traipsing around snow-covered mountains. And we’ll be able to see more films, maybe we’ll only see 10 or 15 minutes of them. And maybe we’ll read about it when Mary Glucksman writes about it in Filmmaker Magazine, about some film that she’s on the set of. But the bottom line is, it has to do again with the number of films that are being released. There are too many films being released, and we only need to release 10, 12, 13, 14, we’ll release as many as we find that we like, but the bottom line is, if you try to create artificial release schedules of 30 and 40 films, then you feel like, well, we need someone to do our work for us. And I think that’s self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.
The interview continues on page 2…