Nowadays, every struggling filmmaker who strains to put together the financing for his or her micro-budget feature has a singular thought (one that’s probably repeated often throughout the process): If only I was making this movie in the early ‘90s. That, of course, was the heyday of American independent cinema, the post-“sex, lies and videotape” world where specialty shingles and mini-majors were snapping up teeny-tiny movies for millions of dollars and, what’s more, actually getting them seen by mass audiences. Hell, in our hometown, we had a fairly out-there art house theater in the mall. One of the most famous hubs for independent cinema at this time, that proved ultimately to be a cautionary tale of expansion and ego, was New York City’s the Shooting Gallery, a tale that is lovingly chronicled in “Misfire: The Rise and Fall Of The Shooting Gallery.”
The story of the Shooting Gallery is a fairly typical one: they were a loose, arty collective made up of ragtag members of the SUNY Purchase film program, a program that Nick Gomez, a director and early participant, described as being a place where “Any loose marble could roll in” and study film. With a chip on their shoulder and a low rent studio space in downtown Manhattan, they were hell bent on making movies anyway they could, spurred on largely by the success of another recent SUNY graduate: Hal Hartley (who is, sadly, not interviewed for this documentary). They begun making independent features, some that made quite a splash in certain circles, but still mostly tiny, character-driven dramas or genre films that had a certain crummy appeal but failed to connect on any broad level.
The mission statement for the Shooting Gallery was clear: they wanted to foster creative growth and provide an environment for New York City filmmakers, most working without union crews or proper permits, to create the movies they had only dreamed of. Of course, the problem with this, is that the money was always in short supply, and after a few years of making admirable, often charming features, the team was utilized for, of all things, the “dramatic reenactments” that aired on “America’s Most Wanted.” Yes, seriously.
This would all change with a film that they would produce called “Sling Blade.” After being knocked out by the black-and-white short film that preceded it, everyone at the Shooting Gallery got behind the project, even when, at a pivotal moment, the movie ran out of money and was more or less shut down. Reviewing the footage that had already been shot, the Shooting Gallery team made the assessment that they were looking at “an American masterpiece,” finished the movie and, in one of the true coups of independent cinema at the time, sold it to Bob and Harvey Weinstein and Miramax for a cool $10 million. They were, in their own words, “the Bruce Springsteen of independent film.” It would prove to be the beginning of the end.
In the years that followed the company would aggressively expand, and under the leadership of Larry Meistrich, an early player whose interests lied in monetary gain and not creative expression, this expansion would border on the criminal. They were making movies like Dee Snider’s nearly unwatchable horror flick “Strangeland” and became keenly interested in things like branding (Monica Lewinsky famously wore a Shooting Gallery hat in a paparazzi photo), concerts, commercials and the up-and-coming technological boom of the Internet. The staff ballooned from the core dozen or so people to more than two hundred, “all knuckleheads.” After “Sling Blade” they made one more important independent feature: Ken Lonergan’s “You Can Count On Me.”
But by the time “You Can Count On Me” came out, the company was in deep shit: they were in the process of being sold to Itemus, a Canadian mining operation that was looking to diversify into new media. The Shooting Gallery rented computers from nearby office spaces and had interns sit at the desk to give auditors the impression that the company was thriving. Meistrich’s dealings become shady, with one employee describing them as “Bernie Madoff-type stuff” and by the first part of the ‘00s, The Shooting Gallery, once a haven for the kind of edgy entertainment favored by Lonergan, Thornton and Spike Lee (who produced “New Jersey Drive” there) was no more. The bubble had burst; the dream was dead.
What makes “Misfire” so powerful is that it isn’t just the story of the Shooting Gallery — which is tragic but one that doesn’t resonate all that well today because their output was often iffy and unmemorable — but the story of independent cinema of that period. Many participants make a parallel between the Shooting Gallery and Miramax, since they were both cultural hubs of East Coast cinema, huge tastemakers for the entire industry and had dreams of world domination. But whereas Miramax eventually had Disney dollars backing every exorbitant purchase and misplaced expenditure, the Shooting Gallery remained damnably independent. This is a period of recent film history that has been woefully under-explored (perhaps best chronicled in Peter Biskind’s book “Down and Dirty Pictures”) and one that still impacts us today; just ask anyone who attends Sundance Film Festival how much it’s changed in the past two decades.
“Misfire” is an incredibly personal story, and as such several of the key members of the original Shooting Gallery were responsible for the film’s creation, among them founding members Whitney Ransick (who directed and produced the film) and Bob Gosse (a longtime figurehead for the studio, one of the movie’s chief interviewees and a producer). It’s got a spirited, can-do energy that reminds you of those original Shooting Gallery movies: they might not be the best thing ever, but they were singular, often confessional works and you could feel the amount of time, energy, and heart went into them. “Misfire” is like that; it’s an inelegant, sometimes overstuffed ode to a specific moment in film history. Honestly, we wouldn’t have it any other way. [B+]