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10 Things Learned from the Telluride Indie Cinema Master Class with James Schamus, Laura Linney and More

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | feelingsoblahg.blogspot.com September 10, 2012 at 12:55PM

Last weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, Focus Features CEO James Schamus, cult film icon Roger Corman and actors Greta Gerwig, Alessandro Nivola, and Laura Linney appeared in a conversation with Annette Insdorf of Columbia University on the topic of the present state of independent cinema. 
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Greta Gerwig, Annette Insdorf and James Schamus at the Telluride Film Festival.

Last weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, Focus Features CEO James Schamus, cult film icon Roger Corman and actors Greta Gerwig, Alessandro Nivola, and Laura Linney appeared in a conversation with Annette Insdorf of Columbia University on the topic of the present state of independent cinema. 

Schamus, who is Insdorf's colleague at Columbia, was the standout panelist, offering up various nuggets that film fans and industry members alike could both appreciate. 

Below are ten notable things we learned while listening to these major players talk about the current state of affairs in our industry:

1.  Laura Linney explains the major difference between working on an independent and Hollywood film set.

"The major difference is that everyone from the executive level and production side is much more involved with the making of the movie...People come from a much more similar origin.  People have an arts background.  People are aware of what everyone's jobs are.  There's a lot more mutual education.  It makes the experience of making the movie different, not better not worse but different."

2. For Alessandro Nivola, the difference between independent film and Hollywood is symbolized in hair styling.

"The main difference between working on indie and studio films is that my hair doesn't need to be in place for indie movies, which seems like a trivial thing but has bigger implications.  There's a feeling of freedom that you have making an indie movie that you don't always have in a certain kind of studio film.  Things can be messier, less clean and less careful, and sometimes because of that more spontaneous.  The challenge of course is that you're not pampered as much.  You have to find ways to keep your concentration in trying circumstances."

3.  James Schamus explains why Hollywood films are also independent, and are funded in the service of investors' desire for a good party.

"Has anybody here ever met anyone who described themselves as a dependent producer?  These are all very weird dichotomies - the vast majority of Hollywood studio movies are technically independent.  They're financed by major consortium banks and hedge funds out there ripping off their clients and getting them into parties.  So that's the studio system, you can imagine what it's like in the independent world.  It's really a race as to which party is best in terms of investment decisions."

4.  James Schamus explains the Focus Features business model:  Buy films that 95% of humanity will hate.

"At Focus for example, the definition of a Focus movie is something that would be hated by at least 95% of humanity.  But the other 5% love it and we make a lot of money.  We have the freedom to piss off a lot of people. whereas the studio system, you don't have the freedom to piss anyone off.  You can't make everyone happy."

5.  According to Schamus, the model of cultivating directors that Roger Corman perfected has gone by the wayside, and cable television is the game changer.

"Back in the day folks like Roger could take someone like Francis Ford Coppola as an assistant director and say can you get some pick up shots by the beach.  And of course this is Francis Ford Coppola's first moment behind the camera doing a pick up shot.  And he ends up going three days over scheudule.  [Roger] kept him on.  These days, independent filmmakers don't have time to hone their craft before going on to really become geniuses.  Everyone has to show up to Sundance as a bona fide genius.  Nobody has that kind of background.  To me that's a really weird thing that's happening.  I want to see their second movies as much as I want to see their first films.  And right now a lot of [their work after they debut at Sundance is] on cable television."

6.  Greta Gerwig attributes her success to doing things the old-fashioned way.

"I always loved acting, but i never had a sense it would work out necesssarily.  By the time i was in college, I knew I wanted to work in theater or film, but I figured the chances of being a working actor were low.  I was a stage manager and I hung lights and I started writing a lot which I really loved.  I wanted to get in any way I could.  Independent doesn't even describe how these films were -- $5,000 films with people in a house in Chicago.  This sounds self-depricating, but if I were given opportunity on opportunity, maybe i wouldn't push myself to write.  Because I haven't been offered those amazing roles all the time, there's a need.  I've been lucky with those people who've been willing to collaborate."

7.  According to Roger Corman, had his segregation film "The Intruder" been successful, he probably would have made more serious films. 

He went on: "It's an example of the difference between a studio film and an independent film.  I was fairly young in my career at  that time.  the films i had made had been for these mini majors and any idea I would give to any one of these companies, they'd say yes.  I was interested in integration, and I bought this book, "The Intruder" and wanted to make it into a movie.  They all said no, i was really surprised, so I financed it myself.  It was a truly independent film, because it was not what the studios thought would be successful.  It's an example of so many of us who work with studios and independently.  The independent film is often the film the studio turns down."

8.  Nivola -- who has worked with many of the more established women directors -- notices a feisty trend in the older generation.

"I think things are changing a lot in movies.  Young women are given the opportunity to direct more than they used to be.  That earlier generation of women had to fight to be directors, and so they all have in common a directing style.  They made all different films and they have different styles and personalities, but they all have in common that they're really tough, they're nobody's fool they've grown up not having men endow them with that authority naturally.  They had to grab it for themselves -- that's changing now bc everyone assumes that a woman would have as much right to direct a film as a man."

9.  James Schamus is often the youngest person at a matinee at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

"There are a lot of young people here [at Telluride] today...You're weird!  We hope that you will grow, that your numbers will grow.  Frankly, the audience for indie film is aging.  When i go to matinees at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, one of the great independent theaters in New York, I'm everyone's grandson.  I'm literally the youngest dude there.  That's at one time great, because it shows that old people are open to all these new and crazy different things, but the valence of the culture has changed.  It's also opened up into a suburban zone and the zone of affluence.

10.  Contrary to Roger Corman's lamentation that multiplexes are crowding out indie films, one of Focus Features' biggest box office theaters is a multiplex in Paramus, New Jersey.

Says Schamus:  "With narratively driven independent cinema, the biggest numbers are coming to multiplexes.  One of my biggest screens for Focus films is in Paramus, NJ.  And that's how it works these days.  [Distribution has] become decentralized because of the Internet.  If you're in Kansas City, or in...a suburb there, you're able to get news instantaneously about releases at the IFC Center in New York.  But that makes us speed up.  And that's good news.