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Assessing the Fallen Sky: Heavy Hitters Talk Biz; And 25 Years of Indie

Indiewire By Brian Brooks | Indiewire January 22, 2009 at 9:45AM

The state of the industry and the future of independent film were the topics for the pair of showcase Sundance Film Festival panel disucssions earlier this week.
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The state of the industry and the future of independent film were the topics for the pair of showcase Sundance Film Festival panel disucssions earlier this week.

Sundance director Geoffery Gilmore himself took the reins for one event in Park City that some had already been buzzing about before the festival even got underway - and it wasn't even a film. Given the title, "The Panic Button: Push or Ponder" a powerhouse of independent film execs joined a panel to discuss the ascent, descent and present state of independent film. Referencing a speech by former Warner Independent chief made last Spring (and published in indieWIRE) "The sky fell," opens the panel's description in the Sundance catalog.

Joining Gilmore were Gill (now of The Film-Department), producer Ted Hope, Sony Classics' co-prez Michael Barker, IFC Enterntainment prez Jonathan Sehring, Focus chief James Schamus and Peter Broderick of Paradigm Consulting.

Hope, who has produced such landmark films as "21 Grams," "American Splendor," "The Devil and Daniel Johnson," and this year's Sundance title, "Adventureland" lamented straightaway the demise of film criticism, saying the loss of discussion was a threat to independent film which has traditionally depended on critics who champion specialty fare.

"I've felt that what makes an art film an art film is the ability to talk about [them], and [this is under threat] because we've lost so many critics and college art societies." Continuing, Hope said, "We need to change some of these models in order to engage the community."

Mark Gill, conscious of some of the backlash that was the talk of the indie film industry in early summer acknowledged he had ruffled some feathers. "I was the person who was called an asshole for saying, 'The sky is falling...' The sky did fall. [Many] distributors have closed [since June] and many others are only pretending to be open."

"I think though the speech was accurate, it was dangerous because it just feel like we should close up shop and go home," countered SPC co-prez Michael Barker. "There are silver linings here. The theatrical box office [recently] is thriving, but the loss of criticism is a loss, though I see hope in the quality of some blogs such as Karina Longworth's (Spout)."

James Schamus chimed in, noting the lack of diversity on the panel (there was one non-white person and no women) and prophesized that a panel discussing the future of indie film would look much different and said the hefty payouts (and prices) of recent Sundances were an anomaly.

Hitting the economic topic, IFC's Sehring noted, referencing a couple of years ago in Park City, "In reality, there was an artificial sky when there was a $45 million [worth of deals] at Sundance. I don't think that was very healthy for the industry - it was only good for the sales agents." IFC has received some criticism for its day and date model in which some films are released simultaneously on cable along with select theaters and offering comparatively little upfront money for acquiring titles.

"When people say we're picking up movies for peanuts - we're not buying them for peanuts. We're competing with everyone [at Sundance] and we have a model that gets a film to the largest audience possible - and we love writing checks to producers."

Consultant/rep Peter Broderick spoke last during the introductions on the panel and took a swipe at the other participants who lead various distribution companies. "People [on the panel] are talking about what's good for companies. I say, what's good for filmmakers." Broderick then used the example of last year's 'The Good Dick' as a prime example of why filmmakers should seriously consider forgoing the traditional distributor route.

"'Good Dick' turned down pathetic conventional deals and they took it themselves to seven cities and received great reviews." Continuing Broderick added, "[They] got great [separate] deals for television, Internet and they sell their DVD online from their website, and they will end up making much more money then the would have [had they taken the traditional distribution route]."

Barker said there was room for many distribution models and said ultimately, having many options was a positive for filmmakers. "I think there is room for more and more models. I think our model is valid and so is Peter [Broderick's] and Jonathan [Sehring's, IFC]. This allows more and more films to be seen. There is room for all of this."

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Peter Broderick, Strand's Marcus Hu, IFC Entertainment's Jonathan Sehring, Focus' James Schamus, Sundance director Geoff Gilmore, The Film-Department's Mark Gill, producer Ted Hope and Sony Classics' Michael Barker. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

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Sundance is celebrating 25 years at this edition of the festival, with what are probably comparatively rather mild self-congratulatory accolades considering a silver jublilee of sorts. Still, the festival hosted a panel with Barbara Kopple, Steven Soderbergh, Tom DiCillo and Gregg Araki, moderated by indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez, that joined engaged in a discussion on independent film's last quarter century at Sundance and its creative voice today.

Hernandez launched the chat asking the panelists where they were creatively 25 years ago. Oscar-winning director Kopple offered up her experience in a seminal doc she directed in 1985. "I was filming 'American Dream' about a strike by meatpackers," she recalled. "I had no money. Someone called me during the shoot and told me that I only had $250 in the bank. Then the phone rang again, and I said, 'don't answer it,' but then it was someone calling to tell me that Bruce Springsteen gave us $50,000... We were flushed again..."

Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger than Paradise" received a lot of attention during the panel. DiCillo, who shot the movie, said his experience on the production was a high water mark in which to compare other projects. "The sense of freedom was unbelievable, and that is what I need. It's getting harder and harder to do that."

Gregg Araki, who brought "Smiley Face" and "Mysterious Skin" to Sundance in recent years, and became a mainstay on the indie scene in the '90s with "The Living End," "Totally Fucked Up" and "Nowhere" commented that it was important for directors to know their audience and not try to appeal to everyone.

"'Stranger than Fiction' wasn't a huge box office successs, but it's been such a huge influence and has had such impact," commented Araki. "I relate to post-punk and alternative music culture, and one of my favorite bands is the Cocteau Twins. They weren't a huge commercial success, but they were great."

Naturally, the topic of money crept into the conversation with practically everyone lamenting the constant struggle to raise cash. "There is a huge difference between the indie film [community] today and the past. It used to be about saying 'no' to Hollywood, 'no' to the suits, 'no' to 'do this and I'll give you the money.' This isn't true today. I think they should be as far apart as possible. If you put them together, they cancel themselves out."

Soderbergh, however countered, "If you think money is what defines 'independent' then Steven Spielberg is a very independent filmmaker..." Both agreed that casting has been a huge change since they started working, with people holding the purse strings wanting names. "People with money want you to get a certain actor," said DiCillo. "Then before you know it, it's been five years. Bertolucci once told me that the 'director' is the person who gets the money. Actual directing is one ninety-ninth, if even that, of the effort and time spent [on a project].