DECADE: Liz Manne -- Understanding "Independence" and Taking Risks

by Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz/indieWIRE

[Part two of this interview is linked at the bottom of the page.]

Liz Manne kicked off the 90's joining Ira Deutchman at New Line's specialty spin-off, Fine Line Features. She left the company after a shakeup and joined Sundance Channel in early1998. Now, as the Channel's Executive Vice-President, Programming & Marketing, she is the outlet's face forward at Festivals and events. Along the way, she has been a part of the shifting independent film environment.

Manne recently shared a holiday wish list with industry insiders and media. Sampling a few of the entries gives a good indication of her motivations as the decade comes to a close:

-- "I wish companies would take more risks with films that really need their help."

-- "I wish there would be a moratorium on reporting box office grosses in major media outlets."

-- "I wish the US would get over its obsession with youth culture and start to value life experience and the beauty of imperfection and struggle."

-- "I wish all the archives, cinematheques, museums and non-profit organizations who work for the empowerment of individual artists loads of financial support."

-- "I wish individual artists all the grant money they can get their hands on."

-- "I wish for more films of daring, originality, wit, passion, and risk."

-- "I wish all the investors a good return on their investment, so they can come back again and again.

On a cold December morning, Mark Rabinowitz and I met with Liz in her Midtown Manhattan Sundance Channel office. The room is clearly decorated with representations of movies she likes: a "Gummo" poster, photographs of the landscape from "My Own Private Idaho," and a poster for the movie, "Trans." [Eugene Hernandez]

indieWIRE: Looking at Fine Line, what were some of the changes that you
saw taking place in the marketplace from the time period when you
started through when you left the company?

Liz Manne: It's interesting, because I was thinking about Fine Line the
other day. You know, we started in December 1990, so it is almost
[having] its 10 year anniversary, and that's a chunk of history, that's
a solid amount of time for a company to be in business. Fine Line came
out of work that Ira Deutchman and I were doing as consultants to New
Line after Ira left Cinecom, which was I think January '89. He
started an independent production consulting company called The
Deutchman Company
, which was basically a precursor to Redeemable
which he runs now. And I came to work for him shortly
thereafter. And I would say for about a year and a half, two years
almost, I was mostly working on the marketing/consulting side of things
with Ira. But he was also doing things in production/development. What
we did were films like "To Sleep With Anger" and "Straight Out of
" and "Metropolitan" and "sex lies and videotape." During that
year and a half, two year period, those were the four biggest films. We
also worked on a couple of kickboxing movies too, to pay the rent

I remember agonizing over the terms -- how are
we going to position this? Is this called "specialized film"? Is this
called "art film"? And really, even the phrase "independent film" wasn't
that well-known. I think that people can define
pornography a lot quicker than they can define independent film these

This was probably right at the beginning of the time period where there
was that year at Sundance where it was like the New Black Cinema. You
had that series of years where one year was the New Black Cinema and
next year was the New Women's Cinema and the year after that was New
Queer Cinema. I can't remember exactly which years were which, but it
was this sort of idea with independent film that it was discovering
niche audiences that were really totally un-represented or terribly
misrepresented in mainstream Hollywood pictures. Of course then, none
of the "minority" films are the films that really broke through. The
films that really broke through were films like "sex lies and videotape"
which were basically your white male films [laughs]. But that film was
dealing with sexuality and relationships in a way that mainstream
Hollywood wasn't dealing with. And that became a bit of a breakthrough.
But that's the environment that we were dealing with when we started the

I'm sure Ira still has a copy of the announcement of this specialized film
company...and they had a headline about us on the front page of Variety when
we announced the company in December 1990. Back then it was really big
news. I remember agonizing over the terms -- how are we going to position
this? Is this called "specialized film"? Is this called "art film"? And
really, even the phrase "independent film" wasn't that well-known. Of
course, the Independent Feature Project existed, and people talked about
American independent film, but they didn't talk about independent film in
general. And I remember no one wanted to call it "arthouse films." That
felt too ghettoized and too small.

So we were striving to position things, and I remember just thinking,
okay, "sex lies and videotape" did about $25 million, and "A Room With a
" did about $22 - 23 million, and it was the sort of notion that the
threshold on the gross for films in this marketplace [for] the so-called
specialized film, was in the low $20's. In the first two years of Fine Line
when we started, we had the two highest grossing independent films each of
those years. The first year was Gus van Sant's film "My Own Private Idaho"
and the second was "The Player" by Robert Altman. And I think "My Own
Private Idaho" only grossed maybe about $11-12 million, but again, for a
film with explicit homosexual representation in 1991, that was a very
significant box office gross, and that was the highest grossing film in the
independent film sector that year. And the next year, "The Player" was,
again at about that $25 million threshold level. So we wanted to be
positioning the films to be able to gross $10 million or $15 million, and
those were the huge hit numbers, whereas a lot of independent films were
grossing, and of course they still do, $1 - 2 million. So we didn't want to
structure the business so it was in the Zeitgeist world or the Strand world
or even at that point the Orion Classics, because their orientation was
towards much more conservative grossing patterns.

What's happened obviously in the ten years since then, is that first of
all, companies -- mostly led by Miramax paving the way, and many other
companies including Fine Line with a film like "Shine" or "Waking Ned
" from Searchlight, and Gramercy -- certainly opened the gates on a
couple of film titles, all bets are off on the numbers now. $100
million gross...$120 million gross for "Blair Witch." "Pulp Fiction" was
the first one to cross the $100 million line, increasing blurring of the
lines between what's the difference between an independent and a major
studio, what's the difference between Miramax and a studio, what's the
difference between New Line and a studio? Those things are just
becoming, I call it a Talmudic discussion, you can go on and on about
how to define the notion of independence. And in that, the very exercise
becomes increasingly less meaningful or interesting.

iW: It's almost like the definition of pornography, "I can't define it,
but I know it when I see it."

As I
said, nobody ever got killed with a hard-on. I mean, I'd rather see
sexuality on screen any day than irresponsible violence...To me,
that's the most interesting recent change....right now
it's very much news and it's very barrier-breaking.

Manne: Yeah, but you know what? I think that people can define
pornography a lot quicker than they can define independent film these
days. That's ironic! And if you want to know about the change in the
last one year, what's the most recent change? Well, what about all the
explicit sexuality. And I mean explicit sexuality. You are seeing erect
penises on screen now. Listen, I'm no shrinking violet, I can take
pretty much anything on screen, but I remember sitting up at the Toronto
Film Festival looking at people to the left and right of me going, "What
is this that they're watching?! " And bless me with my delicate
sensibilities, and I'm not against it or judging it in any way, but I'm
sitting there observing something, going "Wow, this is a change in what
we're seeing in movies," and I think it's a very healthy thing. As I
said, nobody ever got killed with a hard-on. I mean, I'd rather see
sexuality on screen any day than irresponsible violence...To me,
that's the most interesting recent change and that's something that five
years from now, ten years from now, it won't be news, but right now
it's very much news and it's very barrier-breaking,

And most of what people will probably be talking about in terms of the
change in the last couple of years is digital. That's the thing that's
going to spring to mind. It's the lowering of economic barriers,
it's greater, easier access, chances with the forms. I mean, [Harmony Korine's] "julien
" is one of the most interesting films of the year, and I
think because it was able to take aesthetic chances because of the lower
cost. The fact that he could use spy
cameras to shoot and multiple cameras at one time, and he ended up
editing down from the 70 hours of footage that was shot. It becomes a very,
very different type of art form as a result of that kind of technology.
And someone like Harmony [Korine], I think [he] is going to go down in history not
only as one of the great cinema artists, but one of the great artists,
period, of our generation, because he is so revolutionary in his
aesthetics and his use of medium. And I see someone like Julian
[director and writer of "Trans"] as right there with him in terms of
doing so many different kinds of things with his aural landscape,
combinations of music and sound design and film and improvisational work.
To me, these are by far the most interesting filmmakers working today.
And that's not to take anything away from the masters, but this is where I
am left going, "Wow, that's something new, that's interesting!"

The conversation continues on page 2...