FEATURE: Digital Video With Tangible Results; InDigEnt Makes its Mark
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE: 03.27.02) -- Merriam-Webster may define indigent as "poor" or "impoverished," but then again, the dictionary scribes never met producer-director Gary Winick, entertainment attorney John Sloss or executives at The Independent Film Channel. Creators of digital filmmaking initiative InDigEnt [Independent Digital Entertainment], this triumvirate of talent and funds has redefined the word to mean quite the opposite.
While digital film companies are no longer anything new, 2002 marks the year that InDigEnt proved how much it could really accomplish with tangible results: Sundance 2002 Grand Jury Prize winner "Personal Velocity" and the reported $5 million Miramax acquisition "Tadpole." When the company's first round of four films launched in 2001, critical reaction was mixed. Lions Gate bought the package and gave theatrical releases to Campbell Scott's "Twilight Zone"-esque "Final" as well as the best of the lot, Richard Linklater's "Tape." (Ethan Hawke's "Chelsea Walls" will finally come to theaters next month, while Bruce Wagner's "Women in Film" went to video and cable.) The company kicked off its next lot of productions with Rodrigo Garcia's "Ten Tiny Love Stories," followed by what would be InDigEnt's double-hitter of success: Gary Winick's own "Tadpole" and Rebecca Miller's "Personal Velocity."
In the process of overseeing eight features (including the upcoming "Kill the Poor," directed by Alan Taylor), it seems Winick, and his production partners Alexis Alexanian and Jake Abraham, have learned a thing or two. "On the first batch," says Winick, "I was going after filmmakers and playwrights who said, 'I've always wanted to do this one project and this is the perfect medium for it.' With Rebecca's film and my film, we designed specifically for InDigEnt and DV, so I think that's one of the reasons these films maximize what InDigEnt can do."
What is it that InDigEnt can do? "It comes back to characters and intimacy," says Winick. "And to come up with a story that fits the practical concerns of DV as well as the benefits." According to Winick, those benefits include the freedom to rework direction, using multiple cameras, and paying attention to performance. "The technical goes out the window and it really becomes about the performance and the writing," he says.
That's of course little news to filmmakers who have embraced digital cinema since Dogme 95 sanctified the format several years ago. But Sundance 2002 proved that shooting digital doesn't make a difference to distributors and the industry at large. John Sloss, who brokered "Tadpole"'s multi-million dollar sale to Miramax, says, "I could have sold it for even more. It was the first film I sold that every distributor wanted. It made my job easy." And Winick admits, "It is a groundbreaking moment. I'm glad it's another thing that InDigEnt contributes to DV. If we can make it easier on getting other DV films made or inspire people to make them, like [Thomas Vinterberg's Dogme 95 effort] "Celebration" and Cassavetes were to me, then that's a huge thing."
But Sloss says the dollar amount of Miramax's "Tadpole" buy (or UA's acquisition of "Personal Velocity") should be less significant to filmmakers than Ellen Kuras's best cinematography nod at Sundance for her work on "Velocity." "The single most amazing fact was not the Miramax deal," says Sloss, "but that one of these movies won the cinematography award. That's a harbinger for the future. There is this issue that people think digital video isn't worthy of a theatrical scale, and I don't agree with that. I always thought if you found the right movie for digital, it would always be as commercial as any other movie."
IFC's Jonathan Sehring agrees. "This may not be a fair comparison, but when you look at ultra-low-budget filmmaking -- there's 'The Brothers McMullen,' 'Clerks,' a number of films that were shot for well under $100,000 that don't look as good as the DV movies -- and they've performed extremely well at the box office. So they're not limited by that."
What also sets InDigEnt's films apart from previous low budget productions is the company's uniquely democratic model of profit sharing. "Up to 50 percent of dollar one goes to the cast and crew," says Sehring. Winick agrees: "That's one of the great things about InDigEnt, the fact that we all own a piece of the film, so the crew's really going to want to step up."
As InDigEnt pushes forward this season with another pair of movies (Peter Hedges' "Pieces of April" and Raymond De Felitta's "Playhouse 91"), Winick wonders what InDigEnt's fate will be in the coming years. "I'd like to say that we will keep doing what we're doing and the work speaks for itself. That's my hope. But the reality is that I can't really tell you, because of the economy and the world we live in."
"At a certain point," Winick continues, "everyone is going to outgrow it, because our costs go up. Not the costs of the films, but our overhead, because we're dealing with delivery and film festivals. Now we have eight, and we're soon going to have 10, so how much can a company give without recouping their money?" Winick says that the IFC doesn't really receive much economic incentive to stick around because of the venture's egalitarian financial model.
More importantly, Sehring and Sloss don't share Winick's concerns. "Even though the IFC weren't going to recoup much revenue, it was going to be innovative and they get to have films from established filmmakers and they get to collect all the films under their brand," Sloss says. Sehring notes that the IFC retains an equity stake in all the films and the library rights revert back to IFC after such deals with other distributors (like Lions Gate) expire.
IFC also has an explicit mandate from its parent company, Cablevision, to support digital endeavors. Sehring says, "We were in it from day one, because not only did we perceive digital filmmaking as an integral part of the future of any independent filmmaking, but our parent company is so enmeshed in digital technology as a cable operator, ranging from retail sales (The Wiz) to delivery cable networks to you name it -- anything that was involved with digital technologies, we wanted to get involved with."
DV movies still face prejudice among certain critics and audiences, but with corporate support and creative inspiration, InDigEnt appears to be proving what filmmakers have hoped all along: to level the financial playing field of making movies and allow for a greater emphasis on character and story rather than the bottom line. As for the company -- and digital video's future -- says Sloss, "It's become less about us telling people that it works, and more about showing them that it works."