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April 7, 1998 2:00 AM
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Hello Cleveland! A Report from the First Midwest Filmmakers Conference

Hello Cleveland! A Report from the First Midwest
Filmmakers Conference

by Eugene Hernandez




"I think that it's easier to look at other film festivals or other
venues that don't have the kind of bright lights on them," the Cleveland
Film Society's David Wittkowski told a crowd of filmmakers at last
weekends first Midwest Filmmakers Conference, "to get a truer picture of
what's happening in independent filmmaking and exhibition and
distribution."


Not surprisingly, during a panel discussion entitled, "Show and Sell,"
the topic drifted to the Sundance Film Festival and its far reaching
influence over the production, acquisition, and distribution of
independent films. Crediting Sundance for its long standing advocacy of
independent filmmaking, the panelists, including Wittkowski, filmmakers
Sarah Jacobson ("Mary Jane's Not A Virgin Anymore") and Suzanne Meyers
("Alchemy," The Fuel Tour), the Ann Arbor Film Fest's Vicki Honeyman and
Film Finders' Peter Belsito, all acknowledged the positive influence of
the festival. Yet at the same time they denounced the forces in the
broader entertainment industry which have made the festival, and the
current independent film scene, one that is plagued with
commercialization, Hollywood studio-owned specialty distributors, and is
underscored by a limited number of opportunities for the kinds of films
that put festivals like Sundance on the mainstream map a decade ago.


"My point of view is that there is a lot of hype for indie film,"
explained Jacobson. "But at the same time a lot of what is coming out as
'indie' -- to me its 'indiewood' -- there's a lot of stuff that is
really safe and conventional." Suzanne Meyers tackled the challenges
from the perspective of the rapidly shifting marketplace, "Now because
there are more chains, this system is totally different. Exhibitors
expect films to perform really well (on) opening weekend -- whether its
one of our films or 'Titanic' -- these films have really specialized
audiences."


"'Titanic" is just a disgusting phenomenon," added Peter Belsito, "When
you look at how many theater screens in this country have been taken up
for so many months with that film.' He continued, "the problem is with
the distributors in this country, not that they're bad people and not
that they're stupid or that they don't know their job, but that they're
scared. There's money at stake. Its a very cutthroat business. There's a
lot of competition."


Summing up the situation sharply, Meyers advised, "I think as filmmakers
we have to really figure out who we're speaking to and who we're trying
to reach, and then find new ways to reach them because the mainstream
way of just hoping to get into the local multiplex just isn't realistic
anymore."

One woman who knows both sides of the widening gap between the indies
and studio specialty companies is Marcia Kirkley, former assistant to
Miramax' Harvey Weinstein and a former member of the acquisitions team
at October. Kirkley took the stage on the previous afternoon for a
panel entitled, "Producing Independents." Since leaving October,
Kirkley has been involved with "Dogs: The Rise and Fall of An All-Girl
Bookie Joint
," "Sudden Manhattan," and the recent Sundance entry,
"Wrestling With Alligators." Alongside Kirkley, were The Shooting
Gallery
's Bob Gosse and "In The Company of Men" Producer Mark Archer.


"The producer does everything," exclaimed Kirkley and Archer in unison
during the seminar. Weighing in with his own definition, Gosse added,
"Its the producer's role to provide the structure, the vehicle for these
people (the directors) to do their job -- to create a piece of work that
you as the producer can go and exploit."


For this group the subject focused almost entirely on financing.
Advising the crowd, Kirkley cautioned that independent films involve a
"several year commitment" on the part of the producer. Two struggling
independent producers with the battle scars to prove it, Kirkley and
Archer cautioned the young filmmakers in the audience at every
opportunity. "The problem is that there are too many films being made
by people who don't prepare themselves," Archer offered, counting
himself among them and calling himself a "lucky son of a bitch." "I
would never do it that way again -- I got lucky." Speaking for the
unlucky majority, Marcia Kirkley detailed "heartbreaking" situations
from her acquisitions days in which filmmakers had mortgaged their homes
in order to make films that had no future. Also on the panel was local
filmmaker and Conference co-founder Kirk Zehnder, who perhaps summed it
up best by advising filmmakers to do their homework, because put simply,
"It's a business."


At The Shooting Gallery, Gosse and company realized that fact some time
ago. His company offers directors final cut and complete freedom to pick
key positions, as long as the Gallery can maintain a production
attorney, line producer and accountant on a film. "They respect our
money," Gosse stated flatly, "We respect their creativity." Through
projections, Gosse and company have been able to raise that money by
leveraging their success with such films as "Sling Blade." With Steven
Bickle heading up the European marketplace, they have raised bank money
purely on Bickle's projections, according to Gosse. With a negative
cost based on what can be raised overseas, Gosse added, their films can
then be produced with equipment owned by The Shooting Gallery. The
partnership has worked so far, according to Gosse, with partner Larry
Meistrich serving as the "nuts and bolts business guy" and Gosse as the
"creative/film guy." Gosse recently directed his first film for the
company, "Niagara, Niagara," which is in theatrical release, and the
company recently announced plans to build a fully functional studio lot
in New Jersey.


Despite working on a more established and bigger playing field than some
of the independent producers that struggle to piece together money to
get a film in the can, Gosse advised against going the credit card route
for financing. "One thing we learned the first time out," he stated,
"never use your own money." Finally, he cautioned, "Take a hard look at
that screenplay -- otherwise why put that shit on your credit card?" He
half-joked, "Buy a car."


The first Midwest Filmmakers Conference presented a unique cross section
of individuals for the enthusiastic and extremely interested Cleveland
audience. Beyond those mentioned, among the people that participated
were Les Roberts ("Pepper Pike"), Sylvia Sichel ("All Over Me"), Alan
McElroy ("Spawn"), Michael Bergmann ("Milk and Money"), Matthew Harrison
("Kicked in the Head"), and Todd Verow ("Little Shots of Happiness").


"One thing that really inspires me," Sarah Jacobson told the audience
Sunday afternoon at the event's final seminar, "is no one can really
stop you -- I mean, who's gonna stop you?" Using her own recent
decision to take "Mary Jane" on a D.I.Y. tour of the States, Jacobson
proclaimed, "If the big theater doesn't let you in, go to the next
theater. If that theater doesn't let you in, go the museum. If the
museum does let you in, go the college. If the college doesn't let you
in, go to the skate park, go to the high school, the community center.
There's always a way to screen you film and there's always a way to get
it out there. I guess you just have to figure out what your goal is --
do you want money? O.K. maybe the high school isn't a very good idea."


Clarifying her message a bit, and hitting the audience with advice that
clearly resonated and was inspirational in a broader sense, Jacobson
said, "The arthouse circuit used to almost be like a safety net for
films that were unique, and now not only in 'independent film' are films
not unique, but also the films that are being shown on that circuit
aren't really independent films anyway. But instead of being all bummed
about ...let's start from scratch, let's do it the way we want to -- why
should I wait for this guy to come save me if he obviously doesn't
understand what I'm doing, why not just build it ourselves?"

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