For more than 20 years, the major studios and major specialty distributors — Fox Searchlight, Universal, Sony Pictures Classics, Disney and others — have distributed Spike Lee’s films. But for his most personal work in some time, "Red Hook Summer," Lee has relative newcomer Variance Films doing the honors, in what represents a shift for both the filmmaker and the indie film market.
Lee's film had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opened this weekend to a reasonably solid $42,100 on four New York City screens; it will expand throughout the month. Just prior to its release, Variance president Dylan Marchetti spoke with Indiewire about his company’s ambitions for both new and veteran independent filmmakers, how to make money in the filmmaking fringes and why he sneaks gin into "church."
A new movie from Spike seems like a good get for you guys, arguably your highest-profile filmmaker to date. Does this signal any strategy shift or great ambition for the company?
Well, no one can ever accuse us of not having great ambitions. There's no way around it. But as far as a strategy shift, I think it's less of a shift and more of our original strategy coming to fruition. You can see the seeds of it back last year when we did the John Sayles film "Amigo." I want Variance to be two things. I want young independent filmmakers who make a film that would be considered very small — something like Mike Ott's "Little Rock" or Damien Chazelle's "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" — that'll either get lost in the studio shuffle or get shunted into the corner onto a DVD release with a bigger guy to get that attention and get that launch so that they can go out and make another film. The other thing we want it to be is when someone like John Sayles or Spike Lee makes a personal film, ten years down the road I want these guys to know that they don't ever have to compromise for studio distribution because — if their vision is true and the film comes out right — we're there for them. I would love Variance to look like United Artists was supposed to in the '30s and then again Zoetrope in the 70s.
Those are high benchmarks.
We set the goal high, but it's gonna take time.
John Sayles is obviously one of the godfathers of independent film. What does it mean about how the indie business has shifted that films from Spike Lee and John Sayles are available to you?
That's a great question, and there are four thousand answers. I can go on for three hours. The one thing I'd like to think, and this is probably a little bit egotistical, but it's not that Variance is the only option for these films. There were offers on the table for both of them, as I understand things. Some were traditional and some were not. But I think that it's no coincidence that two of the biggest directors that have embraced us so far are John Sayles and Spike Lee, who are two of the godfathers of independent cinema. When I think of the people that started independent film, John and Spike are two of the names that come up right first in my mind and always have. I like to think that it's less that this is what they need to do with their film; it's that we can offer them a little bit of control. These aren't guys who are stymied about the distribution process. How many films have these guys released? These are hyper-intelligent people and hyper-intelligent filmmakers, and they pay attention when their film is getting distributed. They learn stuff, they ask the right questions. When we start working with them, they're not novices. They're very savvy about what has happened to their films in the past, the good and the bad, and they're very keen to be involved in decisions that are made along the process. We can offer that to a degree that a traditional studio — I don't want to say can't, but — can't!
What's the toughest or most frustrating part of your business right now?
The one thing that is always going to be the case is, when I go to Sundance or when I go to South by Southwest or when I go to Berlin, I have made a conscious decision not to take on outside investors so that I have the freedom to do the films that I want and not have to worry about political ramifications and all that stuff. What I cannot do at this point in time without getting an investor with deep pockets is go to some place like Sundance and walk out of a screening of "Queen of Versailles" or "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and point at the film and say, "I want that one." I do it anyway, and sometimes I get laughed at by sales agents, which is reasonable! They’re like, "Yeah, I’ve got five of the heads of the mini-majors in the hotel room at three in the morning. We appreciate your interest, Dylan, but on this one I'm going to make millions and millions of dollars." And we just don't do that. But as the business evolves and split-rights deals are a lot more common, there are plenty of studios that do a great job, but they can't release every movie.
Who do you see doing good things in this distribution space other than what you guys are up to? Do you see other promising, entrepreneurial or innovative distribution houses?
Oh, absolutely! You're always going to have people like Tom Quinn and Harvey Weinstein over at Radius, who are ahead of the curve. Bob Berney, whatever he winds up doing next is probably going to be innovative and intelligent. You've got the mini-guys. I think that Sony Classics and Magnolia have some of the best tastes of distributors out there. And then as far as the other end of things, I see a lot of filmmakers who — and I've told this to a couple filmmakers, I'm like, "Look, you don't need us on this title so much.” If it's small enough and they have a good enough handle — someone like Alex Ross Perry on "The Color Wheel" or "Impolex." Then there are guys like Tugg, who we're going to work with, because we like working with smart people and we see it as very complimentary to our business. We're about to do a lot of good things with Tugg, and I think they're complimentary to each other. I really do believe in giving people choices, but I also believe in the theatrical experience. Not every film — let's say we turn down about 95% of the films that we're sent because it has to be something that is theatrical in nature — but if you can get that word of mouth going, I believe that's how independent film still grows.