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May 20, 1998 2:00 AM
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Will the Reel Indies Please Rise? A Cannes Seminar Examines Independent Production and Distribution

Will the Reel Indies Please Rise? A Cannes Seminar Examines Independent Production and Distribution

by Anthony Kaufman



Puns aside, a panel on independent producing and distributing organized
at Cannes' American Pavilion put a lens to the realities and definitions of
working outside of the studio or specialty division systems. An impressive
collection of filmmaking stalwarts attended, from the legendary producer
Saul Zaentz ("One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest," "Amadeus," "The English
Patient
") to a trio of distributor/producers in Amir Malin (Artisan),
Jeff Sackman (President of Lions Gate Films), Paul Cohen (Stratosphere)
to a duo of producer-now-distributors, Larry Meistrich (The Shooting Gallery)
and Ted Hope (Good Machine) to Nigel Sinclair from Intermedia ("Braveheart")
and Stephen Nemeth of Rhino Films ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas").


"Once you give up control," Saul Zaentz noted first off at the panel, "then
people tell you how to cast it and rewrite your script for you and will
control distribution and advertising. And the most important thing is final
cut -- who's going to make the picture, you or Mr. Scissorhands." Zaentz was
deeply cynical of the mainstream studios, claiming, "Even though you promise
[the studios] everything, you're still going to get screwed. But the contract
is such, unless you have a very, very, good lawyer, it's going to be very tough
to get the money back you earned."


"What's the business plan for an independent company?" asked moderator,
producer, and producer's rep, Jonathan Dana, "Answer: Stay in business long
enough for someone to buy you. And I'm not sure that isn't still the case."
Amir Malin claimed that "in order to survive, it may be that the only
companies that exist in this business are really the major studios with
enormously deep pockets or a company that is financed otherwise by a
very significant deep pocket in the capital marketplace." Was he, per
chance, insinuating Carl Icahn's Stratosphere?


Running Stratosphere as "a theatrically driven and motivated company,"
Paul Cohen said, "We are 6 months old, we have 8 films and probably 8 more to announce shortly." Stratosphere's turn to production came when Icahn woke
up one day and said let's produce. "We're operators, managers, we distribute
the films ourselves", continued Cohen, "and we are committed to the pictures
that we will produce, that we will distribute on a hands-on basis. We are
choosing them because we want to get involved with them."


Ted Hope answered Malin's rather cynical outlook with another alternative,
the path that his Good Machine and Meistrich's Shooting Gallery have followed.
"What Larry and I have done is go from producing films to other aspects of
the business and that is something that you can start off with very little
capital." Meistrich added, "What we've tried to do in growing into an
international sales company and a domestic distribution company is not
to take too big of steps and to offset that part of the business with going
into the fiscal production aspect, and it's not expensive to get in. We started
with one Avid machine."


As far international sales go, Sinclair was quick to point out that "the
traditional sales relationship with the international market in which with
a sensible movie, with some known elements, you can assume that you can
eventually presell every country in the world is over. The buyers are looking
for value and branding and service," explained Sinclair. "Now you cannot be
sure that you will pre-sell any movie at all at the moment unless it's got
Leonardo DiCaprio in it." Sinclair believes that the market has changed
enormously in the last two years and the branding with which Polygram
and Miramax are famous for is essential to the survival of future
independent companies.


Are the Lions Gates and Artisans of production and distribution the next
Miramax? Most of the competing panelists see in the future of their
companies a growth likened to Miramax, but still retaining their sense
of independence. Still, there are many lessons to learn from Miramax and
no one holds any grudges. "The lessons from Miramax for all of us are
that ultimately, we're talking too much about deals and money right now,"
said Sinclair. "Ultimately, money will find good filmmakers. I think
ultimately, in the independent film area, the only reason to exist in a
marketplace that is completely dominated by studio-controlled
distribution apparatus, is if we come up with new kinds of films or new
kinds of marketing. Beause we can't compete with video distribution,
because we can't compete with television deals and we can't compete in the
larger sense in theatrical distribution, but (what) we can do is what Artisan
can do and everyone else can do, is we can think of original marketing
and new ways of bringing movies to people. And not the lowest common
denominator of taste in the large studios."


So where are these new markets and movies to be found? As the panel
drew to a close, one filmmaker noted the opportunities to be had on the
Internet. David Schulhoff sold off the Internet rights to his short film
"On a Sidewalk in the Fall" to a production company in exchange for editing
and sound facilities. Whether this panel of mostly older white men, as
one audience member noted, will tap into the Internet as a new means
to distribution and production remains to be seen, but it seems that
alternative avenues will have to be found in order for these
non-studio-aligned film companies to flourish.

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