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DECADE: Liz Manne — Understanding “Independence” and Taking Risks, Part 2

DECADE: Liz Manne -- Understanding "Independence" and Taking Risks, Part 2

DECADE: Title, Part 2

by Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz/indieWIRE

indieWIRE’s conversation with Liz Manne continues…

iW: At the Sundance Channel, you’re in a position to see first features
from filmmakers. What are some of the things you are noticing about
first features that are coming from these filmmakers as opposed to first
features that you were seeing 8 or 10 years ago?

Manne: What’s interesting is the first features we were seeing 8 and 10
years ago, again, I think a lot of them were very emotionally heartfelt
and very much about a kind of social condition, and a lot of identity
politics. Dealing with issues of gender, sexuality, cross-dressing.
Yes, there was always Todd Haynes taking chances with style, but
generally speaking, most of the movies you were seeing at Sundance
[were those] that brought your attention to things. And the beauty about
“My Own Private Idaho,” which was the best movie absolutely of that year,
is that it dealt with both style and sexual politics. It dealt with things
in a form that was revolutionary and was dealing with a subject matter that
was quite under-represented. And I think from that you went into a
trend where you saw films that you can simplify and say were very
influenced by the music generation or something, but it’s this
super-violent era in independent film that was very influenced by
Tarantino, a highly skilled filmmaker who has made some very interesting
films, but it spawned a concept of independent films that for my money
and my heart, was just not that interesting.

And then I think what you saw was a little bit of a trend into a kind of
what I call “nice cinema,” some of it on the higher-budget end of the
independent world is these costume dramas, the “Shakespeare in Love“‘s
and all of that stuff — which by the way, hello, was put into motion in
probably the most significant way by Merchant Ivory. And you look at a
film like “A Room With A View” in 1986, that was the first time that an
independent company, in the form of Cinecom Films, had like 8 nominations
in the Academy Awards. So people like to peg the start of the ascent
of independent film to “sex, lies, and videotape” but in terms of that
whole pot of the independent film business, it really was Merchant
Ivory, and it really reached its highest point with “Shakespeare in
Love” winning Best Picture, but it was very much set in motion very
powerfully with “A Room With A View” and then ultimately “Howard’s End
which was a big breakthrough for Sony Classics.

So that part of filmmaking, as an audience person I love it, I read Jane
Austen novels, I love costumes — give me a good corset and some good
language and a couple of horses and I’m a pretty happy moviegoer. But I
think that there’s another part of “nice cinema” — and that sounds so
pejorative — is this creation of films that people make because they
think they are going to get sold, or because they think they’re going to
create a career for somebody. And that to me is not so interesting.
That to me is a very bland type of cinema and it’s not taking chances.

“The whole industry has driven itself into a
place where all they can do is make conservative decisions because
otherwise they’re not going to have a business in a year. “

Basically what this became is an era that became so professional-ized,
and by the way this is a monster I absolutely helped create so I take
some responsibility for it. But the organizations of all the PR firms
and all the international sales agencies and the machine-like ways of
running through film festivals and setting up press junkets and
interviews and making people stars overnight, and getting personal
representation, and how are you going to be able to pre-sell, and how
are you going to be able to package, and what’s on the box is more
important than what’s in the box, and all that mentality that drives so
much of foreign sales…you open issues of the trades prior to the
Cannes market and you can look at ads with casts for movies that don’t
even have screenplays written for them yet, but they’ve got so-and-so
and so-and-so in them and they’re directed by so-and-so and they’ve got
a gun and a girl and boom! you can pre-sell Japan for x and Benelux for
y and all of a sudden you’ve got a deal. So these are deals that are
being created, they’re not films that are being created. And that to me
is a very, very sad and boring chapter in the development of independent
film and the independent film industry as we know it.

I think what you’re finally starting to see again now, because I think
it’s actually been a pretty good season, is you are starting to see a
little bit of diversity. You’ve got some costume slots, you’ve got some
studio pictures like “American Beauty” that have a lot of independent
sensibility and a lot of sharpness to them and a lot of nuance to them,
and that film wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for the independent
film movement. That film wouldn’t even have existed without “sex lies
and videotape.” I see it very much as a parent creatively for that

You are seeing that because of digital technology, because of outlets
like Sundance Channel and the Independent Film Channel, what’s [happening]
on the web, that there are alternative outlets now, and you have to have
this kind of thing in order to get a little bit more diversity. And you
are starting to see real diversity in form again, and that’s where
people like Harmony come into play, and people like Julian Goldberger
come in to play, and short filmmakers and animators come into play.
Because the economics, the barriers to entry, are lower once you get out
of straight theatrical, people are freer to do things that don’t have to
sell foreign, don’t have to sell ‘X’ number of titles to Blockbuster to
justify their existence. So I think that outlets such as Sundance
Channel are actually allowing a lot more diversity again at the very
least in terms of style, in terms of filmmaking. And I think that
that’s very exciting, for me.

The other trend I think we’ve seen, and I think this has to do with PBS
and the Learning Channel and A&E and a lot of other TV outlets, is an
explosion in documentary filmmaking that’s occurred in the last few
years. I was fortunate enough to work on “Hoop Dreams,” again with Ira
at Fine Line, and that was my favorite movie I ever worked on in my
career because it was something that was not only great filmmaking and
great entertainment, but something that had such an important social
message along with it that it united my two great passions in life which
are politics and film. And that I think, because of everything that
happened with the Academy, that’s very much a watershed event in the
last ten years. There was a little revolution that occurred there,
thanks to that film and thanks to the power of that film, that’s really
changed the landscape certainly for how the Academy views documentaries,
but also for how the business views documentaries and how the media
views documentaries. And if it wasn’t for “Hoop Dreams” you wouldn’t
see a film like “The Farm” or “On the Ropes” do as well as they’ve done
in the last couple of years.

And I think that’s great, because I think that documentary filmmaking is
so diverse and so interesting and so real and so pertinent and
powerful. I think I’m becoming as an audience member and a fan, more
interested in those kinds of things and the things that are from the
reaches of filmmaking, whether it’s docs or animation or shorts or
digital film or truly independent film, and there’s good reasons for
this and the reasons are economic. How much does that ad cost in the
New York Times now, for God’s sake? How much advertising do you have to
spend in order to be competitively realistic?

I love “Tumbleweeds” and I see how much money Fine Line is spending on
it to get it out there. Janet McTeer deserves to walk away with the
Academy Award this year, no question about it. But I can see how much
money they’re spending, and that’s a lot of dough to spend for what is
essentially a pretty delicate little film. So what happens if you’re in
an environment where you have to spend that kind of money to get that
kind of recognition, get that kind of peace of mind for the consumer,
and compete effectively — the whole industry has driven itself into a
place where all they can do is make conservative decisions because
otherwise they’re not going to have a business in a year. And I think
it’s going to get worse next year because of the election year, and
media costs are going to be that much higher on radio and on TV. So I
think it’s a tough situation for them, but I think what happened as a
result of it is there’s a lot of really bland cinema.

“I think
that it’s my responsibility as a human being and as an executive and as
a person with some creative influence over our culture, to take risks
and take chances and expand representation and expand opportunities.”

iW: The independent film world has embraced Gay & Lesbian filmmakers
and subject matter, but do you think it’s gone as far as it could have,
versus the Hollywood system, in embracing women and people of color in both
the business side and the creative side?

Manne: I think that women and people of color still have a long way to
go in the independent film world both on the business side and on a
creative side. A gay man may be a gay man, but he’s also a man and
chances are he’s white if he’s succeeding in this world. And you’re
seeing a hell of a lot more successful gay male directors, writers,
actors and everything else than you are seeing lesbians. Rose Troche is
a completely brilliant Lesbian and female and person of color filmmaker,
and she’s also an individual too. That’s not to say anything. But she’s
had a tough time. You look at a career like Alison Anders‘ career, she
is a great filmmaker, and she still is banging her head against the wall
in a way that Brad Anderson isn’t. And why is that? It’s complicated.
Why did “Drylongso” not get picked up for theatrical distribution?
Fortunately, Sundance Channel was able to do a good job with it and get
it out there and get Cauleen Smith some recognition and help launch her
career. But Cauleen is one of the most interesting, exciting
filmmakers, and “Drylongso” is a very beautiful, and important, and
interesting and political film. Why is that? I think it’s a
combination of things — the media, the audience, education and studio

And the dark, dirty truth about the movie business is whether you are in
Hollywood or in the independent sector, as an executive, you are
essentially motivated by fear every single day. And I don’t think fear
is a great motivator. If you are afraid of losing your job, and you
work in a climate where people get fired right, left and center, and
I’ve been fired from two jobs in this business — my two stripes of
honor — people become afraid to take risks. And I don’t think that
anything interesting has ever been made by people playing it safe — I
don’t think any film has been “hit out of the ballpark” to use a
straight, white male term, that was made by committee and safely. I
think that great things happen when people take chances, and I think if
you’re motivated by fear, your chances of supporting risk-taking is very
low, and I think that’s unfortunate, but I do think there’s a lot of
reasons for it.

I think the economics of independent film have become extremely difficult
for distributors, [it is] extremely difficult to be an independent producer
in today’s world. So much money has to come from international revenues,
and you still have a situation of significantly more racism in the
international markets than you do in U.S. markets. I think sexual films
work better overseas, but you definitely have these challenges. In the
home video world, you have a more conservative decision-making
population than you have in the theatrical exhibition community. So you
are selling to buyers for large chains that may or may not be the most
evolved people. But I think that it’s all responsibility, and I think
that it’s my responsibility as a human being and as an executive and as
a person with some creative influence over our culture, to take risks
and take chances and expand representation and expand opportunities.

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