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Are Indiewood Companies ‘Majors in Drag’?

Are Indiewood Companies 'Majors in Drag'?

During a Q & A session with Christine Vachon that I moderated last weekend at SXSW, she echoed a feeling that runs deep within the current independent film community. Reflecting on the film that her company is making in Austin right now for Warner Independent Pictures, “Every Word is True,” she quipped, “Most of the so-called independent companies really aren’t independent at all. I am not sure what they are independent from.” [Image via Spell with Flickr (created by Kastner).]

On AMC’s “Sunday Morning Shootout” this morning, Peter Guber offered:

I think there is a real danger, because what they really are, are becoming majors in drag…a child looks at the parent and when it starts to grow up it emulates the parent, these smaller institulatilized companies which are supposed to be independent really aren’t independent.

As the Indiewood companies (Fine Line, Focus, Fox Searchlight, Miramax, Paramount Classics, Sony Classics, United Artists, and Warner Independent) put bigger bucks behind their movies, either to win Oscars or secure larger box office grosses, their films become more important in Hollywood and their studio bosses increasingly demand more. Like “Sunday Morning Shootout,” Hollywood trade papers (in a Variety article today and a Hollywood Reporter piece late last month) are also trying to come to terms with Indiewood:

In the Variety article (“Too big for their niches”, 3/20/05) Ian Mohr quotes “one veteran distribution whiz at a studio subsid” who concurs, saying:

…it looks like many are emulating the studio model. They are sort of swinging for the fences on every picture. When you do that on every swing, when you strike out, you strike out really badly.

“Troubles come when a studio micromanages an indie unit,” noted Anne Thompson (“Speciality of the house: Mix of autonomy, time”, 3/25/05), quoting former UA and October head Bingham Ray:

Some studio executives may resent a new outfit. They can feel threatened. You have to be skilled and politically adept at working inside the studio system. In these divisions there is risk, and there’s a tendency for the fear of risk to paralyze decision-making. It’s a lot easier to say no than yes.

Given the increasing focus, instability at most of the Indiewood companies is on the minds of many insiders. Consider the buzz surrounding many of the aforementioned Indiewood companies:

Fox Searchlight: Success leads to a slimming down. “We made a strategic decision to make fewer movies,” Peter Rice head of the successful division told Variety earlier this month.

Miramax Films: Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Many key execs have left for other companies, others have been laid off in the past few months as the industry awaits an announcement about the future of the company and the widely expected news that Bob & Harvey Weinstein will launch a new company. And who will be tapped to run Disney’s arthouse division after the Weinstein’s leave?

Paramount Classics: “Welcome to the new improved Paramount!” exclaimed Classics co-president Ruth Vitale during a chat with indieWIRE after the company orchestrated deals for “Hustle & Flow” and “Mad Hot Ballroom.” The proclamation came as competitors and insiders continuted to fuel rumors that the company was about to face a shake-up. Paramount saw the appointment of new chief Brad Grey, seemingly ending the heated speculation about Paramount acquiring Newmarket Films or hiring John Sloss to run the specialty division.

United Artists: Staffers at the fabled company, and at parent MGM, are anticipating significant layoffs in the coming month or two, now that MGM and UA are being absorbed by Sony Pictures Entertaiment. MGM head Chris McGurk has made it clear that he will not be involved once the acquisition is complete.

Warner Independent: One leading independent film figure in New York recently quipped that the company is paralyzed by speculation that head Mark Gill will leave, with execs prepping resumes and shopping themselves to other companies. Trade paper speculation persists that changes are afoot, with the latest rumor being that Gill could return to Miramax when the Weinsteins leave.

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