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Survival of the Leanest

Survival of the Leanest

The humble success of Zeitgeist Films, celebrating 20 years in the indie business (with a month-long retro at MOMA, starting this Friday) offers a valuable lesson to all the cynics who say the sky is falling for indie film. I’ve written about the death of independent film multiple times over the last decade, but a company such as Zeitgeist (who I profiled in the Village Voice this week) proves that it still exists, as long as you keep your ambitions small.

Mark Gill, according to his oft-cited speech on the eve of the Los Angeles Film Festival, would tell you that the “sweet spot” budget for specialized movies is “between $15 and $50 million,” which must strike the ladies at Zeitgeist — or any one else who has been in the artier end of the business — as kind of funny. I was having a conversation with a filmmaker this week who said the sweet spot is actually $100,000. I guess this is what people mean when they talk about economies of scale.

I love to hear Zeitgeist’s execs champion their most successful movies with pride: Nowhere in Africa ($6.2 million ), The Corporation ($1.9 million), Aimee & Jaguar ($927,000) — box-office grosses that would be considered by most other companies as mediocre to weak, at best. But when you’re lean, shrewd and you have good taste, and you’re operating in the realm of truly independent cinema — not this Hollywood-lite sham version that tries to pass itself off as indie — such numbers are cause for celebration.

These days, lots of folks are lamenting the contraction of the market and the implosiion of major companies, but just take a look at Zeitgeist: They’re not trying to capitalize, aggregate or innovate; they’re just doing the same thing they’ve always done and they’re doing just fine.

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