With every well-heeled film institution or corporation that abandons New York City, the once indie film center loses some of its capital. And in the capital-intensive world of the film business, that’s not a good thing for adventurous filmmakers who need adventurous financiers. It’s bad enough that Focus Features, the longstanding Universal subsidiary that once supported Gotham auteurs like Jim Jarmusch (“The Limits of Control”), Noah Baumbach (“Greenberg”) and the Coen brothers (“A Serious Man”), lost its main art-film advocate James Schamus, who balanced a shrewd knowledge of overseas playability with bold aesthetics, but the real nail in the coffin is the company’s shuttering of its New York offices.
What’s left to drive New York’s indies and cultivate the next generation of Gotham’s filmmakers? The Weinstein Company and Sony Pictures Classics remain the only entities on the East Coast that can make a mid-sized independent film, gathering enough stars and budget to make the next “Constant Gardener” or “Motorcycle Diaries” or “Atonement” (all Focus features).
With the company’s move to Los Angeles and Film District’s Peter Schlessel at the reigns, you can bet that the mid-sized art film is in more trouble than it already was. Schlessel’s track record is mixed in the specialty space: Yes, he can claim ownership of driving Nicholas Winding Refn’s bang-up noir “Drive” into the marketplace, but much of the company’s slate is heavily geared towards genre titles (“Red Dawn,” “Parker,” “Dead Man Down,” “Olympus Has Fallen”–all yuck).
I know a lot of emerging filmmakers who have important development deals with Focus Features. And even if those projects never got off the ground, there was always the hope that they might. Now, I expect those development deals are no more.
In the Village Voice in 2009, I wrote a story called “My Big Fat Greek Collapse: New York’s Independent Film Community Goes From Boom to Bust,” which essentially anticipated such a downfall.
“It’s insane that you can count the number of companies buying [films] on one hand,” veteran New York producer Christine Vachon told me at the time.
With the inevitable decline of the DVD, a glut of productions, and changing audience-viewing habits, it was only a matter of time before the Pollyanna-ish art-meets-commerce model that spurred on specialized cinema would come crumbling down. And without studio dollars to cultivate new talents, today’s indie filmmakers, many too young to remember when the industry was nascent, are struggling.
Sure, ultra-indie filmmakers and D.I.Y. directors are free to run around New York City, having fun making their cool no-budget movies that everyone loves at SXSW. But is that a sustainable career?
Producer Jay Van Hoy also lamented the smaller number of distribution companies, “and that’s what drove the production community here 10 years ago,” he told me.
I know there’s a lot of hope out there with the rise of VoD and other smaller distribution outfits that have come to the fore, such as A24. But I can’t see this latest news as a good sign of anything to come.