Indie spirit aids films-makers as studios cut budgets

Indie spirit aids films-makers as studios cut budgets
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First Published: Fri, Aug 14 2009. 01 15 AM IST
Updated: Fri, Aug 14 2009. 03 45 PM IST
Los Angeles: Quentin Tarantinonever had to go through this.
When The Age of Stupid, a climate change movie, “opens” across the US in September, it will play on some 400 screens in a one-night event, with a video performance by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, all paid for by the filmmakers themselves and their backers. In Britain, meanwhile, the film has been showing via an Internet service that lets anyone pay to licence a copy, set up a screening and keep the profit.
The glory days of independent film, when hot young directors such as Steven Soderbergh and Tarantino had studio executives tangled in fierce bidding wars at Sundance and other celebrity-studded festivals, are now barely a speck in the rearview mirror.
Here is how it used to work: aspiring film-makers playing the cool auteur in hopes of attracting the eye of a Hollywood power broker. Here is the new way: film-makers doing it themselves— paying for distribution, marketing films through social networking sites and Twitter blasts, putting their work up free on the Internet to build a reputation, cosying up to concierges at luxury hotels in film festival cities to get them to whisper into the right ears.
The economic slowdown and tight credit have squeezed the entertainment industry along with everybody else, resulting in significantly fewer big-studio films in the pipeline and an even tougher road for smaller-budget independent projects. Independent distribution firms are much less likely to pull out the cheque book while many of the big studios have all but gotten out of the indie film business.
“It’s not like the audience for these movies has completely disappeared,” said Cynthia Swartz, a partner in publicity company 42 West, which has been supplementing its mainstream business by helping film-makers find ways to connect with an audience. “It’s just a matter of finding them.”
Sometimes, the odd approach actually works.
Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, a documentary about a Canadian metal band, turned into the do-it-yourself equivalent of a smash hit when it stretched a three-screen opening in April into a four-month run, still under way, on 150 screens around the US.
“I paid for everything, I took a second mortgage on my house,” said Sacha Gervasi, the director. Gervasi, whose studio writing credits include The Terminal, directed by Steven Spielberg , began filming Anvil! with his own money in hopes of attracting a conventional distributor. The movie played well at Sundance in 2008, but offers were low. So Gervasi put up more money—his total cost was in “the upper hundred thousands”, he said—to distribute the film through a company called Abramorama, while selling the DVD and television rights to VH1.
The ageing rockers of Anvil have shown up at theatres to play for audiences. Famous fans such as Courtney Love were soon chattering online about the film. And “virtual street teamers”—Web advocates who flood social networks with admiring comments, sometimes for a fee—were recruited by Internet consultant Sarah Lewitinn.
The idea behind this sort of guerrilla release is to accumulate just enough at the box office to prime the pump for DVD sales and return the film-maker’s investment, maybe even with a little profit. Anvil! has earned roughly $1 million (Rs4.8 crore) worldwide at the box office so far, its producer, Rebecca Yeldham, said.
Finding even relatively small amounts of money to make and market a film is, of course, no small trick. The Age of Stupid raised a production budget of about £450,000 (Rs3.6 crore) from 228 shareholders, and is soliciting a bit more to continue its release, Franny Armstrong, its director, said.
“Money has simply vanished,” said Mark Urman, an independent film veteran, speaking of the financial drought that has pushed producers and directors into shouldering risks that only a few years ago were carried by a more robust field of distributors.
©2009 / THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Fri, Aug 14 2009. 01 15 AM IST