The Recession That Ate The Art Films

Category: Law Abiding Citizen News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: February 17, 2009 | Publication: Forbes | Author: Dorothy Pomerantz
Publication/Article Link:Forbes

Independent movies are getting crushed right now. Will they survive?

LOS ANGELES--The hottest film to emerge from this year's Sundance Film Festival is such an uncommercial movie that even the festival's programming director didn't think it was going to sell.

Push: Based On The Novel By Sapphire, is the story of an abused, illiterate African-American high school girl who is pregnant with her second child by her father. There are no stars aside from cameos by Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey.

Yet the movie is now at the center of a well-documented legal battle between Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company. Harvey Weinstein claims his company had a verbal deal with the film's representatives to distribute the movie, but it ultimately went to Lionsgate for a reported $5.5 million.

Why spend money on lawyers to fight over a movie that the L.A. Times called "nightmarish" and The New York Times called "grim to a level that many film executives say they have rarely seen on film"? Because it was only the third film in Sundance history to win both the jury prize and the audience prize for best drama at the January festival, a rare Sundance feat. That makes it as close to a sure thing as exists at the festival level. And at $5.5 million, it's half the price Focus Features paid for 2008's festival hit Hamlet 2, which earned only $5 million at the box office.

In today's tough economic climate studios want sure things, not risks. "No one's going to buy a film they don't think they can make money off of," says John Cooper, Sundance's programming head.

That's going to be especially true in the coming year. Right now the independent film world is still digesting a glut of movies financed during the easy-money era of the past three years.

For a while, Wall Street loved Hollywood, throwing cash at almost any decent filmmaker who asked for financing. That led to too many films fighting for attention. In 2000 there were 373 films released in the U.S. Last year that number was 604, but the number of tickets sold was still the same.

In order to be heard above the din, studios (the main buyers of independent films) had to spend more and more on advertising--until they were often spending more than the film's budget on marketing. That model quickly fell apart.
Last year Time Warner (nyse: TWX - news - people ) closed Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse Entertainment, the studio's two art film divisions. Viacom (nyse: VIA - news - people ) closed Paramount Vantage, which had produced 2007's big Oscar contenders No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood.

In addition to fewer buyers for their products, the indies are also dealing with the fact that Wall Street financing has dried up. To compensate, they're trying to limited film development to movies that either have attached stars or international appeal (like horror movies).

Mark Gill used to be head of Warner Independent, where he oversaw risky art films like George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck and Everything is Illuminated.

Now he heads production at The Film Dept., an independent company that makes films with budgets between $10 million and $45 million.

"We're looking for movies that easily deserve to be released on 1,000 screens," he says. "That gets you into a lot of small towns, so you need something broadly commercial not something where everyone dies in the last reel."

He's putting his money behind films like The Rebound, a romantic comedy starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Law Abiding Citizen, a thriller staring Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler.

"People will still make smaller films," he says. "But the odds are against people going to see them."


Even an Oscar nod doesn't seem to help like it used to. The Weinstein Company's The Reader was a surprise nominee for Best Picture and Best Actress. But it has still only grossed $27 million, less than its reported production budget of $32 million.

As the glut clears out by the end of this year and studios start to loosen their purse strings a bit, things might improve for the indies. As John Cooper of Sundance points out, the only way for a studio to have a low-cost indie hit like Little Miss Sunshine or Slumdog Millionaire is to take a risk.

"In this business, having too much caution doesn't get you on top," says Cooper. "It's taking chances that pays off. That's how you succeed."