g The Film Panel Notetaker: Filmmaker Conference - The State of Independents – September 19, 2007

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Filmmaker Conference - The State of Independents – September 19, 2007

The State of Independents – September 19, 2007

(EH) Eugene Hernandez, indieWIRE

(BT) Bill Thompson, Head of Distribution, Picturehouse
(MK) Michael Kang, West 32nd
(PG) Peter Goldwyn, Samuel Goldwyn Films
(CB) Charles Burnett, Director, Killer of Sheep
(TQ) Tom Quinn, Head of Acquisitions, Magnolia Pictures

How has independent film changed in the last five years? Where are we headed and how can distributors and independent filmmakers work together to tweak old platform models in a landscape of shrinking windows and increasingly elusive audiences to get their work seen by global audiences?

(EH) Where do things stand today for independent film distribution? What are some films, trends, and issues that have occurred for the past 12-18 months? What are you optimistic and pessimistic about the state of independent films?

(TQ) Pretty morbid feeling. Independent film is anything release on 600 prints or under. A somewhat disappointing trend is that the release of theatrical documentaries is oversaturated. Event-driven docs such as Sicko or March of the Penguins are subject-driven docs. In the Shadow of the Moon hasn’t really taken hold either. I don’t think they have a huge life anymore. I don’t think Crazy Love fits in that description. It had a disappointing box office. It’s not even going to break $400K, but probably will be nominated for awards. On the flip side, Magnolia did really well with its DVD releases, ie. Jesus Camp.

(EH) What do you think about what Tom is saying?

(BT) Unfortunately, docs always give us a challenge as distributors. No matter how well-reviewed they are, they’re difficult sells. We have The King of Kong in about 50 theaters now. The biggest changes are the numbers of films being released. Last Friday in The New York Times, at least 15 films were reviewed. Maybe only 5-7 of them were indie films. It’s a challenge to get them noticed, especially in New York.

(EH) What are you optimistic and pessimistic about the state of independent films?

(BT) We have a wide variety of films. We’re co-owned by HBO Films and Newline. This year, we release Rocket Science that premiered at Sundance and was well-reviewed. We also produce films. Depending on the relative success of independent films is how we think of the marketplace. If there are no major names attached to a film, will a true indie film do well in the marketplace? This is a concern.

(EH) What’s happening with foreign-language films?

(BT) We love to distribute them. Hope there’s a continuing market for them. There’s still a real challenge in this country. A few films are successful, but most have a hard time finding an audience. It could be very costly and discouraging.

(EH) Pan’s Labyrinth had one of the highest grosses for a Spanish-language film. How much do grosses characterize the performance of a film?

(BT) Pan’s Labyrinth grossed about $47 million. It broadened the market for Spanish-language films, but realistically, that film was unique because of its fantasy elements, so it reached a crossover audience. At its most, it was on 1,100 screens. Don’t know if it will start any trends. We’re releasing The Orphanage, another Spanish-language film produced by Guillermo Del Toro, later this year that debuts at the New York Film Festival.

(EH) What are you optimistic and pessimistic about the state of independent films?

(PG) Pan’s Labyrinth makes me optimistic. There’s a real saturation of movies and not a lot of screens. Specialized films don’t get all the marketing that studio films get. Don’t like generic genre films. Other films don’t get a chance to survive.

(EH) 2 Days in Paris just crossed $3 million gross. Are you happy with its performance? And previous release The Squid and the Whale?

(PG) We’re extremely pleased with it. It did not lend itself to a lot of marketing. Do all you can do. Movies have to speak for themselves. We released The Squid and the Whale in time for Academy consideration. Measure of success is I a good movie, good reviews and getting into the right theaters.

(TQ) It’s a total crapshoot. One of my favorite films this year is 2 Days in Paris. It’s a good quality movie that found an audience. Distributors should pick the right movies, pay the right price, and pick the right release date.

(EH) Killer of Sheep (which was made back in the 1970s) had a very successful release this year. What’s your take on the critical and economic perspective of distribution?

(CB) I give a lot of credit to Milestone Films (distributor of Killer of Sheep). The film went through a lot of obstacles to get shown since it was made. Several attempts in the past failed. Milestone went about releasing it in a scientific way. They knew how to expose it. I was surprised it did so well. It was originally my thesis film. It wasn’t meant to be shown theatrically. Word of mouth developed, and people wanted to see it and someone wanted to distribute it. I originally faced issues with getting music rights, and finally got the rights years later.

(EH) What are you optimistic and pessimistic about the state of independent films?

(CB) I’ll continue to make films. Don’t know why. An ongoing struggle for people of color.

(EH) West 32nd was received well critically at the Tribeca Film Festival. What’s your plan for releasing it. Any challenges? What are you optimistic and pessimistic about the state of independent films?

(MK) I’m the newbie at the table. I have no idea what will happen. West 32nd Street is a hybrid of Korean/Korean-American film that was financed by a Korean company. It will be released in Korea first, and then will be brought to the U.S. We’re still ironing out the plan. The process of making my first film, The Motel, was very collaborative, except for the release process. Palm Pictures was great, but they’re business oriented. Me getting in the middle of it may be more bothersome.

(EH) What are some tips to provide filmmakers with on the business side?

(MK) Surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. Listen to them.

(EH) What is the current state of acquisitions? What are some challenges?

(TQ) Magnolia is different than Samuel Goldwyn. We buy more movies. Each year, we do a tent pole release. We also buy a lot of straight-to-DVD films. We’re all over the place. We look at each film with equal importance. Go with your gut.

(PG) Samuel Goldwyn acquires between nine to 12 movies a year. We try to keep an open mind. We’re the middleman between the filmmaker and the audience. We released What the Bleep Do We Know? The filmmakers did grassroots promotion. Also release The Boynton Beach Club. Don’t particularly like genre movie. Audience groups talk to each other see movies over again. Word of mouth is extremely powerful. We exist in a vacuum and sales agents want to keep us in this vacuum. There are situations where I love a film, but need to think about the business. We’re not always sure of the commercial prospects of them. Sometimes, we’ve even past on the most successful films.

(EH) How much do you have to consider who your audience is?

(MK) Filmmakers shouldn’t try to think about the marketplace when writing screenplays. I make films I would like to see. Hopefully, I have good tastes.

(CB) There’s a lack of black people represented in films. I feel obligated to tell their stories and hope people will enjoy them.

(BT) We see hundreds of films each year. Filmmakers are passionate about their films, but need to find a way to make distributors and audiences care about them, too. Have to find a way to sell to a broader audience.

(EH) Magnolia release R. Craig Zobel’s film Great World of Sound over the weekend, which grossed about $6,000 in its first weekend. You clearly cared about it, but what can be learned about its performance at the box office?

(TQ) The opening was depressing. Reviews were great. Outside of this room, audiences are picky. The film is a great comment on fame. We love Craig and the concept of the film. It’s a hybrid documentary/narrative film.

Audience Q&A

Q: Why do distributors open their films in New York City? Why not pick up films before they premier at a major film festival?

(PG) Show us your movie early. The reality, to some extent, is you want to show your film at a major film festival. We spend most days watching films sent to us on DVD. We would love not to have to buy films at festivals. Festivals are a filtration process. It makes it easier for us. We also attend CineVegas. Every head of acquisition is there.

(TQ) The Holy Grail is going to Sundance and selling your film for seven figures. We do see some things out of circuit. We’re always on the hunt. Unfortunately, we see practically every blind submission, but we never take them. It’s key to pick your festival as wisely as you pick your distribution deal. New York City is the most expensive city to release a film, but also the highest grossing. If you get a good review in The New York Times, it will help with releasing it in the rest of the country.

Q: Why aren’t we seeing enough films with African Americans that aren’t being portrayed as stereotypes? [Eugene adds: There’s a lack of diversity in films being released and the people working at these companies. Not much has changed in the last three to four years. We seem to have a long way to go. How do you see things changing?]

(TQ) From my experience, Woman Thou Art Loosed was a powerful film. Almost every distributor passed on it. Raising Victor Vargas also had a good release and tells its story from a young, minority perspective. We try to be as active as we can to fill these jobs.

(PG) Looking at every movie, need to figure out if an audience will want to see it.

(CB) There are problems in my community with distribution because of a lack of theaters. People have to go 10 miles to get to a theater. In some ways, it’s really unfair. There are the Magic Johnson Theaters, and the Pan-African Film Festival is also in Los Angeles.

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