Indie Cinema Forces: Increased Opportunities for Indies

One of the major forces driving the new American independent cinema is the increasingly greater ease in securing finance for indies.

Over the past two decades, there has been increased capital by investors on both the domestic and foreign fronts, as well as more opportunities for films to be seen, not necessarily theatrically, but in ancillary markets (television, video), cable channels and in the growing number of film festivals.

Young filmmakers, however, are still challenged to use their creative faculties and come up with ingenious strategies for funding. Joel and Ethan Coen made a three-minute trailer for Blood Simple to convince potential investors that they were competent to make a feature-length movie. It took the ambitious siblings a whole year to raise the $750,000 budget, which came from private investors, family and friends. The film's commercial success, earning a solid $5 million, enabled the Coens to strike a deal with Circle Releasing, which put up $4 million for their second feature, Raising Arizona.

Writer-director Neal Jimenez originally developed the script for The Waterdance, a candid drama about paraplegics, at Warners, but predictably the studio let it go. It was then rescued by independent producer Gail Anne Hurd (Aliens), who brought it to the attention of RCA/Columbia Homevideo (now Columbia-TriStar). RCA/Columbia's production support provided a training ground for many indie directors, including Steven Soderbergh, Carl Franklin and Allison Anders. Another home-video outfit, Carolco's affiliate Live Entertainment, backed Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper ($6 million) and Reservoir Dogs.

The greater demand for visual media, driven by the new video market also played an important role. In the mid-80s, when VCR penetrated the market, the rapidly expanding home-video industry became so eager for product that many unconventional independent projects got funding. This boom, which lasted half a decade, eventually ended, forcing many video companies out of business.

Recently, indie filmmakers have shifted their focus to the European market and have become more dependent on foreign pre-sales to finance their projects. Jarmusch's last two pictures were backed by the Japanese electronics giant JVC. Other European companies, like the Paris-based UGC, have financed Gregg Araki's last two movies, The Doom Generation and Nowhere.

Given the nature of Boaz Yakin's debut film, Fresh, producer Lawrence Bender encouraged the tyro director to look to Europe for backing. “Americans wouldn't get the point of this film until it was made,” Bender said, perceiving it more as “an auteur film.” Bender's earlier success with Reservoir Dogs prompted a meeting with the Paris-based company, Lumiere, which provided full funding. As Bender had anticipated, American distributors showed interest after Fresh began shooting. Ultimately, Miramax distributed the film and scored a success: Fresh grossed over $8 million in the U.S. alone.

Indies are now riding high in foreign markets as well. Overseas sales from licensing deals (in all media) for independent films surged to a peak of $1.65 billion in 1996, according to a survey of the American Film Marketing Association (AFMA). The boost, fueled by the expanding overseas TV market, represented a 21 percent gain in revenues over 1995. The biggest gains came in the licensing of films for theatrical distribution, marked by a 37 percent increase, to $501 million in total sales. “In an era when the competition around the world is becoming more intense, it's gratifying to see that the independents are continuing to be a vital force in the global marketplace,” said Jonas Rosenfield, AFMA president. As expected, Europe dominates the world market for English-speaking independently-licensed fare, with 56 percent share of the global revenues in all media.

It often takes a resourceful and aggressive producer to get the necessary funding. Alexander Rockwell's In the Soup, budgeted at $800,000, was backed by New York producer Jim Stark, who had earlier worked on Jarmusch's films. “Most producers aren't willing to do what is necessary to finance an offbeat, unpackaged movie,” said Stark, “everything from middle-of-the-night faxing to Japan to mortgaging your house.”

Not to be underestimated is the importance of networking and personal connections. Christopher Guest's friendship with Castle Rock's Rob Reiner (who directed This Is Spinal Tap, with Guest as a star) saved the director from having to shop around for the $2 million budget of Waiting for Guffman. Spike Lee's Get on the Bus, made for $2.4 million, was entirely financed by private black patrons before it was picked up for distribution by Columbia.

Bay Area Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who bypassed film school, learning their craft by making shorts on the streets of San Francisco, needed completion funds for Suture. Struggling to get their first film made under most challenging conditions became their schooling. Thanks to skills learned scrambling to make shorts, McGehee and Siegel remained “as scrappy as you can get when it comes to fund-raising.” Eventually, they raised the $800,000 for Suture with the help of Soderbergh who lent his name as executive producer.

New, revolutionary video and digital technologies have also proved a major factor. To offset production costs, Mark Rappaport resorted to a hybrid of film and video which enabled him to make the inexpensive but highly interesting film-essays, Rock Hudson's Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg.

A feisty guerrilla approach is as much a state of mind as a practical modus operandi. New York based Katy Bolger, who served as associate producer on Naked in New York and This World, then the Fireworks, embraces her guerrilla status: “If you have taste or style or a sense of art, why work in Hollywood” Hard work and tenacity continue to define the guerrilla style. The reputation of The Shooting Gallery (run by Larry Meistrich and Bob Gosse) is still largely based on their $38,000 success, Nick Gomez's Laws of Gravity, and on its continuing dedication to small pictures such as Whitney Ransick's Handgun. Stubbornly clinging to the fringe independent route and its lower costs has given the company a much coveted creative freedom.

Out-of-the-trenches director, Abel Ferrara, a mentor for guerrillas, advises struggling filmmakers “to play every card, every person and keep doing it.” Despite some success with King of New York and Bad Lieutenant, it's still a hustle for Ferrara to “sell” his vision. Ferrara holds that guerrillas shouldn't succumb to any “false time frames” in order to get their project done.

There always seem to be new funding opportunities. John Sayles' Men With Guns was financed though a newly formed production company of the Independent Film Channel (IFC) and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, in his first foray into indie film. IFC Productions, a venture headed by Jonathan Sehring, is committed to co-produce a number of features each year. Allen formed Clear Blue Sky Productions to develop and finance independent films.

Next Wave Films, a finishing fund aimed exclusively at no- budget indies, began its operation in 1997 and is committed to films of exceptional quality by filmmakers of potentially major talent. Funded by the IFC, the program supplies up to $100,000 to four films a year. The films must have budgets of $200,000 or less, and principal photography must be finished. For Next Wave president Peter Broderick, the cash factor is less significant than the help in securing deals with post-production houses and labs.