2005 to date
Factotum (Hamer, 2005)
Line Features, a classics division of a major independent, make it 'less independent' than The Doom Generation, a film that was released by the independent distributor Trimark Pictures (before its takeover by the larger independent Lions Gate)? Or are they both 'less independent' than Totally Fucked Up, which was distributed by Strand Releasing, a company largely outside the mainstream which specialises in distributing films with gay and lesbian interest?
Perhaps one could argue that Araki 'moved up' with each successful film he made, eventually attracting the attention of a classics division with Nowhere and perhaps of an even larger distributor with his next films. But if this is the case, as some critics have argued - that independent companies are training grounds for talent before the majors enter and 'steal' them for their own pictures - the fact that Araki went back to independent distributors for his next two - and most recent - films, Splendor (1999; The Samuel Goldwyn Company) and Mysterious Skin (2004, Tartan USA) seems to refute this argument.49
However, there is one particularly significant difference between the classics divisions and the independent distributors: almost all classics have branched out into film finance and production compared to the independents of the late 1980s/early 1990s which were mainly distributors. As Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics, one classics division that has remained mainly a distribution company, has remarked about the new breed of classics divisions:
These companies have all turned into another label in the system that feeds the foreign and TV deals and makes a cheaper level of pictures. They become mirror images of what the studio does. Art movie companies have fallen by the wayside.50
Indeed, companies such as Fox Searchlight can greenlight without permission from the parent company films with budgets up to $15 million.51 Focus Features has a budget ceiling of $30 million, though it must obtain Universal's permission for every project it decides to finance.52 When a company invests figures like these in individual pictures, however, it certainly expects a corresponding payoff. This means that the films take increasingly fewer risks with the material they present (and the manner in which they present it). As a Variety editorial put it succinctly, 'most specialty divisions that have a media conglom to pay the bills now also have a mandate to make mainstream movies that make money.'53 This explains why Fox Searchlight has recently embraced 'genre films', Paramount Classics has remained conservative in its choices,54 and Focus Features has created a sister label, Rogue Pictures, that is in the business of producing and distributing much more conservative fare (in the same way Dimension Films is the genre label of Miramax Films).
The classics' branching out into low-mid-budget film production has created also another important difference between them and the independents, namely the different release strategies each type of distributor has adopted. Instead of following the 'grassroots marketing' approach which entails the city-by-city, market-by-market platform release pattern, the classics divisions (and some of the larger independents like Lions Gate) have used saturation releases and other marketing techniques associated with mainstream cinema. For instance, when Fox Searchlight understood that its film Antwone Fisher (D. Washington, 2002) had a potential for substantial commercial success, after a two-week limited release with impressive financial results, it relied on the parent company to supply the extra advertising costs necessary to open the film widely (over 1,000 playdates). Equally, for the genre picture The Banger Sisters (Dolman, 2002), 20th Century-Fox assisted its subsidiary in opening the film in a massive 2,738 screens. Tom Rothman, 20th Century-Fox co-chairman, summarised the benefits of being this type of classics division in contemporary American cinema:
It's not just the ability to take pictures wide, like Antwone Fisher and The Banger Sisters. It's also that there is a globally integrated campaign for movies. We're the only specialty company that doesn't have to go begging territory by territory . . . [Fox Searchlight] has the best of both worlds. That is, the risk-taking and flexibility of a specialty label and the power, leverage and scope of a major studio.55
The mix of practices associated with the majors with elements associated with independent filmmaking (low/mid budgets, risqué content) has created a hybrid form of cinema (sometimes referred to as 'indiewood') that has laid also strong claim to the label independent. One of the repercussions of this development is that an increasing number of films that have been deemed as 'independent' have originated within the classics divisions of the major studios, while at the same time these companies have decreased the number of pictures they acquire from independent filmmakers.56 With classics divisions achieving recently impressive financial results, this tendency seems to be the order of things for the foreseeable future.57
Regardless of their corporate association with the conglomerated majors, the classics divisions have been instrumental in the creation of the available infrastructure for independent filmmaking. This is because they provided a solid platform for the finance, production and/or distribution of a particular brand of filmmaking, certain characteristics of which will be discussed in the last section of this chapter. With some of these divisions (Focus Features, Fine Line Features) originating in the independent sector before they were taken over by the majors, and with corporate mergers and takeovers changing the independent cinema landscape on a regular basis, it is not surprising that both the classics and the independents have been considered the main advocates of American independent cinema, opposite sides of the same coin.
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