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Pretty Pictures (Neil La Bute); This is That (Ted Hope)

scheme created many complications, especially as the first five Phoenix films as a group lost money which meant that Phoenix sought to receive compensation from the insurance companies,13 it nevertheless was successful enough to allow the company's establishment in the industry. Since then, Phoenix has financed and produced films with production funds secured from a number of different sources, including the majors.14 However, a series of developments in the industry, such as the staggering increase in the stars' salaries and an over-crowded marketplace that puts pressure on every film to secure as wide an audience as possible in its opening weekend before a new wave of films is released a week later, made the production of mid-budget films in the late 1990s a virtual impossibility. Even if a company managed to secure a star of a smaller calibre and therefore keep the budget at a desirable level, such a film still had fewer chances to find an audience in its opening week than an expensive film featuring a big star. These conditions forced Phoenix to shift from director-driven pictures towards genre/exploitation films (such as the teen horror Urban Legend [Blanks, 1998]) while also venturing into blockbuster territory (unsuccessfully, to date).

In recent years the company broke its pact with Sony/Columbia. Rather than be tied exclusively to one major, Phoenix Pictures has become 'a supplier to all studios', developing properties with its own funds and approaching different distributors for the arrangement of production deals.15 As the majors also recently have moved towards decreasing the numbers of their pacts with independent production companies, Phoenix found itself in a growing list of companies that, according to Variety, have gone 'indie', and 'seem to be thriving despite the lack of studio support.'16 Revolution Studios, on the other hand, has been attached to Sony Columbia since its inception in 2000. Set up by Joe Roth, former head of production at Disney and Fox and one of the co-founders of Morgan Creek in 1987, Revolution Studios did not concentrate on director-driven, mid-budget films; it focused immediately on star-driven, genre pictures like America's Sweethearts (Roth, 2001 starring Julia Roberts and Billy Crystal); and the universally panned Gigli (Brest, 2003; starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez), while also making expensive, effects-driven action adventure films like Hellboy (del Toro, 2004). Despite the failure of Gigli and of a few other titles, Revolution Studios has produced a remarkable number of films (thirty-eight pictures in five years [2001-5] with fifteen films projected for distribution in 2006). The company's record has prompted Screen

International to pronounce it as 'far and away the most successful and consistent of the independently financed production labels funnelling movies into the studio system.'17

The success of the company lies both in the type of films it produces and in its structure. Like Phoenix Pictures, Revolution Studios has a number of partners, which contribute proportionally to the negative costs of each film Revolution produces. This arrangement has allowed Revolution to capitalise fully on its successes, while experiencing minimal losses when its films fail at the box office. It has also allowed its distributor and partner, Sony Pictures, a constant flow of mainstream films for which the major pays only a fraction of the films' negative costs. In this respect, if for a company that specialises in director-driven pictures and produces one or two films per year (like Phoenix) the best business strategy is to become a supplier to all majors, then for a company like Revolution Studios, which produces a high volume of films per year, it is to maintain an affiliation with only one major.

The runaway success of Revolution Studios has forced the trade press to consider its approach to filmmaking as 'the classic new model for an independent in Hollywood',18 and to incorporate companies like Phoenix and Revolution within the discourse of American independent cinema in the 1990s and 2000s. This part of the discourse, however, has been largely overshadowed by a different group of films and set of production and distribution companies which have laid a much stronger claim to the label 'independent' than the majors' affiliates. The emergence of this 'other American independent cinema' became possible only after a strong institutional apparatus was put in place, with the majors also present but under a different guise.


Film critics have repeatedly referred to sex, lies, and videotape as the film that changed the face of American independent cinema and have labelled 1989, the year of the film's release, a 'watershed' year.19 Although the scale of its commercial success and its award of the Palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989 (see the Case Study on p. 272) have been, arguably, the most well known elements of the picture, sex, lies, and videotape is also the film that effectively revealed to all aspiring filmmakers the existence of significant available institutional support. For this film, the support came in the form of the Sundance Institute (through the film's participation in the Institute's showcase the Sundance Film Festival) and the presence of a sizable industrial infrastructure (in this case, represented by Miramax Films), which could lead a film to unprecedented levels of profitability. Despite the existence of such support and infrastructure for more than a decade, it was only after the success of Soderbergh's film that names such as Sundance and Miramax entered public discourse.

The Sundance Institute was established in 1981 by star-director Robert Redford as a summer camp for a small number of new filmmakers in the mountains of Utah where industry professionals would teach them 'how to develop their [the filmmakers'] uneven screenplays into solid, workable properties.'20 Although the Institute quickly attracted criticisms of attempting to refine alternative aesthetic proposals, it nevertheless became an important training ground for young filmmakers, especially those coming from an ethnic or any other minority background. Starting with just 10 projects in 1981, Sundance developed 325 film projects in its first 20 years, with approximately a third of them making it into production.21 In 1985, the Sundance Institute took over the rights of the US Film Festival, a showcase for films that were made completely outside the American film industry, which had been experiencing severe financial difficulties. In 1990 the name of the festival changed to the Sundance Film Festival and became the primary exhibition forum for independently produced and financed films.

As the festival has grown in stature by the year (the number of film submissions increased from 60 in 1987 to 2000 in 2003),22 it has attracted the attention of independent and major distributors which attend the screenings in the hope of locating the next breakthrough film. After the success of sex, lies, and videotape, which won the Audience Award in the 1989 Festival, Sundance has become the 'deal place',23 the site where distributors decide which (few) independently produced films will receive theatrical distribution. Throughout the years Sundance launched the commercial career of a number of films (and of their respective makers), especially of those that won awards, prompting film critics to call the Sundance Film Festival the 'engine' that drives independent filmmaking with the specialty distributors providing the equally important

'proper marketing push'.24 By the mid-1990s the Festival had become so successful that similarly named festivals (like Slamdance and Slumdance) running concurrently with Sundance in Park City were launched.

Not surprisingly, the wild success of the Festival overshadowed and, to an extent, overwhelmed the Institute, which had to renegotiate its position within the independent sector. From a new position of power, the Institute expanded to incorporate other channels for developing filmmaking talent such as Screenplay Reading Series in Los Angeles and New York and the Documentary Film Programme.25 Furthermore, Sundance branched out in the entertainment business, providing further institutional support through the Sundance Channel, a commercial cable broadcaster that aspired to connect 'viewers with filmmakers, the creative process, and the world of independent film.'26 Although the channel operates independently from the non-profit Institute and was established in 1996 with the active participation of the majors (Paramount and Universal), it nevertheless provides a forum on cable television for low-budget films and offers coverage of film festivals as well as discussions about the state of the independent sector. More importantly, for the purposes of this chapter, the Sundance Channel (along with the similarly styled Independent Film Channel) has adopted and presented independent film as an industrial category, a product with a distinct character and identity that is geared to a specific television audience.

Like Sundance, the Independent Feature Project (IFP) was an organisation established in 1979, 'on a belief that a truly vital American cinema must include the personal, idiosyncratic, and sometimes controversial voices of filmmakers working outside of the established studio system.'27 From a small organisation that supported the work of non-commercial filmmakers, IFP has grown into a large national association that numbers 9,000 members with branches in several US cities.28 Its main showcase is the International Film Project Market (formerly the International Feature Film Market) during which filmmaker-members can screen their work -complete or in progress - for distributors and/or investors. Furthermore, IFP is also part of an international network of organisations that foster the development of national cinemas, including the British Film Council, the Cannes Film Festival and Market, the Berlin International Film Festival and many others.29 In this manner, the IFP is also able to channel its members' films to international markets where some American independent films have enjoyed considerable success due to their aesthetic affinities with art-house films.

In addition, IFP/Los Angeles (by far the largest branch of the organisation) is the body behind the Los Angeles Film Festival, one of the most important festivals for independent filmmaking and a site of various workshops and seminars for existing and aspiring filmmakers. IFP/Los Angeles, which in 2005 changed its name to Film Independent (FIND), is also the organisation that sponsors and presents the Independent Spirit Awards. According to the organisation's guidelines, the awards celebrate 'uniqueness of vision', 'original provocative subject matter' and 'economy of means', even though the budget ceiling for such films has been increased recently to $20 million, a figure far removed even from the relatively expensive $1.2 million that sex, lies, and videotape (recipient of the award for Best Feature in 1990) cost.30

Like the Independent Feature Project, the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF) is another membership-based organisation (5,000 members by 2005) that since 1973 has striven to support independent film and video-making.31 Until recently, AIVF administered various short grants provided by the US government through its National Endowment for the Arts. In 1996, however, the grants to individual filmmakers were discontinued while the NEA's support shifted towards contributing to the organisation's operating costs.32 Like the IFP, which publishes monthly The Filmmaker, AIVF publishes its own monthly periodical, The Independent: A Magazine for Video and Filmmakers, while its in-house publishing activities extend to a number of books that advise filmmakers on all aspects of the business.

The increased public visibility of the Sundance Institute and Festival immediately raised the profile of all the above organisations and convinced filmmakers and the public alike that independent cinema had become a cultural phenomenon with a relatively small but extremely vocal support behind it. Equally importantly, Miramax's (still a small independent distributor in 1990) unprecedented success with sex, lies, and videotape whetted the appetite of other existing small distributors, which immediately started looking for the next low-budget film with breakthrough potential. These companies, however, had to face fierce competition from a number of small distributors which entered the theatrical market in 1990, the year following the release of sex, lies, and videotape (Greycat Films, Cabriolet Films, Triton Pictures, IRS Media, Rainbow

Releasing, and October Films, the best known of the group), hoping to repeat the business of Soderbergh's film with another picture.

As a result, independent film production entered a new, particularly active, period driven by the competition of specialised theatrical distributors, some of which were prepared to offer filmmakers lucrative deals to secure distribution rights for their films. For instance, a film like Swingers (Liman, 1996) that was produced for $250,000 was acquired by Miramax for $5 million while The Spitfire Grill (Zlotoff, 1996) was acquired by Castle Rock for a staggering $10 million.33 Table 8.2 contains a list of independent distributors that were particularly active in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of them were established before the boom of the late 1980s and most of them went out of business after only a few years in the sector.

Although the presence of major independent and smaller distributors made access to theatrical exhibition a real possibility for hundreds of low-budget, independently produced and financed films, the sector has also been driven by the possibilities for financing from, and distribution in, the ancillary markets: video, cable, satellite television (since the late 1980s), European terrestrial television (in the mid-1990s) and DVD (in the 2000s). As each of these markets needed product on a regular basis (and as some of these market also competed against each other, companies like Live Entertainment and Vestron (video), HBO and Showtime (cable), BSkyB (satellite), Pro 7 and Channel 4 (Dutch and British television broadcasters respectively) and Netflix (a California-based DVD rental company) started (part-)financing films in exchange for distribution rights in one or more non-theatrical markets. HBO in particular became one of the main financers of a number of low-budget films, some of which, like Mi vida loca (Anders, 1993), received theatrical distribution and enjoyed critical and commercial success. Furthermore, and according to Variety, the recent staggering growth of film sales in DVD format has certainly raised the level of investment in film production, creating 'the first major paradigm shift since the home video boom of the '80s and a total revitalization of the opportunities for independent producers.'34

The existence of so many potential sources of production finance and the increased revenues from exploitation of film in non-theatrical markets meant that individual filmmakers were in a position to raise funds for their pictures by pre-selling distribution rights piece by piece. In this respect, they could produce their films with minimum interference and seek theatrical distribution only after completion of production, primarily

Table 8.2 Independent distributors, their lifespan and their key films


Lifespan Key film

First Run Features 1968 to date

Frameline 1973 to date

Atlantic Releasing 1976-1993

Corporation The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Castle Hill Productions 1980 to date

Cinecom 1980-1990

Horizon Films 1981-1988

Island 1983-1988

Island/Alive 1983-1985

Cinevista 1983-1993

Trimark Pictures 1983-2002

Circle Films 1984-1991

Angelika Films 1984-1994

Skouras Pictures 1985-1994

Roxie Releasing 1985-2001

Cineplex-ODEON Films 1986-1998

Zeitgeist Films 1986 to date

Taurus Entertainment 1987 to date Company

Avenue Pictures Productions 1987-1991

Silverlight Pictures 1987-1989

MCEG Productions 1988-1990

Aries Films 1989-1992

Strand Releasing 1989 to date

October Films 1990-2000

IRS Media 1990-1995

Triton Pictures 1990-1993

Cabriolet Films 1990-1993

Greycat Films 1990-1996

First Look Pictures Releasing 1991 to date

Arrow 1993-2000

To Die For (Van Sant, 1994) Tongues Untied (Riggs, 1990) Extremities (Young, 1986)

1978-2001 Wild at Heart (Lynch, 1990)

Someone to Love (Jaglom, 1987) Matewan (Sayles, 1987) Variety (Gordon,1983) River's Edge (Hunter, 1986) Kiss of the Spider Woman

(Babenco, 1985) Liquid Sky (Tsukerman, 1983) The Doom Generation (Araki, 1995) Beirut: The Last Home Movie (Fox, 1987)

Sweet Lorraine (Gomer, 1987) Homer and Eddie (Konchalovsky, 1989)

Red Rock West (Dahl, 1992) Serial Mom (Waters, 1994) Poison (Haynes, 1991) Class of 1999 (Lester, 1990)

Drugstore Cowboy (Van Sant, 1989)

Expensive (Wang, 1989) The Chocolate War (Gordon, 1988) Bad Lieutenant (Ferrara, 1992) Totally Fucked Up (Araki, 1993) Ruby in Paradise (Nunez, 1993) Gas Food Lodging (Anders, 1992) In the Soup (Rockwell, 1992) The Kill-Off (Greenwald, 1989) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

(McNaughton, 1990) Gun Crazy (Davis, 1992) My Life's in Turnaround (1994, Ward and Schaeffer)

Figure 8.1 Mi vida loca: The HBO-financed film featuring Mexican television star Salma Hayek was eventually released by Sony Picture Classics and proved a critical and financial success.

through participation in one of the key festivals for independent films (see the Case Study on p. 275).

Although the advantages of such an approach to film finance are obvious and throughout the years helped fund hundreds, perhaps thousands, of films, the pre-selling of ancillary rights presented also a considerable downside: it prevented distributors from paying high prices to obtain the theatrical rights in the US market (success in which often determines a film's performance in other markets) while in some cases discouraging distributors from bidding for these rights altogether. This was because the distributor would have to assume the considerable costs for prints and advertising on top of the funds already spent for the acquisition of theatrical rights, while also waiting for the parties who provided the budget for the film to recoup their investment first before receiving any theatrical rentals. Despite the above potential problem, however, film finance through the pre-selling of the ancillary rights of a picture became one of the very few avenues open to filmmakers who did not want to work with finance from the majors or the major independents.


In the late 1970s, Krim, Benjamin and Pleskow, the top executive team at United Artists, started planning the formation of a new specialist division, which would handle a small number of art-films per year. By that time interest in art-house cinema had been minimum in the United States and key art-films of the decade such as Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972), Fellini's Amarcord (1973) and Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala (1975) were released under the unlikely umbrella of Roger Corman's New World Pictures. The executives' exit from UA in 1978, however, put these plans on hold.

United Artists Classics was finally formed in 1979 under a different regime with the specific mission of acquiring the US distribution rights of art-films. In the five years of the company's lifespan, it distributed films by such art-cinema stalwarts as Jean-Luc Godard (Passion, 1983), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Lili Marleen, 1981; Lola 1981; Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss [Veronika Voss], 1982) and Andrzej Wajda (Czlowiek z selaza [Man of Iron], 1981). However, it was the success of Truffaut's Le Dernier M├ętro (The Last Metro [rentals of $1.9 million and pay-TV rights of $450,000]) in 1980 and especially Beineix's Diva (in excess of $2 million rentals from theatrical distribution) in 1981 that demonstrated to the majors that such specialty subsidiaries had a promising future in the 1980s film market.35

Even though the main reason behind the formation of the classics division was the exploitation of the names of famous European auteurs, the company also tried to capitalise on the stir created by the first new American independent films of the late 1970s. Starting with Brian De Palma's anti-commercial Home Movies (1980), UA Classics also distributed films such as Ticket to Heaven (Thomas, 1981); Cutter's Way (Passer, 1981); Head over Heels (Micklin Silver, 1982); John Sayles's follow-up to Return of the Secaucus Seven, Lianna (1983); and Robert Altman's Streamers (1984). In a five-year period the company distributed thirty-four features and demonstrated that it could become a serious player in the art-house cinema field as well as in the emerging American independent film market.

In April 1983, however, and in a move that mirrored the exit of the five United Artists executives in 1978, the top management team of United Artists Classics also resigned from the company. Tom Bernard, Martin Barker and Donna Gigliotti joined immediately Orion and assumed the management of its new division, Orion Classics. Between 1983 and 1992, when the parent company collapsed, Orion Classics became the undisputed leader in the art-film market, while it also distributed a relatively small number of US films, including Strangers Kiss (M. Chapman, 1983) and Slacker (Linklater, 1991).

The third, and last, company from the first wave of classics divisions,36 20th Century-Fox International Classics, was the shortest-lived of the three, distributing only eight films in 1982-3, despite the fact that it co-distributed the commercially successful Eating Raoul (1982; $4.7 million US gross).37 Like the art-film market of the 1960s, the classics market of the 1980s was not sizable enough to sustain a large number of specialty distributors. As a matter of fact, the market was so tiny that even Orion Classics, which was consistently successful throughout its lifespan, recorded annual profits in the region of $650,000-700,000, figures that were considered crumbs for a major company in the 1980s.38

The level of independence of those divisions from their parent companies was different from division to division. Orion Classics, for instance, operated as an autonomous unit from Orion Pictures and was not affiliated with Orion's domestic sales operations.39 Having built a relationship with the three heads of the classics division from their years at United Artists, Orion's management stood clear from interfering with their decisions and distribution practices and allowed them the freedom to create a subsidiary with a distinct identity. When Orion collapsed in 1992, Bernard, Barker and Marcie Bloom (who took over Gigliotti's position in the company when the latter left in 1984) moved to Sony and took charge of Sony Pictures Classics (SPC). Since then the company has become the key distributor of art-house films in the US theatrical market while also distributing a number of famous American independent films such as Amateur (1995) by Hal Hartley, Lone Star (1996) by John Sayles, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996) by Todd Solondz and The Spanish Prisoner (1998) by David Mamet.

In many respects, Sony Pictures Classics and Fine Line Features (which was formed approximately at the same time with SPC) became the last of the original classics divisions, small distribution companies that specialised in the acquisition and marketing of completed US and non-US films for distribution in the American market. This was because in the mid-1990s, the majors moved into the establishment of a new breed of classics divisions, which financed as well as distributed relatively low-budget films. These new classics tried clearly to emulate the phenomenal success of Miramax, which with the financial support of Disney behind it had become so influential in the film market that, according to industry analysts, it 'changed the industry's DNA'.40

Fox Searchlight was established in 1994 'as the independent arm of Twentieth Century Fox ... a filmmaker-oriented company, creating distinctive films helmed by world-class auteurs and exciting newcomers.'41 Paramount Classics was set up in 1998 to 'seek low-cost pics that can generate enough biz on the arthouse circuit to stay in the black', though in recent years it has focused on films that are 'riskier, more creative and aimed at a younger demo.'42 As Sony Pictures Classics specialised in acquisitions, Sony formed a second classics label in 1999, Screen Gems, which would produce as well as distribute low-budget American films for niche audiences in a similar way to Fox Searchlight. Focus Features was established in 2002 as Universal's specialty division after a long history of corporate amalgamation. This involved the merger of October Films with Gramercy and USA Home Entertainment and the renaming of the new organisation as USA Films, before Universal acquired it, re-labelled it as Focus Features, and merged it with independent producer and occasional distributor Good Machine in 2002. A year later AOL Time Warner set up Warner Independent Pictures with the intention of attracting pictures that 'are adventurous, intimate, personal, taboo-breaking and experimental, and artists who explore the unexamined with courage and insight, and in ways that shed new light to the human condition.'43

The most recent classics division (established in May 2005) has been Picturehouse, a joint venture between New Line Cinema and HBO, which 'plans to release 8-10 pictures a year' from 'a wide-ranging community of independent filmmakers' and with projects primarily originating from HBO Films, New Line productions, projects jointly funded by HBO and New Line, and acquisitions.44 The establishment of Picturehouse seems to have signalled the end of Fine Line Features, which has no plans to distribute any film after 2005. Finally, coming in full circle, United Artists -relabelled as United Artists Films - became a classics division for MGM, 'crafting a compelling film slate that reflects its proud heritage of nurturing creativity and autonomy' and 'focusing on producing and acquiring eight pics a year, with budgets of less than $20 million.'45 In April 2005, a consortium of entertainment conglomerates headed by Sony took over MGM and all its assets for $5 billion. Since then, United Artists Films has become the third classics division of Sony Pictures.46 Table 8.3 contains a list of the classics divisions since 1980.47

If one compares the films distributed (and recently financed) by the classics divisions in Table 8.3 with the films distributed by the independent companies in Table 8.2, one would find it extremely difficult to argue that the films in Table 8.3 are different from or 'less independent' than those in Table 8.2 because they were financed and/or distributed by a major's subsidiary. A case in point here is Gregg Araki, one of the key filmmakers of the post-1989 independent movement.

Araki rose to fame with a trilogy of films he wrote and directed, Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997), which are often referred to as '90210 on acid', because as Araki himself put it in an interview (speaking specifically for Nowhere): 'it is going to be my version of Beverly Hills 90210 . . . beautiful fucked-up kids who talk about being bored, alienated, sexually ambiguous, they take drugs; it's the flipside of the mainstream.'48 Does the fact that Nowhere was released by Fine

Table 8.3 Classics divisions (1980 to date)

Classics division


Key American films

United Artists Classics

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