November 5, 2004
Winning The War Of Independents
by Sam Whitmore
Would you work for $864 a week? Movie stars Liv Tyler and Casey Affleck recently did – as did director Steve Buscemi – in the forthcoming independent film Lonesome Jim, 90 minutes long and shot in only 18 days for under $500,000.
Attribute the madness to digital technology, which continues to transform how actors, producers and distributors do their jobs. Yes, you heard all about The Blair Witch Project (1999), which cost $22,000 to make and grossed $240 million. And sure, successful indie films were with us long before that. Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) and Sling Blade (1996) caught the attention of the major Hollywood studios, which often buy independent films and distribute them as their own, as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hands out the Oscars.
More recently, indies My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) and this year's The Passion of the Christ transcended cult status to become box-office smashes. But neither was shot with the Panasonic DVX-100, the Sony PAL PD-150 or other digital cameras that do the work of traditional movie cameras for a whole lot less.
Just as low-budget airlines used efficient jet engines and the World Wide Web to transform the economics of air travel, entirely new technologies and businesses have sprung up to change the movie game. Take Plum Pictures, for example. Founded only last year and based in New York City, Plum comprises three 28-year-old women hungry for success: Galt Niederhoffer, Celine Rattray and Daniela Taplin. Plum was "indefatigable" in pursuing him, says independent
financier Reagan Silber, who seeded the firm with $500,000.
Even with Silber's investment, Plum still needs low-cost financing and a Hollywood distribution partner for its projects. To finance Lonesome Jim it chose InDigEnt, a New York-based firm specializing in what it calls "innovative financial structure." That's where Tyler, Affleck and Buscemi come in. All agreed to work for scale in exchange for "gross points," meaning a percentage of the film – before expenses – if and when it's sold to a big Hollywood studio.
Rattray says Plum has its fingers crossed because it has submitted Lonesome Jim for screening at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, now just ten weeks away. The big studios attend and gauge audience reaction. If a studio were to plunk down millions for the rights to distribute Lonesome Jim, Tyler, Affleck and Buscemi are entitled to a hefty piece of that action.
It's not unusual for star actors to take short money in exchange for a piece of a movie, but it's rare for all cast and crew members to participate, too. But that's how InDigEnt operates. In the course of producing 14 films since 1999, InDigEnt has distributed more than $11 million to everyone involved in a movie, from stars to grips.
"I remember Sigourney Weaver making a point of asking me how much her makeup person made" after her movie Tadpole was sold to The Walt Disney Co.'s (nyse: DIS - news - people ) Miramax, InDigEnt co-founder Gary Winick told me.
Another veteran actress, Mary Kay Place (also in Lonesome Jim), mused that she's "used to working for less." She says she doesn't mind doing a film like Jim for scale, because in traditional productions "I get offered the same part a lot." She willingly agrees to play the role of a mother for the umpteenth time for some Hollywood production, she says, because fatter paychecks from the big studios subsidize her
With digital moviemaking, an actor doesn't need to spend as much time on the set. Scenes are easier to light, and there's less to set up and break down. "Mary Kay can work 12 days instead of two months," Winick says.
The Spider-Mans and Harry Potters aren't going away, of course. But you're going to see more and more big names work the indie circuit – because increasingly, that's where the work is. According to Variety, movies made by major Hollywood studios cost an average of $64 million. The blockbusters – or "tent pole" movies, as they're known in the trade – can cost up to $200 million to make. Under unprecedented
pressure for profits, the big studios will develop only the sure things themselves, and then bid on the hottest of the indie sleepers.
Tyler told Rattray that she spent more time doing publicity work for the studio movie Jersey Girl than she spent on camera making Lonesome Jim. What's wrong with this picture? A lot. That's why indies are attracting the best and brightest in the movie biz – and will continue to. As digital evolves, you'll see movies made even more cheaply, forcing the big studios to lower their own moviemaking costs by paying stars less and dispatching many movies directly to DVD distributors or to cable outlets such as the Independent Film Channel. This will encourage indies even more.
Of course, the big studios aren't dumb; they saw the indie trend coming. Fox Searchlight Pictures, the self-described "independent arm" of News Corp.'s (nyse: NWS - news - people ) 20th Century Fox, bought distribution rights to the comedy Napoleon Dynamite earlier this year and by summer had a hit with it. Other such "independent arms" include Time Warner's (nyse: TWX - news - people ) New Line Cinema and Universal's (nyse: GE - news - people ) Focus Features. Sony (nyse: SNE - news - people ) has a major investment in Revolution Studios, founded in 2000 with a stated mission to produce "quality, commercially viable films while at the same time maintaining a low overhead and a lean infrastructure."
Someday soon, I predict, you'll be hard-pressed to find a movie that wasn't either originally produced or distributed by a "independent" – either truly independent or (more likely) under a corporate umbrella. So when the studio conglomerates buy distribution rights, they'll be paying themselves. For investors, that's entertainment.
Sam Whitmore is editor of Sam Whitmore's Media Survey, a Web-based tech media analysis service. He writes a monthly media column for Forbes.com.