MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

My Hand Has A Headache…

About 10 years ago ShoWest decided to carve out a couple of hours in its schedule for a reception dedicated to the art house crowd. At that point the event was dominated by lunches and dinners sponsored by the majors that featured product reels and daises over flowing with stars of upcoming movies.

Whether the organizers had an inkling of the future or simply bowed to pressure that it needed to at least have token alternative representation was never made clear. But that first gathering was a pleasant meet and greet that evolved into, among other things, an opening day event featuring screenings of eight new titles from the so-called American independent sector.

This year’s “Evening with American Independents” was neither especially American nor independent. At least two of the offerings were British in origin and the majority of the films were part of the lineup for companies affiliated with the likes of Fox, Sony, Universal and New Line.

We’ve heard a lot recently about American independent movies in light of the Oscar victory of Crash and the conspicuous showing of Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck. However – aside from Crash – the other nominated films were studio financed via specialized divisions. We used to have a firmer grasp of what constituted an independent film as opposed to something from the majors. But the border’s been blurred to a degree that virtually makes any distinction meaningless.

There are still individuals and organizations that have a pressing need to distinguish “us” from “them.” Sometimes the exercise is inane, contradictory, ridiculous or all of the above.

Just as the marketplace has made the challenge of a successful commercial release of a foreign-language film a near impossible equation, the same scenario for an English-language movie not quite in the mainstream has evolved with almost equal rigor. The industry rule of thumb has always been that the majors are designed to generate profit while the indies can’t help but eventual fail.

I can’t think of an independent success story in the past half century other than New Line. It established itself as a major and significant presence even before Ted Turner and Time Warner came knocking. But the measure of its success is that it became a major and having a parent with deep pockets allowed it the boldness and financial resources to say “yes” to The Lord of the Rings.

On the other side of the ledger there’s Avco Embassy, American International, Vestron, Island, DEG, WEG, Orion, Hemdale and on and on and on. And let’s not forget DreamWorks SKG.

Let’s also keep in mind that because independent is basically everything outside studio walls, it covers a lot of ground. There have been startups that aspired to major status such as Orion and DreamWorks and others that put stock in popular genres that extended through the decades from Monogram to PRC and New World. It’s only a very small portion of the alternative arena that has traded in foreign-language and independent U.S. movies and at any moment in time has tapped into the roughly 17% of the movie going public that view the experience as potentially more than simply escapist entertainment.

There are presently “specialized” divisions at every major Hollywood studio. Dating back to the 1950s, the majors have had a hot and cold relationship with niche labels. Such films as Tom Jones and Zorba the Greek began U.S. theatrical life in the margins and once they achieved a certain popularity threshold were upgraded.

The history of the major’s involvement with specialized or classic divisions looks like a typical marriage with a considerably higher than average divorce rate. The relationship invariably begins at a moment when a number of edgy independent releases have conspicuous financial or artistic success. This is made note of at some weekly studio meeting by a senior executive that has a eureka moment and decides his company should be a part of this latest wave. A junior exec is put in charge of making it happen.

The next phase is the creation of a new company that unlike relative veterans in the field has the heft to pay high guarantees without consequence of bottom line considerations. Because the new venture is finding it’s way in this arena, some acquisitions fail to achieve their full commercial potential and others generate significant box office thanks to such factors as access to screens and unusually large marketing and promotional budgets for this type of fare.

The historic demise of these divisions boiled down to the simple fact that the studios have an infrastructure designed to make big, popular movies and not pictures that required lots of attention and modest rewards. So, several years after that initial decision, another senior executive suddenly comes to the realization that all the time and energy put into one of their success d’estimes resulted in a profit of less than $1 million. And if that’s the upside, he concludes it’s time to pull the plug.

The latest incarnation of studio specialized divisions has a significant variant. Instead of simply entering the field as acquisitors of product, many new outlets are also involved in producing movies. They list toward the sort of upscale films their parents used to include in their release schedule and invoking the independent label present themselves as poor relations.

The anomaly that emerges is that employing the yardstick of awards, companies such as Focus, Fox Searchlight and the old Miramax are creating the industry’s A-product. However, their position within the studio infrastructure and their manpower and budget allocations are more in line with the B-units of past eras that had mandates to make genre films for the bottom half of double bills.

The film I wound up seeing at ShoWest was Friends with Money, an ensemble comedy-drama with a reasonably recognizable cast. It’s not much of a stretch to say that had it been made at a “studio” a few years back it would have been The Big Chill. The difference between the two films is production values or, to be blunt, budget.

Some filmmakers have more experience at cutting corners and what results are pictures that require no apology such as Brokeback or Sideways. However, as thoughtful and well crafted as these films were realized, there’s nothing to suggest they could not have been made under studio stewardship of an earlier decade.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow that films of substance have been relegated to specialized divisions or abandoned altogether. There’s the odd filmmaker of stature that can muscle his way through corporate bureaucracy and get a weighty project green lit. But what does it say about Warner Bros. that a cash machine like Clint Eastwood could only blackmail the company into putting up half the budget of Million Dollar Baby.

Certainly there’s a heightened degree of risk aversion that nonetheless produces as many commercial misfires today as it did in any previous era. From the outside it appears that giving the OK to a sequel or a dumb comedy showcasing a popular comedian that fails commercially reflects better judgment than producing something socially significant that winds up breaking even at the box office.

I’d be willing to give more slack to this arrangement if the output from studio specialized divisions were more novel and adventurous. But the sad truth is that the affiliate product is dominated by lower budgeted conventional comedies and dramas. The carrot is that by working for scale an actor will have the opportunity to challenge and improve his/her craft and be rewarded with an outlandish fee for doing a popcorn vehicle such as a sequel or remake. It’s an inverse relationship that fails the logic test but is indicative of why the studio system doesn’t work at anywhere near optimum level.

It’s not purely a Hollywood dilemma. On a smaller but no less significant level it’s visible in any nation with an established film industry. The popular films in France, Korea or Germany are every bit as conventional as their American counterparts with the tacit notion that it’s the only means to support an increasingly expensive infrastructure.

The result both here and abroad is that the little guy is being squeezed out of the picture. The little guy used to be responsible for the eclectic and innovative movies that propelled the industry forward. But with the majors employing considerable heft to secure screens and financing, there’s little more than chump change left on the table.

I have a vague memory of being asked the age-old question about how the tiny independent can possibly hope to compete against the behemoths. The simple answer is that it can’t. It lacks the resources across the board to make something with the technical sheen and the performing quotient of companies with enormous financial war chests.

The more textured response is that it shouldn’t be in competition in a head-to-head fashion anyway. That’s a losing proposition. Independents aren’t primarily after the same audience as mainstream moviemakers. They’re supposed to attract an audience employing wiles, imagination and audacity rather than bucks and famous friends working for scale.

There is an expectation that there’s always going to be an alternative voice toiling away in the margins but historically there have been very few moments in time when something akin to a movement has emerged in America or anywhere else. Judging from recent independent U.S. movies, the last wave has all but dissipated and there’s no indication when the next will make its presence felt.

My gut feeling is that many of the studio specialized divisions are apt to close down operations or radically change agendas in the next two to five years. The reasons all relate to the financial realities of sustaining a division with a slim or non-existent profit margin. Part of the raison d’etre of these affiliates is to act as a kind of talent lab that fosters emerging filmmakers into the mainstream or accommodates the loftier whims of actors and directors that wants to be known for doing more than franchise pictures. It’s by definition an expensive service that cannot for long be justified to boards governed by bottom-line concerns.

There’s also by implication a transition that occurs with the people that run the pedigree labels. Tom Rothman was recruited from Goldwyn to take the reins of Fox Searchlight and now is co-chairman at big Fox. Similar scenarios will occur with others and their successors won’t necessarily be given the same mandate or have the ferocity to keep these divisions vital. That’s certainly evident with Miramax and, in case one’s been dozing, the reason Fine Line no longer exists.

Hopefully, as one cycle is completed, another will begin; perhaps something a bit more organic. After all nature abhors a vacuum … and you cannot hear a scream in outer space except perhaps in the movies.
April 14, 2006

– by Leonard Klady

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon