Feature: Wednesday, December 28, 2005
The stars of the summer’s surprise hit, ‘March of the Penguins.’
‘Sin City’: Not made in Hollywood, but looks as good.
‘Diary of a Mad Black Woman’: Not good, but a niche hit.
‘Grizzly Man’: A better nature documentary than the penguin movie.
‘My Summer of Love’: No stars and no love from audiences despite great reviews.
Cheap Thrills

Hollywood has figured out there’s money to be made on the indie side of the hill — and vice versa.


Not too long ago, the geography of cinema was simple: Hollywood was the place for movies with zillion-dollar budgets, big-name stars, and safely conventional subject matter. Indie films, on the other hand, were for shoestring budgets, low production values, and subjects that were all kinds of risky — blatantly political, socially controversial, gay, raw, whatever called out to the various “niche” audiences that sought out the films in art theaters, festivals, or college auditoriums.

In the late ’80s then, there would have been no place for — and no way to explain — a film like the Texas-made Sin City — one of the best-looking movies of 2005, complete with a big-name cast and Hollywood distribution, but created in Robert Rodriguez’ own studio in Austin. A highly politicized documentary like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 would never have played in multiplexes around the country (in addition to a parking lot in Crawford, Texas). Drew Barrymore would never have agreed to appear in a $1,100 film that sold itself on the web. Fort Worth’s Jon Keeyes wouldn’t be building a career from the ground (straight-to-video slasher flicks) up, heading for the mainstream. Only his mama and his college professor would probably ever have heard of Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette’s 2004 documentary that has won awards on two continents. The gay Western Brokeback Mountain would never have seen the inside of a movie theater, much less been touted as a potential hit.

In the last dozen years, the Hollywood and indie film canisters, it seems, have gotten mixed up in the projection booth. Places like Fort Worth and Austin have established their own connections to the movie-going public. “Niche” films are now mainstream fare that find a place in the multiplex — including Christian films like Echoes of Innocence, launched from the well-known film capital of Weatherford.

The change has come about in part because, as in the music world, new technology has made it vastly easier for filmmakers to operate out of a home studio, produce high-quality films with affordable equipment, and promote them directly on the internet. It’s also happened in part because ever-more-independent major actors — and now directors — went looking in the indie world for the challenges they weren’t finding in Hollywood. The industry, in turn, has responded because it looked around and realized there was money to be made on the indie side of the street — and when there’s money, Hollywood is there. The ever more diverse nature of American society (and the developed world, for that matter) has meant that there are now sizable audiences for everything from Bush-bashers to gay films to penguin documentaries.

And while independent filmmakers and the masses of moviegoers alike seem to have benefited, there are some who fear that the indie scene may be getting so big that it is running afoul of Hollywood-type problems — that some excellent independent films are getting lost in the process.

The walls of the celluloid jungle started breaking down in 1994, when Miramax Studios, which had already established itself by making hits out of offbeat imports such as The Crying Game and The Piano, scored a major box-office hit and several Oscar nominations with Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, made for $8 million — a drop in the bucket by Hollywood standards.

Miramax’s business model of prestigious pictures became the blueprint for an entire new class of movies — mid-majors, like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Those films provide character-driven stories on budgets in the millions and tens of millions of dollars, as opposed to Hollywood blockbusters, which can approach and even surpass the $100 million mark. Without being Hollywood products, the mid-majors nevertheless boast recognizable Hollywood talent, and they appeal to middlebrow audiences as well as film buffs, not to mention Oscar voters. The Miramax model inspired creations like George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, a black-and-white film with timely political content, and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, a Western with undisguised gay themes. They don’t get the marketing push that accompanies “event movies,” but they still get more publicity than a local filmmaker could possibly dream of.

Hollywood still makes a few mid-sized films itself, like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but mostly it concentrates on creating the next cash cow of a franchise and farms out the mid-majors to the independent filmmakers. The hand-off is easy, since many of the distributors that put low-budget films in the multiplexes are owned by larger entertainment-industry conglomerates (Fox Searchlight, owned by Fox, Universal’s Focus Features, Sony’s Rogue Pictures and Sony Pictures Classics, Viacom’s Paramount Classics).

As Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck and many others demonstrate, mid-major projects often benefit from the presence of A-list Hollywood stars, or at least actors who are recognizable from their work in Hollywood. Unknown filmmakers have a name to draw attention to their work, while the lower financial stakes free up actors to play characters outside their perceived range. Charlize Theron not only won an Oscar for 2003’s Monster, but in one stroke established a reputation as a skilled actress that five years of work in Hollywood had failed to create. This year, Felicity Huffman is creating similar buzz as a transsexual in Transamerica, a film that would be much less talked about if its star weren’t already famous from her role on tv’s Desperate Housewives. Actors who are habitually relegated to supporting roles have a chance to play the lead — after building a much lauded career in character parts, Philip Seymour Hoffman has now taken the next step with an excellent performance in the title role of Capote, a film with an estimated budget of $7 million.

The downside is that movies that don’t have the same star power get squeezed out at the art house theaters, just as they do at the multiplexes. Kelly J. Kitchens, a former manager of Dallas’ Angelika Film Center who now works as a publicist for such small films, says promoting them has always been a challenge. “I know how bombarded [film critics] are with all of the bells and whistles of the major studios’ films,” she said. “If you can get a film’s core audience to attend opening weekend, then it has a chance to hang on for another weekend or three and give a wider audience time enough to hear about it.”

The film landscape is different in other ways as well. Dating back to the early days of Hollywood, directors got their chair by working their way up through the system as assistant directors, cinematographers, or other jobs lower on the totem pole. These days, a single eye-catching independent film can effectively write a director’s ticket into Tinseltown limelight: Karyn Kusama went from her New York-set boxing drama Girlfight in 2000 to Aeon Flux this year, while Justin Lin (no relation to me), whose Asian-American crime thriller Better Luck Tomorrow attracted great reviews three years ago, will have his glossy Hollywood drama Annapolis come out next month. Others such as Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, and Gus Van Sant maneuver between these worlds.

One reason, of course, that an indie film director has a better chance of getting noticed in Hollywood these days is that the indie products are looking better — and there’s more of them. The ranks of below-the-radar filmmakers have swelled, because the means of production have become more accessible. High-definition video offers an acceptable picture quality on the big screen, and good cameras can be bought or even rented on the cheap. (Panasonic’s ad for its new camera appeals to professionals and amateurs alike: “For the filmmaker, it’s an HD breakthrough. For the rest of us, it’s the future.”)

Such advances in available technology allowed Jonathan Caouette to make Tarnation on a budget of $281. On a higher technological plane was Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City. Using the same green-screen technology that Peter Jackson used to make King Kong, Rodriguez re-created in painstaking detail the distinctive, heavily stylized black-and-white look of Frank Miller’s comic book and translated it to film. While the talent and distribution belonged to Hollywood, the production was completely self-contained. (He also made The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D, but let’s forget that one.)

With more aspiring Tarantinos and John Sayleses and Michael Moores toting cameras around, it’s no wonder that film submissions are rising at all major festivals, which provide a prime opportunity for beginning filmmakers to showcase their wares. Sundance reported a record 7,000 entries this year — but only 120 of them will be shown when the festival begins in three weeks.

Whether the fame of Brokeback Mountain’s actors (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger), director (Ang Lee) and even co-screenwriter (Larry McMurtry) will make it into a hit will be closely monitored in the next few months. If it flops, liberal pundits will blame society’s prejudice while conservatives will credit traditional values. If it’s a hit, liberals will celebrate and conservatives will rage at the shift in society’s attitudes. My worthless prediction: Mid-sized success fueled by reviews and Oscar nominations. Stay tuned.

Regardless, the film’s mid-major status represents a breakthrough for gay-themed films, which often cater to niche audiences for small but reliable draws at the box office and on video. Dan Bucatinsky’s stage play All Over the Guy was about two heterosexual couples, but when it came time to adapt the play into a film in 2001, the writer was told to make one of them gay because then the movie wouldn’t be competing with the herd of heterosexual romantic comedies, but rather the smaller pool of gay romantic comedies. Four years later, this situation persists somewhat, but gay films are becoming increasingly common on mass-audience screens, and they now come from all over the world. Three of this year’s best gay-themed films failed to catch on despite appreciative-to-glowing reviews: Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love (misleading title), Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (queasily graphic details about child molestation), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (too abstract and oddly constructed, not to mention being in Thai).

In another sense, Brokeback Mountain may not be all that hard for mainstream audiences to accept. After all, the film itself caters to another niche as a Western, with its gay characters remaining true to the image of the taciturn, masculine cowboy. In a piece for The New York Times, Guy Trebay interviewed real-life gay cowboys in Wyoming, where much of the film is set. They echoed the sentiments of rancher Ben Clark, who said, “I could not accept being gay because of the stereotypes drilled into me. Gay men are emotionally weak. They are not like real men.”

Like gay cinema, many other “niche” categories made some major-market forays in the last few years, while remaining, for the most part, in their own separate worlds.

Tyler Perry spent a good deal of the mid-1990s as a homeless person before he caught his big break writing and acting in plays that catered to African-American audiences. His inspirational life story and his wildly successful plays made him into a celebrity even before 2005’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, his film debut based on one of his plays. Just how successful he was can be seen by the size of his mansion in the Atlanta area, which served as a location for several scenes in the film. The movie, put out by Lions Gate, was terrible by any artistic standard. Yet it was a sizable hit, dominating the weak spring slate with its lack of subtlety and affirmative Christian message.

Christian filmmaking didn’t make any notable strides in the year following The Passion of the Christ, unless one counts the marketing of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Christian moviegoing audiences have yet to prove themselves consistent, but that hasn’t stopped directors like Nathan Todd Sims of Weatherford.

Echoes of Innocence, Sims’ religious-themed film about a high-school student dealing with the possibility of a shooting at her school, reached theaters this year after being shopped on the festival circuit. He emphasized the importance of entertainment value to go with his message. “We don’t want people to go to the movie just because it has a Christian message,” he said. “It’s just a fun getaway for the weekend, and if they take something away from that, that’s icing on the cake.”

Nonfiction film continues to feel the effects of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 from last year, as distributors look for another documentary that can capture as large an audience. And Texas, with its oilmen, Enron scandals, and the Western White House, continues to provide plenty of filmmaking fodder. Alex Gibney’s bitingly funny Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was heavily influenced by Moore’s brand of scathing humor that drummed up $4 million in ticket sales, a reasonable gross for a documentary. In a more sober but still partisan vein were Audrey Brohy and Gerard Ungerman’s The Oil Factor: Behind the War on Terror, a poorly reviewed rehash of anti-Big Oil arguments, and Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, a much better-reviewed film tracing the rise of American neo-conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists and their methods. (Pro-Bush films haven’t been as plentiful this year, perhaps because the president won his re-election campaign. Expect the White House’s travails this year to inspire a new wave of movies next year.)

The year’s smash hit documentary was Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins, a nonpolitical film that nevertheless inspired a rather witless debate over whether it advanced the theory of “intelligent design.” Terribly overrated, the family-friendly film pulled in a large audience with its self-conscious cuteness and woolly platitudes about the cycle of nature. Unfortunately, it overshadowed two much better nature documentaries: Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man delved deeply into the obviously severe mental problems of self-appointed environmental protector Timothy Treadwell, meditating on how his love for nature proved as destructive as disregard for it. Judy Irving’s The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill was a useful corrective, portraying San Franciscan Mark Bittner as a man who communed with a flock of wild parrots but never mistook himself for their owner, demonstrating a much wiser approach to relating to the natural world.

In the meantime, a single-issue film, Robert Greenwald’s visually naïve but impressively well-researched Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, avoided the multiplexes altogether and screened at political venues. Instead of pursuing print or television advertising like most mainstream films, the publicity push for this documentary was almost entirely confined to the internet, through the movie’s website at www.walmartmovie.com and through being mentioned on political web logs. (It has figured prominently the last few months on Arianna Huffington’s www.huffingtonpost.com).

Mansfield native David Redmon found audiences without mainstream distributors for Mardi Gras: Made in China, his documentary about plastic Mardi Gras beads manufactured in China and sold through Wal-Mart, which served as a more focused complement to Greenwald’s film. “I was selling this movie out of my suitcase,” he said, describing how a couple in Springfield, Ill., saw a rough cut and then wrote him a $5,000 check to finish and market his film. This past summer he took the film to the independently owned movie theaters. “[They] want this movie, especially down South. It doesn’t matter if they’re Republican or Democrat,” he said. The film’s connection to New Orleans created another surge of interest during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Redmon is now preparing the film’s official DVD release in time for next year’s Mardi Gras, as well as working for his newest documentary about the New Orleans disaster entitled Alvar Street.

Just as the fads of the street culture influence the fashion industry, the indie world influences Hollywood. The rise of socially conscious documentaries has been paralleled by a similar rise in socially conscious fiction films — Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener and Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana both found an audience, and Steven Spielberg’s Munich looks destined for an even bigger one.

Though films like Mardi Gras and Wal-Mart can achieve a level of success without much financial backing or planning, it’s not the recommended path. Stories about low-budget films being made on maxed-out credit cards and the kindness of strangers are inspiring — but indie filmmakers can find themselves up a creek if they finish production and run into trouble selling their movie or getting it seen and reviewed on the festival circuit.

James Hergott, whose All That I Need played in Fort Worth last month, advocated a more businesslike approach. “Indie filmmakers should incorporate advertising and promotion costs into their budget. Most filmmakers are killed after they make their movie. They have no costs left for festival entries or travel. Their investors get burned,” he said. He also recommended using the web for movie promotion. Indeed, a web site is cheap to maintain and stays up at all hours. Brian Herzlinger’s My Date With Drew, made on a budget of $1,100, helped sell itself through its website and in fact showed Herzlinger going through the process of getting the word out, talking up the film on radio interviews, designing the site, and hanging a banner off the side of a freeway overpass — although, of course, Herzlinger had the draw of Drew Barrymore to begin with.

Local low-budget filmmaker Jon Keeyes is the polar opposite of indie filmmakers with a social or political agenda. Like Hergott, he takes a hard-nosed approach to his career: He has made horror movies because that’s what he could sell to investors and the DVD market.

Keeyes is building a career outside of the preferred channels, and indeed outside of movie theaters entirely. Most filmmakers and actors regard a movie that goes direct to video as a step down, but Keeyes is trying to use his work in this area as a way up. His low-budget slasher flicks such as American Nightmare and Suburban Nightmare haven’t seen the inside of an auditorium, but he’s hoping the modest success of these films (garnered through Blockbuster and Netflix) will be a springboard to bigger things. “I have to be careful right now about what movies I choose to make because I want to make theatrical movies,” he told Fort Worth Weekly writer Brian Abrams this summer. “To get there I have to keep making these films that a) are going to make money, but b) will have some respect attached.” No filmmaker has yet taken this route to mainstream success, but Keeyes is confident that he can blaze a trail.

As the indie film world becomes more diverse, more populated, and the walls between it and Hollywood become more porous, new problems develop. With more and more films being made on the lower end of the scale, for instance, it’s easier for good ones to fall into the cracks.

Michael Gilio’s dramedy Kwik Stop played at Sundance in 2001 and garnered a number of awards and a rave notice from Roger Ebert. Yet it couldn’t find a distribution deal to get into movie theaters, and it only became available for public consumption this year with DVD copies going for sale online at www.ifilm.com. On slate.com, Charles Taylor wrote that “an indie scene that can find no place for a Kwik Stop because it has no stars ... is an indie scene that deserves to be taken behind the barn with a shotgun.” The film might not live up to Taylor’s review, but it nevertheless boasted a number of fine performances, especially by lead actress Lara Phillips, and was more deserving of theatrical release than many films that passed through the art houses.

Even movies that do make it into theaters can slip by unnoticed without a marketing hook. Andrew Bujalski’s Boston-set comedy Funny Ha Ha marked a brilliant debut in the mode of Mike Leigh or John Cassavetes’ neo-realist cinema, but without any big names attached to it, the generally well-received film had only a five-figure national gross and never played in Fort Worth.

Like any other art form, filmmaking requires a constant infusion of new talent, and new talent has to start somewhere. Technological advances have made it easier than ever for first-timers to make a movie. That doesn’t do much good, though, if the movies that they make can’t get to a place where they can be seen by the ticket-buying and DVD-renting public. Ultimately, any filmmaker needs an audience, and today’s increasingly crowded marketplace represents a challenge. It’s one that artists with something to say will always be willing to meet, however.

“We are taking on the Hollywood system by doing it ourselves,” said Sims. “We can send the messages we want to send.”

You can reach Kristian Lin at kristian.lin@fwweekly.com.

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