The revival of independent film
Scripts, not effects
Independent films are at last recovering from the slump
I’m bored with the radio. Let’s go to the cinema
THE Toronto film festival, which ends this week, marks the start of the serious-film season. Out—at least until
Thanksgiving, in late November—go the superhero spectaculars. In come the foreign films and the dining-room dramas. The autumn crop is far more prone to failure than the summer one. But highbrow films now come with higher hopes.
For the past few years the independent film business has resembled a low-budget horror movie. Outside financing was brutally killed in 2008, as banks stopped lending. Three of the six major studios axed subsidiaries that had specialised in buying independent films. Consumers struck another blow by switching from buying DVDs to renting them.
Yet sales at film festivals this year have been brisk. New buyers such as CBS Films and Open Road Films have emerged to replace the departed studios. The larger independent outfits have steadied. The Weinstein Company, which almost collapsed two years ago, is basking in the success of “The King’s Speech” (pictured). Lionsgate has shaken off an activist investor, Carl Icahn, who had argued it should get out of film production. Summit Entertainment, maker of the popular “Twilight” films, closed a large financing deal in March.
It helps that films have become cheaper to make. Actors’ salaries remain depressed, and indies have become expert at exploiting competition between states and countries, which lavish subsidies on them. Most important, says Morris Ruskin, the head of Shoreline Entertainment, a glut of films commissioned in the era of loose credit has at last worked its way through the pipeline. “We’ve gone from a market that was saturated with films to a market that is hungry for them,” he says.
The post-financial-crisis independent film business is both more independent and more focused on film than before. The three major studios that got out of indie films—Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros—have not returned and are concentrating on a few expensive blockbusters. And the collapse of DVD sales means it is more important to drive people to cinemas. Richard Abramowitz, who is distributing the racing film “Senna” in America, says the spread of Blu-ray cinema projectors has cut costs dramatically.
The business is more international, too. Roman Polanski’s latest film, “Carnage”, was financed by Europeans, with American distribution added almost as an after-thought. Total sales of cinema tickets fell slightly in America last year. But they were up in Europe, and soared in Russia. Talky dramas are harder to export than cartoons or action flicks, which is partly why the major studios now concentrate on such things. But independent horror films sometimes travel well.
It is still a harsh business. No fewer than 3,812 full-length movies were submitted to the 2011 Sundance film festival. Yet only 550 films open in American cinemas each year, and most lose money. The business runs on hope. But there is, finally, enough money to keep the projectors running.