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Smaller Films Seek a Summer Place

June 14, 1989|DANIEL CERONE

In Concorde Pictures' upcoming "Bloodfist," world kick boxing champion Don (the Dragon) Wilson is nearly pounded into the ground by bad guys, but manages to bounce back and stay in the fight.

Executives at Concorde and other independent distribution companies appreciate the Dragon's problem. Having had their knees buckled last year by a glut of films, financial takeovers and a vanishing video market, they are now looking at the studio-dominated summer schedule and wondering whether this fight even has room for them.

"We can't afford to compete with the studios," said Roger Corman, who releases his New Horizon films through Concorde. "They spend millions in every region, while we can only spend a few thousand dollars. When movies like 'Batman,' 'Indiana Jones' and 'Ghostbusters' are all in theaters, we simply can't get a screen because those are such big moneymakers for exhibitors."

Nevertheless, Corman will test the waters this summer with "Lords of the Deep," a $1.5-million underwater production that may get washed away in the promotional wave 20th Century Fox has had planned for James Cameron's $30-million-plus underwater epic "The Abyss" next month.

"A lot of independents will not release anything during the summer, unless they spot an opening," said Tom Matthews, managing editor of Box Office, a monthly magazine that tracks film release schedules. "If they see a Friday where a lot of big films are not opening, they have to be ready to go at a moment's notice."

Summer comes at a bad time for those independents who are struggling to shake the B-movie image--generally low-budget films that receive little exposure in theaters, are advertised minimally and feature largely unknown casts.

"Not all independent productions can be considered B-movies," said John Krier, president of the Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations research firm. "Vestron had a hit with 'Dirty Dancing' last year, and New Line continues to find success with the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' series."

Krier cited Atlantic's "Wired," based on Bob Woodward's book about the late actor-comedian John Belushi, and Miramax's "sex, lies and videotape," Steven Soderbergh's directorial debut that won top honors this year at the Cannes Film Festival, as two examples of independently produced summer films that should compete well against the majors.

"But the independents are subject to the vagaries of the market," Krier said. "It's pretty tough to survive."

(Since Krier made those comments, the fate of "Wired" has already been thrown in doubt. Four top executives of Atlantic Entertainment recently resigned, citing the company's financial woes, and producer Ed Feldman is again trying to find a distributor for the movie.)

Independent feature-film production is down about 30% from last year. According to Daily Variety, 126 independent features have been released through May 31, compared to 240 films during the same period of 1988. Meanwhile, the major studios have released 63 pictures, three more than during the first five months of last year.

"The market has matured to the point where B and C products are no longer in demand, so everyone is concentrating on A products," said Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

That trend has resulted in an independent shakedown.

"For the past two or three years there have not been that many good independent films in the marketplace, so everyone said it was the demise of the independent," said Amir Malin, president of Cinecom Entertainment Group. "The companies that have survived, however, are a lot more powerful and turn out a much better product."

The independents began feeling the pinch last year when the number of feature film releases soared to more than 500, leaving independents scrambling for available theater screens. Many of the films were being produced by independent film companies that had sprung up overnight to capitalize on the money to be made in selling film rights to home video.

"We went through a period of time last year when there was excessive film production, most of them video-driven by people who wanted to make a quick buck," Gottlieb said. "When you start cutting the pie into 500 slices, every slice gets smaller and not everyone will receive their share of costs."

The surge in independent productions resulted in what Los Angeles independent film publicist Jeanie Bernie described as a "next batter up" syndrome--too impatient to milk slow-starting independent features for profit, theater owners simply sent the next film in line up to the plate and hoped for a hit. Meanwhile, independent film companies hoped to recapture their box-office loss through video distribution gain.

"Most video deals require some kind of theatrical release," Bernie said. "If the movie is bad and nobody wants to see it, some distributors use an age-old trick called 'four-walling'--they buy all the seats in a theater for a week or two to fit the needs of the video release."

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