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Where filmmakers run free

A small new studio hopes to make truly independent movies -- and not go broke.

November 23, 2003|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

At Cinema Libre, a small new film studio and production house in Canoga Park, the decor sets the counterculture tone. From beneath his ever-present baseball cap, muckraker Michael Moore grins down from a poster for his "Bowling for Columbine" documentary. Studio offices are named for film revolutionaries -- the production office for Costa-Gavras, the special effects suite for Jean-Luc Godard.

Carved out of a former medical clinic behind a mini-mall in the 8300 block of De Soto Avenue, Cinema Libre will make and distribute independent films, said its 42-year-old founder, Philippe Diaz. By independent, Diaz means movies that have attitude, take chances and reflect the vision of their creators, not the consensus of a focus group. In short, films longer on character than car chases. The studio's official mission: to be "a haven for filmmakers with views." One of its most radical tenets: The moviemaker will have final cut of his or her work.

If that sounds like a wine-induced manifesto scrawled on a cafe napkin, it's no wonder. A devout cinephile, the Parisian-born Diaz is as French as good brioche. A veteran director and screenwriter, Diaz has produced a dozen features in Europe and the U.S., among them 1986's "Mauvais Sang" (Bad Blood), winner of the Louis Delluc award for best French film and the first to star Juliette Binoche, and 1989's "The Bengali Night," which gave Hugh Grant his first leading role.

Opened in June, the 6,500-square-foot studio was launched with $1 million from European investors, much of it spent on current filmmaking technology. The plan is to produce five films a year, most with budgets of less than $2 million. Such tiny budgets are newly realistic thanks to digital technology that has made the quality of independent moviemaking soar and costs plummet, Diaz said.

Money is a major reason the studio is in the San Fernando Valley, short on cachet but rich with filmmaking expertise: "We liked the non-Hollywood ambience, and the cheap rent," said Beth Portello, Cinema Libre's head of marketing and business development.

Smaller independent studios and production houses like Killer Films and GreeneStreet Films have popped up in recent years, mostly in New York. But the Valley isn't the first place the movie business thinks of when it comes to independent film.

And for Diaz, that's just the point. He says the Valley location makes sense, both economically and philosophically: "We want to be different. Let's be elsewhere."

And sometimes elsewhere is the perfect place to be. Cinema Libre discovered its newest director at the Laemmle Fallbrook 7 theaters in West Hills, one of the Valley's rare venues for art and indie films. There, Diaz recently watched 31-year-old Asian American director Eric Byler do an unscheduled Q&A after a screening of his "Charlotte Sometimes," nominated for two Independent Spirit awards.

Charmed by the movie, Diaz was also impressed with Byler's grasp of filmmaking and the deft way he interacted with the audience. His manager subsequently sent Byler's latest screenplay to Cinema Libre, and a deal was struck.

The studio will produce and Byler will direct "American Knees," his adaptation of a novel by Shawn Wong. It is one of four feature films in production at the fledgling studio.

Byler is thrilled with the prospect.

"I could tell right away their artistic sensibilities were perfect for producing 'American Knees,' " he said. "Their aim is to make films authored by filmmakers, not by committee."

Then there is the money. Byler made "Charlotte Sometimes" for just $20,000 -- "$13,000 from my parents, $5,000 from my uncles and $2,000 on my credit cards." His next film is budgeted at more than $1 million.

Noted a delighted Byler: "Instead of paying, I'll be paid."

Best of both worlds

Why do the founders of Cinema Libre think they can beat the odds and survive in the cutthroat indie marketplace? Independent studios have had the half-lives of fruit flies in recent years, either going under, as FilmFour and Next Wave Films did, or becoming boutique operations within major studios that are semi-independent at best.

Diaz argues that Cinema Libre offers the best of two very different worlds -- European-style reverence for the filmmaker's vision combined with American-style production savvy and freedom from government control. Unlike their American counterparts, European investors don't balk at giving filmmakers artistic control, Diaz said. In France, a director's right to cut his or her film is guaranteed by law.

While Diaz admits to bringing a European sensibility to filmmaking, he also understands the limits of European moviemaking, where government subsidy often means government interference: "Cinema is more free in America than it is in Europe," he said.

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