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THE BIZ

Art meets crafty in the indie market

As funding gets scarce, filmmakers turn more creative. Magazine ads, mob money, pot farming -- it's just not easy these days.

November 23, 2008|Rachel Abramowitz | Abramowitz is a Times staff writer.

Wanted: 1,700 brave investors each willing to shell out $30 for a credit as a co-executive producer on an independent movie about New York's illegal graffiti street-art scene. The reward: striking a "blow for artistic freedom."

That's the pitch espoused by tyro filmmaker Alice.ia Carin in a full-page ad that ran recently in the Nation magazine, a fundraising attempt for her film "Don't See This." Carin also promised to send profits from the currently unproduced soundtrack, book and film to "help fund [New York City] public school programs in music and fine arts."

With a median income of $83,000, the Nation's readers wouldn't seem a practical film financing alternative to hedge fund managers or trustafarian movie producers. Yet as Wall Street swoons, banks such as Societe Generale opt out of the movie financing business and Hollywood studios retrench, the plight of indie filmmakers, never a secure career, appears increasingly precarious.

The specialty film arena is teeming with gloom, given the summer shuttering of art-house distributors such as Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures, and the recent raft of films by major directors such as Steven Soderbergh that have sold to distributors for relatively paltry sums, if at all. Indie films -- particularly those with challenging subject matter or helmed by unknown directors -- have always had difficulty finding backers, but many are wondering if unconventional cinema is going the way of Starbucks triple mocha lattes, European vacations and other luxuries that are dispensable in these rough times.

"There will be huge challenges for getting films with budgets from $5 [million] to $10 million. All those deals that were made during the height of Wall Street. The funny money. Those deals will be impossible to come by," says Dawn Hudson, executive director of Film Independent, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that mentors independent filmmakers and sponsors the Independent Spirit Awards.

Commercial fare with stars can still scrape by, but for out-of-the-box films "it's the worst time it's ever been," says indie studio head-turned producer Mark Gill, noting that it's hard to raise money for "movies without stars, which are too American, very small dramas, or which are too familiar. I worked on 'In the Bedroom,' " he says, referring to director Todd Field's feature debut, which garnered five Oscar nominations in 2001. "That would be so much harder to pull off now. The odds against that movie were considerable then, and would be triply hard today."

Gill points to films in the $1-million to $9-million budget range that are particularly hard-pressed to find financing because it's difficult for investors to recoup their money unless the film gets a significant theatrical release.

Low budget

Rena Ronson, co-head of the independent film department at talent agency William Morris, notes that in headier times, a producer might have been able to raise money with only one or two of the major elements of strong script, director and cast. "Now all the stars have to be aligned. In the $1-, $3-, $5-million budget range, it's difficult," she says, adding, however, that there is still money flowing into the market for established players from Asia and the Middle East.

"It's been tough for at least the last year in terms of how films are getting financed. The budgets are getting lower and lower," adds Michelle Satter, director of the Sundance Institute, perhaps the premier incubator of indie talent (alumni include Paul Thomas Anderson, Kimberly Peirce and Quentin Tarantino).

This doesn't mean scripts aren't being written or films aren't being shot. Technology -- from cheap digital cameras to sophisticated editing systems for the home computer -- has made it possible for anyone to dub himself a director, with varying degrees of success. Indeed, the business -- or rather, the avocation -- of making films costing less than $1 million is still thriving. Submissions to the Sundance Film Festival are running ahead of last year's tally of 8,000 films, says a festival rep.

Hits made for less than $1 million dollars include "The Blair Witch Project" and "Napoleon Dynamite," not to mention cult and art-house favorites. But the financial failures are too numerous to count, particularly because many of these films never get distribution.

Hollywood has plenty of filmmakers who've sold their blood to raise money (Robert Rodriguez), maxed out their credit cards (Spike Lee) or went to other lengths to launch their film careers.

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