Category Archives: Independent Film

Classics of “New Queer Cinema”

In 1992, Fine Line had five films at Sundance, but by complete accident, two of those films put us in the middle of the conversation about what had just been dubbed “New Queer Cinema” by film historian and critic Ruby Rich.

Ruby moderated a panel on the subject at Sundance that year. The two Fine Line Films, which were Tom Kalin’s “Swoon” and Derek Jarman’s “Edward II,” were both considered difficult films, and the fact that both of them were being distributed by Fine Line garnered us a lot of public praise.

I had already handled a number of gay-themed films earlier in my distribution career, so I was aware that gay audiences were a loyal part of the art film audience. That didn’t mean that anything with gay subject matter would get an audience…but the right films—the  ones that didn’t pander, that didn’t reduce gay culture to stereotypes, and especially the ones in which gay life was treated as a given—these films stood out and the audience would be there.

My first professional encounter with a gay-themed film was with the movie “Outrageous!,” a Canadian film that was released in 1977 by Cinema 5. My job was a combination of co-op advertising, media buying and promotion. My boss, Don Rugoff, had taught us how to zoom in on niche audiences, mainly by use of radio. One of the biggest radio formats at that time was disco, which definitely had a huge chunk of the gay audience as regular listeners, so we set up promotions and word-of-mouth screenings through these stations all over the country. The ad campaign was simply the word “Outrageous!” in bold type, with no graphic image whatsoever. The entire campaign was built on the fact that audiences just loved this film, and all we had to do was tease them into the theater. Word-of-mouth was incredible and the film was a genuine art house hit. (more…)

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Rediscovering “Waterland”

In 1991, Fine Line was humming on all cylinders. In our first year, we had already hit gold both commercially (My Own Private Idaho) and critically (Angel at My Table), and had a solid slate of upcoming releases. Looking forward, however, it seemed like there weren’t a whole lot of promising potential acquisitions.

A script came across my desk called “Waterland.” Nicholas Roeg was attached to direct, and the script, which was based on a beloved British novel, was long and unwieldy. The book it was based was commonly deemed to be “unfilmable.” Initially, we—and I’m guessing all the other specialized distributors—passed on it.

Later that year, the project came back with a new script, with a new director (Stephen Gyllenhaal) and with Jeremy Irons attached to star. The cast also included Ethan Hawke, Cara Buono, John Heard and the debut of future “Game of Thrones” star Lena Headey. Compared to the original version, it seemed that the script had wrestled the density of the novel down to a very personal story—one that we thought would touch people. The price tag to pre-buy the North American rights was reasonable, and we were hungry for product. We made the deal; it was Fine Line’s first investment in production. (more…)

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“Diva,” The Unexpected Hit

When people in the movie business talk about unexpected results, they are usually talking about sure-fire hits that ended up not working. Every once in a while the opposite is true. Such was the case with “Diva.”

The first time I saw “Diva” was in a small screening room in the United Artists building at 729 Seventh Ave. It had been brought to the U.A. Classics team by Norbert Auerbach, who was running U.A.’s international division at the time, and if I’m remembering correctly, it was his wife who had recommended the film. While we found it enjoyable, we passed on it. It just seemed too pop and too mainstream for the art film audience we were used to catering to. It had already opened and flopped in France.

Several months later, I was at the Toronto Film Festival. The moment I arrived I was accosted by David Overbey, a prominent film critic and programmer for the festival, who tried to convince me to see “Diva,” which was emerging as the hit of the festival. I told him we’d seen it and already passed. At that point, the film’s directory, Jean-Jacques Beineix, began to stalk me. Every party I went to, he was there and in my face. He told me of the incredible reaction the film was getting, the fact that the festival had already scheduled additional screenings, pleading with me to see it again with an audience. So finally, I gave in and went to a screening. And yes, the audience response was electric.

We ended up making a deal to acquire the film for a $30,000 advance. (more…)

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sex lies and a volunteer driver

It was 1989. I had recently set up shop as a marketing and distribution consultant, having parted ways with Cinecom and was heading to Sundance. In those days, the festival paid for film execs to attend; in return I would appear on a panel or two, ski a few days and go to some movies.

On my way from the airport, the volunteer driver mentioned he’d heard great buzz about a film called “sex and lies,” or “something like that.” I looked it up in the catalog that he had conveniently placed in the back of the van, and noticed there was a screening I could make if the driver brought me directly to the theater. I got to the Prospector Square just as the lights were going down and sat on the floor in the back of a packed house.. The crowd reaction was amazing; clearly, even before even checking in to my hotel room, I had seen one of the hits of the festival. (more…)

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John Sayles and the Indie Film Movement

Independent film began the day motion pictures were invented. In fact all films were independent until a Mr. Edison decided he was going to scoop up all the patents and try to control the fledgling business. And throughout the history of film, there were always outsiders, creating work that was of no interest to the industrialized machine. Some of that work was categorized as “art,” but most if it fell under the category of “specialized.” The term “independent,” as such was used sparingly and mostly in conjunction with particular companies or personalities.

The term “American Independent,” which connoted the sense of a “movement,” came into common usage in the late 1970s with the formation of the IFP (at the time it stood for Independent Feature Project), and crystallized with the release of John Sayles’ “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” which was released in 1980 by Ben Barenholtz’s Libra Films. If John Cassavetes was the Godfather of independent film, John Sayles was its poster child.  (more…)

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A Punk-Rock Musical from Australia?

When I think about what kind of films would be made if the business were truly washed of its male bias, one filmmaker who always pops into my mind is Gillian Armstrong. Her films are all over the map in terms of periods, genres and scope, but what they have in common are strong female characters filtered through a strongly female-focused perspective.

After the international success of her debut film “My Brilliant Career,” Gillian could have done just about anything with her follow-up; she chose to use that currency to make a boldly different film—in fact, one so out of left field that it would seem she was challenging the very absurdity of being stereotyped as a certain type of director.  

“Starstruck,” Gillian’s Australian punk rock musical, was the first film acquired by Cinecom, a company that I co-founded with two partners in 1982. It had been less than a year since I had been involved with the French film, “Diva,” which–like “Starstruck”–was a major departure from the films that had traditionally come from those countries. And like “Diva,” Gillian’s film had a kind of pop sensibility that seemed perfect for the moment. It was, simply put, a ton of fun. (more…)

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The Coolest Film in Town – Chilly Scenes of Winter

In the history of American independent film, Joan Micklin Silver is a seminal figure. Her body of work as a director is impressive on its own terms, but even more so given the obstacles that women faced—and continue to face—in the film business in the United States. She and her husband Ray, by refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer, set the stage for the independent film boom of the ‘80s by working entirely outside the Hollywood system, pioneering equity investment structures, using their lack of resources to create a unique and personal esthetic, and ultimately, marketing and distributing their own films.

I became aware of Joan’s work upon the release of her first feature, “Hester Street,” which opened in 1976 at the Plaza Theater in New York—a theater that was operated by Cinema 5, the company I was working for at the time. The film was a huge success, grossing over $6 million at the box office and garnering an Oscar nomination for its star, Carol Kane. I got to know Joan and Ray because Cinema 5 bought the non-theatrical rights to the film, and I was in charge of selling it to Jewish groups across the country. (more…)

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Screw the Title, See the Movie

Sarah Kernochan’s “All I Wanna Do” (as it is currently known) is a movie that I’m incredibly proud of, for all the reasons that attracted me to the project to begin with. It was a very personal story, from an accomplished, Oscar-winning filmmaker, who had yet to be given the opportunity to direct a fiction feature. The script was funny and entertaining, geared toward an underserved audience (young women) and dealt with a moment in history (the birth of feminism) that would be enlightening to the target audience.

The trials and tribulations of getting this film released have been well documented in Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures, but suffice it to say that it had something to do with the myth that young women were not a sufficiently large audience to support a substantial theatrical release–this, in spite of having an amazing cast of well-known stars that included Kirsten Dunst, Gaby Hoffmann, Rachael Leigh Cook, Heather Matarazzo, Merritt Weaver, Monica Keena, Vincent Kartheiser and Matthew Lawrence, and for the grownups, Lynn Redgrave. Ironically, the film was a hit in Canada, where it was released broadly, and the film is considered somewhat of a cult classic by Canadian women who were 12-15 years old when it was released. (more…)

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“Ball in the House” – A Lost Film Worth Rediscovery

In my Business of Film class at Columbia, I’ve talked for many years about how unforeseeable events can affect the success or failure of a film in the marketplace. I’ve seen and worked on many films that would be examples of this, but no film I’ve ever been involved with had such a dramatic date with fate as Tanya Wexler’s second feature, “Ball in the House.” 

My first collaboration with Tanya, an alum of the Columbia MFA Film Program, was as Producer’s Rep on her first feature, “Finding North.” The film was modest in scope, but beautifully acted and directed, and packed an emotional wallop at the end. It premiered to much acclaim at SXSW,  ending up with a theatrical release through Cowboy Booking. I was eager to work with Tanya again.

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“A Woman Under The Influence” and the Beginnings of a Career

John Cassavetes is commonly referred to as the Godfather of Independent Film. While independent filmmakers existed from the moment the medium was invented, Cassavetes pioneered the inside/outside model that became more common in later years—that model being, he made money by working within the Hollywood system and then used his own money to make films that experimented with form and catered to a more discerning audience.

By the time he had made “A Woman Under the Influence,” Cassavetes decided that he would go one step further and distribute his own films. He created a company called Faces International, and hired a small team of young, ambitious cinephiles to get the film out to audiences. (more…)

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