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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
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.
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. Continue reading →
The following is a panel I moderated at this year’s Traverse City Film Festival about the impact that social issue documentaries can have on society, as well as the responsibilities that come with it. The panelists were Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis, Pau Faus, and Zaradasht Ahmed. The panel was recorded on July 26th and broadcast on the local NPR station in Northern Michigan.
Last week, I tweeted out that I had been asked to give a keynote speech at the Cannes Film Festival. In an attempt at humor, I made it sound as if it had been a last minute thing, when in fact I’ve known about it for months. The truth is that I had been approached to help set the stage for a full day event–one in which the MEDIA Program of the European Union would take stock of trends in the film business, with the goal of setting priorities for the future of the program. In any case, here it is. Thanks are due to Tara Roy, one of my Columbia students, who taped it for me.