Sundance highlights big-studio clout in 'independent' arena
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From Correspondent Paul Clinton
(CNN) -- The final Sundance Film Festival of the 20th century gets underway Thursday. Founded by actor and director Robert Redford, Sundance is widely considered one of the most important venues for independent films in the world.
But the world of independent films has changed drastically in recent years. Budgets have gone through the roof, and more and more big-name stars are appearing in these smaller films. What's more, many major studios now own so-called "independent studios" that ultimately have to answer to their parent company.
Actress, director, producer (and now new mom) Jodie Foster has long been a champion of independent films. She is saddened by the direction that many so-called independent films are taking. "Independents have changed in the last 10 years," she says. "It used to be like guerrilla warfare out there, looking for money and inventing new actors and seeing new discoveries.
"That changed pretty radically after 'Pulp Fiction,'" she continues. "They saw if you had stars in the movie, and you paid them nothing, you could make tremendous profits. So you could have the best of two worlds -- an independent film that felt funky, but had stars in it so you could open in a lot of theaters."
A quick peek at the current Sundance film guide illustrates Foster's point. The festival's opening film, "Cookie's Fortune," is directed by Robert Altman and stars Glenn Close. Other Sundance films this year feature such stars as Kate Winslet, Eric Stoltz and Alec Baldwin. Smaller-budget films in the tradition of "Pulp Fiction" have their up side in the industry, allowing established actors to spread their wings and try radically different roles: "Pulp Fiction" revitalized John Travolta's career.
Interestingly, "Thick As Thieves," the festival film starring Alec Baldwin, is described in the Sundance film guide as "a joyfully witty piece of pulp fiction."
However, that same quick peek shows many films by total unknowns at this year's festival. While some movies are going into Sundance with name talent and distribution deals in place -- 24 films out of a possible 114 already have distribution deals as they enter Sundance -- dozens of other filmmakers don't have representation of any kind. Members of this latter group show their wares at Sundance in hopes of getting picked up by a film company willing to finance the release of their movie.
Big studios can undercut deals
But the independent film community was shocked last year when October Films, owned by Universal Studios, reneged on its commitment to distribute a very edgy film called "Happiness." The filmmaker was Todd Solondz, whose last movie, "Welcome To The Dollhouse," was the belle of the Sundance ball in 1995.
The ball ended when he tried to release "Happiness." It's a movie which he says is about "loneliness and desire, isolation and the struggle to connect." It's also a comedy featuring a pedophile and an obscene phone caller. An executive at Universal reportedly said "Happiness" would be released "over my dead body."
With so many of the so-called "independent" film companies actually being owned by major studios, some fear "Happiness"'s fate foreshadows the future for low-budget films with difficult subject matter?
Dennis Rice, president of Worldwide Marketing for October Films, says, "In the case of 'Happiness,' I think the best thing that could have happened was for us to have had the ability to say to Todd Solondz, we want to preserve your vision of this picture even if it means we don't have the ability to release it."
At the time Solondz told The Atlanta Journal, "I felt bad for October because they had been great champions of the movie and had shown great courage in getting money to finance it. Then Universal/Seagram's said they found the movie morally objectionable and that it wasn't appropriate for their image.
"I'm fine with that, except I find it naive of anyone to accept that a Hollywood studio could find anything morally objectionable. If they believed the movie would gross $100 million, they would describe this movie as 'morally courageous.' The only morality Hollywood is attached to is the morality of profit."
"Happiness" was eventually released by a small New York production company, and has made more than $2 million so far. The film has also landed on many critics' top-10 lists. But, for some filmmakers, the bottom line is that a supposedly independent company, October Films, was forced by its parent company, Universal Studios, to go back on an agreement.
Not so many independents anymore
While there may seem to be many independent companies, that's really not the reality. Miramax is owned by Disney; Gramercy Pictures, like October Releasing, is also owned by Universal; Sony Classics, by Sony Studios and Fine Line and New Line are owned by Time Warner. And the list goes on.
Actor William H. Macy has appeared in everything from very independent films such as "Fargo," created by the very independently minded Coen brothers, to big studio movies such as "Civil Action," starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall. His newest film, "Happy, Texas," is being shown at Sundance. He's seen the battles that have been fought in order to get small films up on the screen.
"Making the film is only half the battle," he says. "The other half is you've got to get it distributed. That's when you have to form a pact with the big guys. Nobody ever got disappointed expecting the worst from producers."But Macy personally doesn't care if a film is labeled independent or not. "It's become a generic term," he says. "I know last year at Sundance a lot of people were saying, 'independents my butt -- that's Miramax, that's not independent, they've got money up the wazoo.' And the people who had gone to their grandmothers and all their friends to raise the $150,000 they made their film with --they're going, 'It's not fair that we're competing with these guys.' "But you wanna know what?" Macy leans forward in his chair. "It is. Because you know what people want in a movie? They want to know what happens next. It's the third act, and the thing we've discovered is no amount of money in the world is going to write the third act."
Roth avoided U.S. involvement
British actor Tim Roth is proud of the fact that he's only appeared in two studio films -- he's perhaps best known for his role as the evil Prince in the film "Rob Roy," which starred Liam Neeson. Everything else he's done has been independent. He's now showing his directing debut, "The War Zone," at the Sundance Festival in hopes of picking up a distribution deal. His film features full frontal male nudity and is about child abuse. Not an easy sell.
In fact, Roth didn't even think about getting funded in the United States. "I didn't want American involvement," he says, "because I knew I wouldn't be able to make a film like this with American involvement. I would have financers in the editing room, or on the set, saying, 'you can't do this.'"
Now Roth is looking for American distribution, fully aware of what happened to "Happiness." "Those companies that are the flagbearers, whatever, of independent filmmaking should be strong enough to have to deal with the big machine," says Roth.
'South Park' creators speak up
Some people just disagree over what is or isn't independent filmmaking. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the bad boys of Comedy Central and creators of the trendsetting animated series "South Park," are very outspoken about independent films and the Sundance Film Festival.
Says Parker, "It used to reflect a budget. Now 'independent film' means anything under $10 million. That's what people are saying now. But, that's not really true. I think independent films means you did everything independently."
Seven years ago, the pair says they submitted a film to Sundance and didn't even get a rejection letter after paying the $50 entrance fee. "The time when we needed Sundance was when no one knew who the hell we were, and we had this film we wanted people to see," Parker says. Stone jumps in, "When we needed it most it wasn't there, and when we needed it the least they were all over us."
Others, such as writer/director Nancy Savoca -- whose film "24-Hour Woman," starring Rosie Perez and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, is having its world premiere at this year's Sundance -- point to the festival as the defining moment in their careers. "Sundance has a lot of special meaning to us because 10 years ago, our first film, 'True Love' premiered at Sundance and we won the Jury Award for it," she says.
The actual meaning of the term "independent film" is indeed in a state of flux. There are numerous movies calling themselves independent that haven't been near any kind of festival and never had to look hard for distribution. Many feel the word has lost its meaning with films such as "Elizabeth" (Gramercy Pictures), "Waking Ned Devine" (Fox Searchlight) and "Shakespeare In Love" (Miramax) all claiming to be independents.
Actress Gina Gershon has appeared in small independent films such as "Bound" in 1996. Her latest film "Guinevere" is in the dramatic competition at Sundance this year. She says, "Independent film has always been a cool thing, although the lines seem to be getting blurred now. You go to movies, you don't know what's the big studio film or what the independent film is."
Still an alternative to blockbusters
Yet whether a film is financed with credit cards, or a small amount of money from a studio, many of them do provide an alternative to the huge blockbusters produced by the majors.
Twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, the filmmakers who wrote and directed "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents," They also have a documentary, "American Pimp," opening at Sundance this year. According to them, independent or not, the bottom line is the bottom line. "Everybody wants to get into what's cool, you know," says Allen. "It's cool to be independent. No, it's cool to make money -- and your money back on a movie. That's cool."
Determined to have the final word, brother Albert adds, "and that's just our opinion. Our humble opinion. Make sure you put that in there."
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