When I was a teenager growing up in Washington, D.C., I was held briefly in the thrall of an amazing radio station, WGTB. I say “briefly” because the station, a fixture in the D.C. alternative/punk/progressive/radical politics communities, was shut down by its patron, the Jesuit-owned Georgetown University, over an abortion rights program only a couple of months after I had discovered it. But during that time, the programming (the closest comparison for New Yorker’s is WFMU) had a big impact on me, and bands and musicians I discovered on its airwaves shaped my tastes forever.
One of the things WGTB did in its news program was a sort of “negative obituary” — a death notice that, in contrast to the the typical obituary found in the mainstream media, served up caustic and critical commentary about the deceased. I thought of WGTB recently while suffering through all the Ronald Reagan hagiographies clogging up our cable bandwidth, and I thought of the station also when I saw the news item in IndieWIRE today that Madstone, the N.Y.-based production and exhibition company, has abruptly shut its doors, laying off 180 people and issuing only a terse press release: “The company was not able to achieve its business goals.”
We have to be a bit sad when any company that purports to help young filmmakers fails. However, being “not able to achieve its business goals” is what Madstone has been doing for years, and, personally, I found their strategy of co-opting indie-film buzz in order to window-dress real-estate capital plays particularly cynical.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Madstone was a company formed in 1999 by financial guys Chip Seelig and Tom Gruenberg with ambitious plans to create digital cinemas as well as the original content to fill them. Big investment bank money was raised — the company was said to have attracted about $30 million in investment. One of Madstone’s first ventures was a widely publicized plan to “hire” three first-time-feature makers to both make movies as well as other content. The plan got a lot of play in the industry press, but few articles questioned whether hiring three inexperienced filmmakers to provide the seed content of a company with such a valuation was a smart idea in the first place. (I’ll cop here to running one of these un-critical pieces myself in Filmmaker a few years back.) What most articles didn’t mention was that the independent filmmakers were giving up a sizable amount of their independence in return for a yearly salary of $50,000 and health insurance. That these two rather paltry incentives made Madstone some kind of indie godsend is in itself pretty depressing.
Lisa Siwe, Joan Stein and Aaron Woodley, who the company discovered by reading Filmmaker’s “25 New Faces” feature, were the maiden three filmmakers, but only Woodley managed to make his feature, Rhinocerous Eyes. However, from what I’ve heard, even the making of that feature was plagued by pre-production Madstone indecision and meddling. And also, from what I’ve heard, the company left considerable human wreckage in its wake as it used the dreams of independent producers and filmmakers to leverage itself up the capital ladder.
Given all the folks out there hustling for money — either for their films or their production companies — it’s sad that business relationships within the capital markets steer so much money towards companies like Madstone, which are helmed by people with so little aptitude for this business. Ultimately, I can’t say it better than this anonymous IndieWIRE poster, so I’ll give him the last word and go back to watching Tom Clancy eulogize Ronald Reagan on Charlie Rose:
“It’s always sad to see a NY film company go belly up but Madstone had a new business plan every day. It only makes it harder for new companies to raise money in the film business when there are public failures such as this one, lead by individuals with little experience except how to spend good money after bad.”