INDUSTRY BEAT: THE NEW STUDIO INDIES
When Paramount and Lionsgate unveiled new low-budget film initiatives, independent filmmakers were abuzz with anticipation. Had Hollywood decided to get back into the indie business, just 18 months after shuttering all their specialty divisions? Did the success of Paranormal Activity, the Saw franchise and a slew of successful offbeat movies in the last year open the doors for a new generation of talent? Had the studio-indie hybrid returned? Well, not quite.
The evolution of Paramount’s Insurge label shows the potentially false promise of such endeavors. Initially announced as a production effort with a slate of 10 movies at budgets of just $100,000 each, the division eventually became more of a “think tank,” according to news reports in February upon the release of its first movie, the 3D concert film Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. And rather than focusing on making micro-budget movies, executives had suggested the initiative would instead develop projects quickly around easily marketable concepts. (Paramount representatives declined to speak to Filmmaker for this story.)
In an interview with the L.A. Times, Paramount’s Film Group president Adam Goodman claimed, “Traditional development can suck the soul out of a good idea, so being able to move really quickly from conception to screen means you can feel the electricity and freshness in the end result.” But while Paramount’s attempt to break through the slow, byzantine structure of Hollywood filmmaking to capitalize quickly on pop culture trends may be laudable, Insurge’s first movie shows just how difficult it is for studios to work outside the box. The Bieber film is, of course, neither low-budget (with a reported price tag of $13 million), nor “independent” in concept or execution.
Stepping back, however, the fact may be simply that by their elephantine nature studios can’t make indies fast and loose the way independent producers can.
This will be the challenge to Lionsgate, as it pushes forward with an effort that appears, at least for now, far more faithful to its independent claims. Coincidentally unveiled on the same day that Never Say Never hit more than 3,100 theaters, Lionsgate announced it would produce 10 movies a year costing less than $2 million each (some of the titles include the Black List screenplay Gay Dude, Craig Robinson-starrer Rapture-palooza and the supernatural thriller 6 Miranda Drive, from Wolf Creek director Greg Mclean).
Company executives say their interest in low-budget films stems from the creative freedom and potential upside such inexpensive projects allow. “The lower the budget, the lower the burden on the filmmaker,” Lionsgate’s longtime production chief Mike Paseornek tells Filmmaker.
Chosen projects will go beyond the horror genre to include comedies or simply “quality scripts that a studio just won’t make, whether they weren’t high-concept enough or the studio didn’t want to take the creative risk,” says Lionsgate production executive Matt Kaplan.
And because of the smaller budgets, Paseornek claims, “there won’t be the creative pressure of a studio to do things a certain way.” Still, don’t expect to see fringe auteur projects from the division. Lionsgate motion picture group president Joe Drake underscored the populist nature of the enterprise when he said that while production budgets will be in the low seven figures, marketing costs are budgeted in the “low-to-mid $20 million range” per picture.
Still, making low-budget movies under the auspices of a corporate entity is different from making low-budget films independently. When working with a studio or a larger financier that operates like a studio, “this does have certain restrictions,” says Lynette Howell, a producer on Blue Valentine and an upcoming studio film called Shark Night.
“If, on the day, a director wants to change the dialogue in a scene, or cut a scene, there is often a strict requirement to get approval from the studio or financier,” she explains. “On a ‘true’ indie, this isn’t the case — the director can change the plan as they see fit,” she says, as long as it’s financially responsible.
Mary Jane Skalski, who produced Tom McCarthy’s first two films independently and his most recent Win Win with Fox Searchlight, says she welcomes the input of executives, as they usually have good ideas. “But that level of involvement takes more time, so as a production, you don’t move as nimbly,” she says. “And that’s how you make these low budgets work and maximize your dollars; you move very quickly. When you have a bigger corporate entity, it starts to add time, and time, of course, is money.”
But the Lionsgate initiative does hope to tap the rambunctious energy of low-budget filmmaking. As Paseornek says, “The enthusiasm is a big deal to us, because you do want people charged up about the movies.”
Skalski says, though, that the tone on set changes when there’s a studio entity or distribution partner already on board. Rather than the sense “we’re all in this together,” she says, there’s the feeling: “If the industry already believes in all of this, how come they get to have it for cheap and I have to sacrifice myself? They have the money, but I’m not getting it. Why should I subsidize this company?”
Lionsgate executives say the infrastructure of a studio ultimately benefits the filmmaker’s final product. Because the company already has production, music and legal departments that are not part of the production’s costs, “it helps put every dollar on the screen,” says Paseornek. And if one of the films turns out great, according to Kaplan, the company can always “up the ante” on the budget, spending extra for music licensing or reshoots.
That financial wherewithal may betray the spirit of independent filmmaking; but it’s an offer few filmmakers would refuse.