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Retooling their business plans for the current indie market, new producers and production companies enter the Sundance low-budget film scene.


Police Beat.


Having financed and been a producer on such pedigreed films as Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, Rose Troche’s The Safety of Objects, John Sayles’s Men With Guns and Victor Nuñez’s Coastlines, Vulcan Productions — formerly Clear Blue Sky — is no newcomer to the Sundance party. Formed by Microsoft founder Paul Allen and run by president Jody Patton, the company has for several years been a visible financier of challenging independent film.

But what’s different in 2005 is Vulcan’s business plan. With competition entry Hard Candy, first-time director David Slade’s tough drama about a 13-year-old girl who seduces and then tortures a man she’s met on the Internet, Vulcan has entirely reshaped its financing model. Rather than the mid-budget independents the company has been known for, Vulcan will now annually produce and finance two to three “$1 million or less” features made on the “InDigEnt model” — low-budget films in which cast and crew work for tiny wages but share a significant portion of the first-dollar gross after distribution fees. Says Richard E. Hutton, vice president of media development: “It is a radical change in the way we think about ourselves. But we think there’s a need for people to support small films with strong artistic visions that have commercial possibilities. They do not have to be in the $4- to $20-million range. When you keep investment very low, it forces a level of discipline that helps the film. You have to find creative ways of doing things.”

Hutton admits that marketplace dynamics in the independent-film world were a factor in the company’s decision to adapt its business model. “There is a general perception that the mid-range film is very difficult,” he says, pointing to one of the company’s own pictures as having been a factor in the shift.

“We worked very hard on Far From Heaven,” says Hutton. “We worked well with [producer] Killer Films and [distributor] Focus Features, and [writer-director] Todd Haynes did a fantastic job. The film won five Spirit Awards, received four Academy Award nominations, and grossed $16 million. We looked at that and said, ‘That’s as well as you can do, and it’s still a difficult category to break even [within].’ ”

Hutton says the company looked at 400 or 500 scripts before selecting Hard Candy and another film, Bickford Shmeckler’s Cool Ideas, currently in post. It gets submissions from agents and has an alliance with Traction Media, which searches for projects for Vulcan. (Traction’s Roseanne Korenberg is also an exec producer on Hard Candy.) And, Hutton points out, Vulcan has a whole documentary division (The Blues) which remains extraordinarily active: “We just did Lightning in a Bottle, which Antoine Fuqua directed; a series on the environment, Strange Days on Planet Earth; and, coming up, we have a huge global-health series, six parts, that combines doc and drama.”



“Getting an independent film off the ground involves a lot of passion and a lot of risk,” says Original Media’s Charlie Corwin, a producer of the Sundance film The Squid and the Whale. “If you don’t love the process, you may as well invest in real estate.”

Noah Baumbach’s ’80s-set coming-of-age tale marks the first venture into film by this New York–based outfit formed by Corwin and Clara Markowicz (also a producer on The Squid and the Whale) after the two sold their Internet company Live Music Channel several years ago. Live Music Channel made a business of producing live concert material, and until now, Original has remained with “music-driven pop-culture stuff,” says Corwin, producing television like Skate Maps for Fox and Live at VH1 for the MTV sister channel.

Corwin says it was always the company’s intention to get into feature-film producing; it just took the right script. That script arrived via producers Peter Newman and Wes Anderson, who had been trying to get the film made for four years. Bill Murray had been attached as the lead with financing via sales company Hanway, but when the actor couldn’t commit to a start date, Newman cut the budget to $1.2 million and started looking for partners. Corwin and Markowicz joined as producers, and the financing ultimately was brought by Original, Ambush Entertainment and Andrew Lauren Productions.

“We have the ability to bring equity to projects,” says Corwin, “but we are in no way a film fund. We would never be passive equity investors. We look at projects we respond to creatively, and if it’s necessary to bring money to get them made, we can do it.” For Corwin and Markowicz, the “passion” element is essential when it comes to independent films. “Independent film is riskier than television because there’s a much longer turnaround time before you know whether or not you’ll make a profit. If you sell 13 episodes to a channel, you know when those checks come in!”

For future projects, Corwin, who was an attorney before the dot-com days, says Original is looking for “director-driven projects” as well as good production teams and partners. “This was a fun experience,” he says. “I love that making movies is such a group effort.”



Independent auteur Hal Hartley’s latest film, The Girl from Monday, a wry, evocative science-fiction tale that telescopes many of our current obsessions into a fable of the near future, will premiere at Sundance, play shortly thereafter at the Museum of Modern Art, and then promptly screen for a larger audience… on a DVD released by the director’s new releasing company, The Possible Films Collection ( Partnering with his long-time editor Steve Hamilton, Hartley is leveraging his fan base to create a new distribution outlet for his own films and, sometime soon, those by other filmmakers.

“I think straight-to-DVD could foster a whole new generation of hard-to-place talent,” says Hartley. “I always think people are open to a wider range of work — even challenging work — if only they are given the chance to see it. I understand why less mainstream work is too expensive to release theatrically. So let’s leave that behind. Movie theaters are not church.” “The more control you have over your means of production, the more control you have over your creative output,” continues Hamilton. “I’ve always looked at emerging technologies and how they allow us to control our creative destinies. Right now I think that postproduction has been transformed, production is being transformed, and distribution is next on the horizon.”

Hartley says that the DVDs will be manufactured out-of-house, but everything else — “management, graphic design, production of added value materials, sales, marketing” — will be handled by Kyle Gilman, head of production at Possible Films Collection, and the staff of Hamilton’s editorial facility, Mad Mad Judy. And, both partners stress, the Possible Films Collection is being run as a for-profit business first and foremost. “I risk my life being a filmmaker, so I’m more conservative in this venture,” says Hartley.

Concludes Hamilton, “I think it was Flaubert who said, ‘Be neat and orderly in your life so you can be violent and original in your work.’ Getting our business life in order is a means for us to be involved in more exciting work. We hope the collection can embrace this ideal, perhaps proselytize it a bit, and provide the kind of self-sufficiency that will allow us all to make and see better films.”



For many reasons — the automatic equation of the feature-film format with Hollywood commercial product first among them — the U.S.’s non-profit funding world and the American independent filmmaking scene have acted like estranged cousins for the last two decades. Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) is changing all of that with its “Start to Finish” grant, which, the organization’s Web site ( writes, is “inspired by state-supported funding programs in Canada, England, France and Iran.” Recipients of the grant receive a cash award of up to $20,000, production and post-production support through NWFF’s affiliated Wiggly World Studios, and guidance through festival and distribution cycles. This year, grant recipient Police Beat, Robinson Devor’s feature about a morally-upright Muslim police officer in a post-9/11 world, will play in the Dramatic Competition of the Sundance Film Festival.

“They’ve been wonderful to us,” says Police Beat producer Jeffrey Brown, noting that the NWFF opens up its funding roster to award recipients, allowing producers to solicit money from corporations and individuals who, because NWFF is non-profit, can write the donations off their taxes. Says Brown, “The film’s budget was less than $500,000, and most of our financing came from individuals. We went with a traditional LLC structure, but for people who weren’t willing to take that risk, they could donate money [through NWFF] and feel good about it. The other nice thing about [a non-profit] is that you can get matching grants from corporations.”

There’s no deadline for the Start to Finish grant and no application. Projects are nominated on the basis of a filmmaker’s past work and are selected by a small panel. NWFF executive director Michael Seiwerath works actively on the projects — he’s an executive producer of Police Beat — and says on the Web site that the NWFF often plays its biggest role after a film is shot: “While it is difficult for an individual filmmaker to approach exhibitors and distributors cold with a low-budget film, we have long-standing relationships with many of these people,” says Seiwerath. “When we contact them, we are calling as a colleague, and the institutional support for a film can make all the difference in the world.”


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