Missing the Big Picture

The problem isn't the new multiplex coming to Lincoln Road. It's that Miami has no indie film scene. At it's not getting better.

Dreamlife's run at Sunset Place was solid, but unspectacular. Could Sony have made more money by placing the movie in the more art-film-friendly environs of the Absinthe? Hernandez-Canton thinks so, but says he finds himself in a Catch-22 situation. "The distributors say I don't have the grosses to justify them giving me a certain film exclusively," he explains. "But how can I get those grosses if they won't let me open a quality film like The Dreamlife of Angels?"

The Alliance's Joanne Butcher puts it this way: "When the majors see a sex, lies, and videotape or a Brothers McMullen making big dollars, they're not willing to let that go," she says. "They're not satisfied with just doing Titanic and Star Wars. They want every penny that's out there. That's why every big studio has a classics or indie division."

Today's world of independent film can be traced to 1989 and the breakout success of sex, lies, and videotape. The debut feature from the young director Steven Soderbergh, sex was the toast of a then-little-publicized film festival assembled by Robert Redford called Sundance. From there it went on to take the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Financed for $2.5 million (a pittance in the film industry) primarily by a home-video company operating outside the established Hollywood studio system, the film would go on to gross more than $25 million in the United States, and $100 million worldwide. Although sex certainly wasn't the first independent film to grab headlines (John Cassavetes was raising eyebrows with his own self-financed productions back in the Fifties), it proved that independent films could mean big bucks, and for a relatively modest initial investment. It was a trend cemented by the arrival of Quentin Tarantino and the phenomenal international grosses for his second film, Pulp Fiction, in 1994.

Five years later independent film is its own genre, with a parallel universe to Hollywood. It has its own glossy magazines, award shows, and even competing cable networks. In fact the indies now seem less an alternative to Hollywood than merely an adjunct to it. Technically speaking, they are. The bulk of the so-called independent features that receive media attention are in fact released on independent subsidiaries of the major studios. Miramax, once a scrappy hole-in-the-wall outfit, is part of the Disney empire, and outspent the competition by millions on 1999 Oscar ads.

Even the dreaded malls, once the physical antithesis of indie films, have gotten in on the act. Several chains now set aside two to three of their numerous screens at a given multiplex for "art films" -- including the AMC sites at Coconut Grove's CocoWalk and the Shops at Sunset Place in South Miami. The new Regal Cinemas in South Beach will also screen some independent films, mainly the same heavily marketed ones that AMC shows. It also plans to aggressively challenge the Alliance's present near-monopoly on gay-theme releases. Of course this competition could be a blessing in disguise, freeing the Alliance (as well as Miami's other art houses) to fully concentrate on precisely those independent films and treasured re-releases overlooked by the malls. Earmarking screens for art films isn't a chainwide policy, however. Regal's Phil Zacheretti concedes that doing so depends solely on profitability.

Profits of course are what independent film is all about these days. Once the province of artists such as Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley, who were not considered bankable enough for Hollywood, it is now a growth industry. The designation "indie film director" is rapidly rivaling "rock star" in the hipness quotient. But as the world of independent film has changed, so has its vision. The bulk of the independent films being shot seem less the product of edgy auteurs, and more like calling cards for Hollywood-bound resume holders. A look at Miami's own South Beach Film Festival bears this out locally, with most of the works differing little from upcoming network TV pilots.

Tom Bernard, copresident of Sony Pictures Classics (the indie-friendly division of Sony), explained this evolution in a recent interview with the New York Times. After mulling over the sharp drop in quality showcased at this year's Sundance Film Festival, he said, "The motivation for most kids to make independent movies is not to have a means of independent expression, to say something you can't say within the system, but to get into the system, become a major director, and get rich."

This growing corporatization of independent film was brought home for the Alliance's Joanne Butcher this past year with the release of Hurricane Streets, a gritty, urban coming-of-age tale directed by newcomer Morgan J. Freeman (no relation to the actor), which took the Audience Award at Sundance. The film's assistant director was Jamin O' Brien, a board member of the Alliance, and the theater's booking agent. The critical success of Hurricane Streets and its resulting purchase at Sundance by MGM would seem to be a triumph for the Alliance. But it was a Pyrrhic victory.

"MGM wouldn't let us show it!" exclaims an exasperated Butcher. "The film was a blood relative and they wouldn't let the Alliance show it." Apparently MGM had its sights set on a mainstream market for Hurricane Streets. "Then when it was a box-office failure, we still had to fight for the film," she continues. "The only reason we finally got it was because a guy I know in MGM's accounting department leaned on their distribution department and forced them to return my phone calls. That's the only reason that film ever made it to Miami. MGM is going to pick up an 'Alliance' film and then they're going to kill it. It's just corporate arrogance. They don't know how to market these films."

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