By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Hurricane Streets is not the only example of Hollywood's mismanagement of indie films. Sitting on a panel at the Wolfsonian-FIU in February as part of the Miami International Film Festival, the venerable film critic Andrew Sarris struck a tone similar to Butcher's. Hollywood no longer knows how to reach adult audiences, he lamented, decrying a trend in which the bulk of the studio's promotional efforts are aimed at the highly profitable teenage market. Quality pictures, even those made by proven talents, are simply cast to the wind. Consequently two of Sarris's picks as 1998's best (Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight and Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan) were box-office disasters. Marketed as mainstream pictures and screening mainly at malls, the two films failed to connect with audiences, despite being aesthetically accessible and having the Hollywood advertising juggernaut at their disposal.
There is no small irony at play. Rewarded with a big budget and studio backing after his indie debut, Soderbergh's original fans deserted him. This despite Out of Sight's star power (Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney), a bankable Elmore Leonard-based script, and unanimous critical praise. Raimi, too, received glowing accolades for A Simple Plan, with many calling it the long-awaited masterpiece from a director who made similar waves in indie circles with his low-budget 1983 cult horror classic The Evil Dead, taking an award at Cannes for that self-financed picture.
Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a history of Seventies Hollywood and its modern evolution, is blunt. "Had Out of Sight been marketed by a smaller distributor, it would have been a hit," he says, certain that the same audiences that flocked to the similarly themed Get Shorty would have bought tickets. But because the film was budgeted at more than $20 million, it was automatically assigned to the major Hollywood "parent" of October Films. "They just have no idea how to work that kind of film," Biskind asserts. He believes A Simple Plan died financially for the same reason.
Moreover indie films in general, even the ones marketed as such, are falling victim to commercial pressures. "Distribution patterns of independent films are becoming more and more like the majors," continues Biskind. "There's a glut of independent films on the market, and there are many more films than there are screens, so they're getting into the same situation as studio films. The first weekend is crucial in deciding whether the film is going to be retained on the screen or not."
Foreign cinema particularly gets lost in the shuffle. Even more so than with domestic indies, rigid formulas apply in marketing foreign films to American audiences: Merchant-Ivory bodice-rippers, Shakespearean-theme pageants, and middle-of-the-road weepers are the only types of foreign pictures considered financially viable.
Accordingly several mainstream critics have wondered aloud as to the whereabouts of the successors of the great foreign directors of the Sixties and Seventies. Where are the inheritors of the spirit of Godard, Bergman, and Fellini? The truth is this next generation is hard at work in their native lands, but thanks to the vagaries of distribution, their films are erratically screened in America, and often below the media radar.
Ignored by the studio-run indies (and thus, shut out of the malls), exposing these movies to American audiences is left to truly independent distributors such as Kino (which released Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels and Happy Together), New Yorker Films (Serbian director Emir Kusturica's Underground and Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple), and Zeitgeist Films, all of whom must now compete for the single screen at the Alliance or the Cosford.
For the Absinthe the solution to this business dilemma may be to opt out of the competition altogether. By the end of the summer, co-owner Cesar Hernandez-Canton hopes to switch the programming of the Absinthe to retrospectives, beginning with a sampling of the work of director Federico Fellini in July. The horizon is less certain, though. In the year 2000 the theater's lease is up, and Hernandez-Canton's landlord has expressed a desire to convert the building into more lucrative office space.
"This is a strange market," Hernandez-Canton says with a note of weariness in his voice. "You're competing with the ocean and the beach. You're not freezing your ass off in the rain when you get out of work every day, like in New York, which makes you want to see a show."
Don't talk about the weather to Nat Chediak. "I don't materialize an audience of 41,000 out of thin air!" he says with a roar, referring to the record crowds this past year for the Miami International Film Festival. "These people are here. I don't invent them. They don't come out to the movies for ten days in February and then go away skiing."
Chediak's success with the festival hasn't gone unnoticed locally. Instead of inspiring a multiscreen art house (such as Fort Lauderdale's Gateway Theater), however, the example of those 41,000 paying customers has sparked only more festivals. The motivation seems less to showcase quality cinema that would otherwise remain unseen in Miami, than simply to make money.
"Everybody wants to do festivals now," Chediak says dryly. "They go to Gusman, they see a packed house, and like any dunce, they think, 'Hey, I can do that!' Look at the Hispanic Film Festival. I swear to you, 39 Spanish films and not a single one I would recommend to anyone I call a friend. Look at the Brazilian Film Festival. Opening night is Central Station [a film that played for months at CocoWalk and the Absinthe]. Everybody and their mother has already seen that movie! What's the point?"