Indie Update

Veteran producer Lawrence Meistrich aims to rescue independent film

Miami film fans have long complained about the difficulty in catching offbeat independent films. The local art house cinemas -- the Cosford, Soyka, the Absinthe, Intracoastal, and the Miami-based microcinema group www.straightawaymovies.com -- serve up indie fare, but many hot films never make it to South Florida and those that do don't last very long. The situation may change radically and very soon, thanks to Film Movement (www.filmmovement.com), a new company founded by Lawrence Meistrich, formerly the CEO of the famed New York production company Shooting Gallery and producer of such hits as Sling Blade, The Laws of Gravity, and You Can Count On Me. Essentially an indie-film version of the Book of the Month club, Film Movement delivers a DVD a month to a subscription base of cinephiles seeking festival-winning films. Meistrich is visiting South Florida as a guest of the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, where he is on the awards jury. We caught up with him at the University of Miami before he spoke to a gathering of film students.

New Times: How's it going so far?

Meistrich: It's going very well. We just started our marketing last week. And people have signed up in 44 states over 300 cities. What's nice is that it's skewing very evenly. It's about 50-50 men to women and it's about 55-45 urban to rural/suburban. So it's not only in the big cities, which is kinda the goal.

How do you reach the people who aren't in the big markets?

There are nine million people in the U.S. who subscribe to either a film festival or a film society or club. That's our initial market. One of the ways we reach people is by becoming a national festival sponsor. So we pretty much sponsored every festival in the U.S. this last quarter.

Why? To acquire films?

No, it's not for acquiring the films. It's more for acquiring the consumers. We have access to the mailing lists. At St. Louis, which is the next upcoming fest, our trailers run before every movie. Our brochure is given out with every ticket sale. And we are going to let it percolate out like this.

My ideal consumer is not the film festivalgoer. I already know how to get them. It's, uh, you. It's somebody who has a family, kids, who is busy, who probably doesn't live in the very populated urban center. It's, uh, me.

I live in a town in New Jersey, about 30 miles outside of New York. For me to go to a good-quality independent or art film, I have to get a babysitter, I have to drive 45 minutes each way, I have to park. Even getting out of the house with young kids is hard. We are trying to make it convenient to see films and for a lot of educated, art-friendly people who live in big cities but are very busy, who live in the suburbs or in rural areas, the subscription service makes perfect sense. By the way, so far Florida is our fourth biggest state. But for people who live in Manhattan or South Beach or Santa Monica, downtown Chicago or downtown SF, we will also play theatrically. But we will do it at the same time as we are shipping to our subscribers.

So you ship to everybody at the same time and then, what's the incentive to come to the theater?

Well, we will buy your ticket. It's free to subscribers who can get to a theater that's running the film. But the big difference between Film Movement and the industry today is that the entertainment industry has become an opening-weekend business. You'll see Harry Potter will open on 10,000 screens. That's 25 percent of all screens in the U.S. Which virtually shuts everybody else out, as the other big films will take up most of the rest of the screens, leaving the smaller films out altogether.

What happened to platforming? Miramax built its company on opening in art house markets -- New York, L.A., San Francisco -- then going wide after word of mouth. Is that still viable?

No, I don't think that is still viable. I built Shooting Gallery that same way. And the market has changed. The biggest reason is the cost of media. So to platform something out means you have to buy media not on a national level but on a local level. You start adding all that up and it becomes extraordinarily expensive.

And the exhibitors have so much product to choose from they probably don't want to hold on to anything to let interest build.

The way films are usually exhibited, you have three days to demonstrate success. What we are doing is called four-walling -- we make deals with art house cinemas to buy out the theater for a certain period of time. We will play theatrically as long as it sustains itself. That's gravy. What that does for us is that it lets our filmmakers be award-eligible -- the Academy, the Golden Globes -- because they have a first-run release. You'll get reviewed by the top critics, which helps the filmmakers' careers. I don't really care what my box office is. I am not driving all of business based on my box office numbers, which is how the industry works today. All of your ancillary deals are driven literally as a percentage of your box office. I care about subscribers. And I care that everybody in the United States, wherever they live, has access to culture and art and smart movies, movies that make you think, movies that make you laugh -- just good movies.

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