ReelThoughts: November 05, 2009

"R.I.P. Miramax"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


To be 100% accurate, Miramax is not "dead," meaning it has not ceased to function as an entity. But, after recent cutbacks by Disney have left the art house subsidiary with only a skeleton crew of 20 and almost no operating budget (about four titles per year will reportedly be released with the Miramax imprint), it's hard to consider it a viable company in any meaningful sense of the word. The evisceration of Miramax follows a widespread culling of the indie distributor ranks. New Line and Paramount Vantage have been recent victims, leaving the field mostly barren except for Sony Classics, Focus, and Fox Searchlight. There are also smaller, truly independent distributors like IFC and First Look out there, but they lack the money to roll out more than a handful of major releases each year. The Weinstein Company, Harvey's attempt to recreate the empire he left behind at Miramax, has struggled from its inception; its future is in doubt.

The invasion of the independents began in the late '80s, with Miramax riding the crest of a wave that quickly became a Tsunami. At the height of the movement, during the second half of the decade of the '90s, there were as many as ten major players and an equal number of minor ones. The big studios, anxious to get into what appeared to be a lucrative business, began gobbling up the indie distributors. Ten years later, their names are like fond remembrances of times past: Artisan, Gramercy, October Films, USA Pictures, Fine Line Features, The Samuel Goldwyn Company…

Film festivals became ground zero for indie film sales. Sundance was more of a trade show than an actual festival. Prize-winners were sold for outrageous amounts of money - some approaching eight digits - and often opened in only a few markets before heading for home video. Sundance was a mad-house in the late '90s, and Toronto wasn't much different. It was all about what film was being sold for how much money and which movies were creating bidding wars. Critics chose what to see based on what was likely to sell.

The fuel driving the engine was the public's desire to see "alternative" fare - movies that didn't resemble the increasingly formulaic drivel playing in multiplexes. The '90s represented a time of great fortunes for makers, viewers, and distributors of independent cinema. Even the Oscars were swayed. There are conspiracy theorists who believe the major studios bought the indie companies as a way to kill them off and regain their stranglehold on the box office, but there's little hard evidence to back that up. Disney, for example, purchased Miramax not because it wanted to kill Miramax but because it wanted a piece of the pie. For many years, Miramax was able to continue functioning effectively with minimal corporate influence. Disney only began a more hands-on approach as the tide of red ink rose. It was like that across the board. Corporate-owned indie distributors were allowed to buy, sell, and release as they saw fit until they were no longer making money. That's when the parents stepped in. And, as we all know, responsible parents always ruin the party.

What led to the collapse of the independent market? No single cause bears sole responsibility; it was more of a perfect storm of issues. I can think of three major contributing factors: (1) changing viewer tastes, (2) home theaters becoming ubiquitous, and (3) a decline in the quality of product. I'll take a look at each of these.

Just as viewers in the '90s were looking for alternatives to big studio pictures, so viewers in the 2000s began looking back toward the comfort of the banal and familiar. Independent films required more thought and investment than many viewers were willing to impart. Younger movie-goers, never the most adventuresome at the best of times, almost completely rejected indie fare. A 24-plex could justify reserving a theater or two for small, specialty films if those theaters were generally well-attended. During the late-'90s, it wasn't uncommon for many multiplexes to show a smattering of indie films. Now, that never happens. The only thing AMC has against indies is that they're money losers. For many years, I hosted a film club called Talk Cinema, which specialized in showing pre-release foreign and independent features. It began locally in 1995 with bi-weekly fall, winter, and spring showings in one Philadelphia location. By the end of the decade, it had expanded to three - two sold-out shows in Philadelphia and one in suburban New Jersey (the one I hosted). By 2005, the audience had eroded noticeably. There were openings in both Philadelphia shows and the New Jersey one often played to half-empty houses. This year, the New Jersey Talk Cinema was canceled. The two Philadelphia programs continue but the future robustness of their audiences is in doubt. Indeed, Talk Cinema as a whole experienced a boom time followed by a contraction. At its height in the late '90s, it was all over the country. Since its peak, it has shed numerous locations in response to declining demand.

One problem faced by theaters showing indie features is that adult viewers are opting out of the movie-going experience. The rise of the so-called "home theater" with its high-def screens and DVD players, superb sound systems, and comfortable ambiance has caused many older viewers to choose seeing movies at home. The evolution of the multiplex as a teen hangout (replacing the mall) is a double-edged sword. It guarantees big weekend box office numbers but also makes movie-going an activity for the young. Distributors argue that movies have never been bigger, but they are glossing over the fact that the over-35 crowd is increasingly avoiding theaters, and that's precisely the group that comprises the core audience for indie features.

Finally, the quality of recent indie films hasn't been up to par with those available 10 years ago. This is a purely subjective determination, to be sure. One of the reasons I stopped going to Sundance was because the cross-country trek was no longer worth it based on what was showing there. Sundance was a logistical challenge during the late '90s, when everyone wanted to be there, but it was worth it as long as the films were good. When mediocrity began to creep in (around 1999 and 2000), it became more work and less fun. One of the reasons I see fewer independent films than I used to is because I'm not as bullish about them as I once was. Too many of those released in 2009 are like pale echoes of their 1995 counterparts. Granted, I'm painting with broad strokes with statements like this, but the indie film market excited me in the late '90s. Now, it's moribund. I get sent a lot of unsolicited indie films from producers and directors hoping for a good review as a means to help acquire a DVD distribution deal. Most of them are amateurish and unwatchable.

There's something of a Catch-22 at work, however. Now that there are so few outlets for indie films, the good ones are often being overlooked. That's the risk. This year at Toronto, I saw a few films I felt certain would obtain distribution deals. They left empty-handed. Two in particular, Harry Brown and The Disappearance of Alice Creed, looked like perfect art house-type releases. Both were offered deals (reportedly by Sony Classics and IFC, respectively) but turned them down because the terms were "insulting" (reportedly less than $1 million each for North American theatrical distribution rights). Atom Egoyan's Chloe, an erotic Fatal Attraction thriller starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, and Amanda Seyfried, attracted no interest whatsoever. All will probably show up in the U.S. market on DVD, but whether they'll even play in art houses is uncertain. (Late breaking note: Chloe has been picked up by Sony Classics; the other two remain without U.S. distributors, although Lionsgate has a deal in place for Harry Brown in Canada.)

So where do we go from here? Even the most optimistic prognosticator would have to admit that things look dire near-term for indie features. Only a few high profile titles will achieve theatrical distribution. Many that once would have signed with the likes of an Artisan, a Paramount Vantage, or a Miramax, will sign direct-to-DVD deals and slide anonymously onto video store shelves where they will be discovered by those customers who don't rent only recognizable titles. Still more will show in a few festivals then disappear, never to be seen by more than a handful of viewers. Perhaps this will discourage all but the most dedicated and talented directors from making indie movies. If the overall quality level of the product increases, individual titles should be more desirable.

Far-term, there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. It comes in the form of digital projectors. Although these are being installed primarily with the goal of cheapening distribution costs for Hollywood and allowing an increase in 3-D content, they may prove to be a boon for indie filmmakers, most of whom work in video rather than film. With the cost of striking 35mm prints eliminated, it may be possible to get digital copies of specialty movies into theaters for almost nothing, making them attractive to both distributors and exhibitors. Digital projection could be the catalyst for a new wave of independent film, but it will take more than a cheap means of distribution to transform that "could" into a "will." Time will tell whether the potential for a bright future becomes a reality. For now, however, with the demise of Miramax, it's time to reflect on how far this one bright niche of motion pictures has declined.


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