The evolution of the blockbuster mentality, which reared its head in the 1970s and had completely taken hold by the early 2000s, has changed the business in such a way that mainstream films seem only to be produced if they fit a narrow set of criteria. This has trickled down to indie film, to the point that even the definition of what can be called an independent movie has changed since Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” made most people aware that films were even produced without the help of a studio at all.
To all of those stalwart film students armed with only a beret and a dream: Don’t worry. This is an era when there are more ways to make and distribute a film than ever before. But the mechanism has changed for the way that “traditional” indies are produced, and that is largely because of how the studios have moved the goal line in regards to big budget pictures. Most mainstream movies now depend on big opening weekends, a hook (i.e. the reboot phenomenon, sequels, and the annoying habit of basing everything on a comic book), and whether or not Channing Tatum is available.
Studios have abandoned the medium sized movies that they used to produce. Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and Robert Altman’s “Nashville” (from ABC and Paramount Pictures, respectively, by the way) both came out in 1975. Which one of those movies do you think would get made by a studio today? That’s right, although that mechanical shark would be replaced by a politically correct, CGI manatee. So it is now left up to the producers of independent films, movies with budgets up to around $30 million (more than enough to make that kid with a beret and a Canon 5D to begin salivating) to pick up the slack.
For veteran producer Cindy Cowan, who co-founded Initial Entertainment Group (IEG), and now heads Cindy Cowan Entertainment, the changes in producing indie films may have changed the landscape somewhat, but for her and other like-minded industry professionals, it hasn’t diminished their quest to make sure these movies see the light of day—and make a profit in the process.
Cowan’s latest film, “Red Lights,” is a quintessential example of the modern indie. The budget is modest by Hollywood standards. The cast includes Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, and Elizabeth Olsen. All name actors, and in the case of De Niro and Weaver, huge, opening weekend stars. Written and directed by Rodrigo Cortés (“Buried”), “Red Lights” will have its premiere at Sundance, and Cowan and company are looking to find distribution for the movie and are working hard at securing foreign sales, an area in which Cowan has extensive experience.
When Cowan broke into the industry, indie film was becoming a viable interest. But budgets were reasonable, and with Bob and Harvey Weinstein leading the way, there was a somewhat harmonious relationship between the studios in regards to making smaller films.
“When I started in the business, it was really strange,” Cowan said. “What was considered an indie film was usually three million and under, which is really humorous. And I remember, I think it was about 14 years ago, Miramax branched off and became the middle range company. And there were various companies that followed Miramax and they were the ones that would kind of do these movies in the 10 to 15 million dollar range. And then anything over that was considered studio. Those days have changed where the studios nowadays pretty much want tent-pole movies based on a book or a comic book or something with some kind of a following.”
We all know the summer blockbuster is safe. And the studios will—God knows why–keep cranking out Katherine Heigl vehicles. And the middle range indies seem to have a home—the ones with a name cast, an up and coming writer and/or director, and an angle for the foreign market. But what of the films made on a shoestring budget? Filmmaking is a business, no matter what. And those financing the projects have to see a return somewhere on the bottom line.
“I think that a lot of people are finding that unless your movie is done for a certain price and done more the micro way…unfortunately the days of doing movies with absolutely no cast in it whatsoever—those movies have to be done for a certain price,” she said. “You can’t get away with doing these movies for the five to six million dollar range anymore thinking that you’ll make a return. Audiences have gotten really sophisticated. There are the breakouts that happen, like we’ve all seen the Sundance darlings that break out, but they’re rare.”
At Cowan’s company, the projects that come up at the weekly script meetings have to contain a few hallmarks to even be in consideration. For those producing indie films, the scrutiny is intense. A pitch has to be more than just, “Emma Stone says something sarcastic, and then Seth Rogen laughs awkwardly like a stoner.”
“I have a mandate,” Cowan said. “We try not to do art house films. I will do those that jump off the page, you go, ‘Oh my god, this is hopefully my award,’ and there are those films where I’d love to get my hands on, but for the most part, because at one point I was associated with a foreign distribution company, I kind of know that world really well, so I look for films that will fit into that, whether they’re thrillers, or action, some horror, although we don’t want to get too much into horror, and if it’s comedy, it’s got to be translatable comedy. So I start out with scripts I think are commercial.”
If something appeals to Cowan and her team, they take the next step. Commercial viability is great, but they need the numbers to put the budget together and where that money is going to come from. Incentives and locations are discussed.
“My next thing is to work backwards,” she said, “and start to build a budget that I think is conceivable, and then start backing into the budget: where can I shoot this movie, how much soft money can I get, if I go to Atlanta is it 30%, if I go to Louisiana is it 25%, if I’m going overseas what kind of co-production can I do? The next phase is to find a foreign distribution company that I want to work with and the numbers are in line with the budget that I’ve chosen. And then the last phase is to figure out the equity component, and how much is needed.”
And of course, foreign sales are a key component. While that may have been an afterthought years ago, even with indies—think domestic first and international later–Cowan notes how that aspect is taken into consideration simultaneously now.
“You almost have to nowadays. The way that the market is, you almost really have to. For me, I wouldn’t go into a film without knowing that at least the numbers—whether we choose to pre-sell to the majority of the world or hold onto it is inconsequential—we’ll at least know that the sales force that set their numbers are in line to what I think my budget is.”
For the savvy producer, art and commerce don’t always have to be at odds. The market has changed, for both big budget and mid-range indie films. And if it seems that a filmmaker like Robert Altman–if he were breaking into the business today–wouldn’t necessarily find home at Paramount, hopefully he would find a home somewhere.