Forget Sundance

Former Miramax exec Jack Lechner proclaims the death of the indie as we know it.

Published January 27, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

From the outside, the prospects for American independent films never looked sunnier than they did in 1999. A scrappy no-budget gimmick film, "The Blair Witch Project," became a box-office smash and proved the power of online promotion. Established boutique companies such as Fox Searchlight brought massive attention to films like "Boys Don't Cry," while USA Films, an amalgam of October and Gramercy, dominated year-end awards with "Topsy-Turvy" and "Being John Malkovich." Disney released David Lynch's "The Straight Story." Warners both financed and distributed "The Matrix" and "Three Kings" -- independents in everything except scale and budget. And DreamWorks' highly touted "American Beauty," a big winner at the Golden Globes and a favorite for the Oscars, is indebted to the dysfunctional suburban-family sagas that have been a mainstay of indies for a decade. (You could say that "American Beauty" is to Todd Solondz's "Happiness" as "The Big Chill" is to "The Return of the Secaucus Seven.")

As far as the media goes, nothing has changed in 2000. Print, broadcast and Web journalists continue to blister us with coverage of Sundance. In many cities, daily papers follow hometown men and women who earn a slot at the Park City, Utah, festival as they rack up awards and distribution deals. Post-"Blair Witch," it's almost the snob-appeal version of watching "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

Given the carnival-like promotion currently surrounding the high end of the indie world, you might expect a giddy atmosphere at events like the International Film Financing Conference ("IFFCON") in San Francisco, where aspiring independent filmmakers network with production executives, financiers and sales agents, and where veterans do some serious business. But the keynote address that kicked off the conference's seventh edition on Jan. 14 was actually a death knell for independent film as we know it.

The speaker was Jack Lechner, whose credits include executive stints at Columbia Pictures and at Channel Four in England, as well as a three-year term (ending in the spring of '99) as executive vice president of development and production at Miramax. "Five years ago," he said, "if you scraped together the money to make a nice little movie -- not a breakthrough in cinema history, but not a turkey either -- that movie had a future." But, said Lechner, not anymore.

To Lechner, without independent video companies and art-house cinemas starved for "smart" product, without a showcase like "American Playhouse" on PBS, the "nice little movie" has nowhere to go. In part, he said, "The independent film world is a victim of its own success." What both energized and doomed it was the arrival of "a string of films from 'sex, lies & videotape' to 'The Crying Game' to 'Hoop Dreams,' all of which proved that independent films could sometimes make a great deal of money." The result is "an institutionalized industry that funds its own mid-range movies" -- and a horde of novice moviemakers attempting to replicate its hits.

Lechner proposed that instead of imitating past phenomena -- "like 'Pulp Fiction' and 'Clerks' and 'Slacker' and 'The Full Monty' and, soon to come, 'The Blair Witch Project'" -- filmmakers and producers follow a simple rule of thumb. "When I was at Channel Four in London at the beginning of the '90s, the British film industry was in far worse shape than the American independent film industry is now. When I considered a project to fund, I would ask myself, 'If this film works, could it possibly help to save the British film industry?' If the answer was no, I rejected it. If the answer was yes, I advocated it."

Lechner hails from Arlington, Va. In an interview after his address, he told me, "My mother works in television in Washington, D.C.; in fact, her father and grandfather were movie exhibitors, so she grew up in a movie theater and I grew up going to movie theaters. And my father is in local politics in Virginia. I went to movies constantly as a teenager, studied films at college [Yale] and worked at various production companies when I got out." In 1987, David Puttnam, the producer of "Local Hero" and "The Killing Fields," hired Lechner to be part of his team when Puttnam briefly went Hollywood and took command at Columbia Pictures. Before long, the whole team was fired.

In 1991, Lechner says, "just as I was burned out on the industry," Puttnam recommended him for a position at Channel Four in London. "I spent three years there and had a wonderful time working on 'The Crying Game' and 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' and some Ken Loach movies like 'Raining Stones' and 'Ladybird, Ladybird.' I can't really say I worked with Mike Leigh -- I don't think any executive can say that, since with the exception of 'Topsy-Turvy,' you don't even know what the characters are until you go to the dailies. But certainly I was around to watch Mike work on 'Naked' and on his short film 'A Sense of History,' which is the seed of 'Topsy-Turvy.'"

Homesick for the States, Lechner took a job with HBO in New York, where he shepherded BBC/HBO co-productions like "The Deadly Voyage," and then, in 1996, went to Miramax. He declined to renew his contract after three years of working on titles that included "Good Will Hunting" and the recent critical favorite "Guinevere." (The Miramax release "Down to You" was directed and written by Kris Isacsson, who had been Lechner's assistant at HBO and Miramax; it was No. 2 at the box office last weekend.)

Since Lechner made a major point of advising young filmmakers against imitating their predecessors, I asked him if there were any filmmaker he'd want them to emulate?

"I'm so glad you brought this up," he said, "because I wanted to get that into my speech and I just couldn't fit it in. There's one name: Krzysztof Kieslowski [the late Polish director of "Dekalog" and "Three Colors: Blue, Red and White"]. What Kieslowski does is so easy and so difficult. He's doing the cheapest movies to make -- he's got people in a housing project, he's got small casts and nothing glamorous in the locations. But these movies are about life, and they're about politics and how it interacts with people's individual lives.

"Kieslowski is a genius. And you can't ask people to be geniuses. But I remember something that Pauline Kael said about Godard years ago: Only Godard can be Godard, and it's useless for filmmakers to try to imitate Godard, because they'll only end up with lousy Godard; but there are other filmmakers who can be useful influences. Just trying to make a Kieslowski movie, you'll make something so much more interesting than what you'd be trying to do if you had a different influence.

[Robert] Altman, too, is a great influence on filmmakers. If people go back and watch "Thieves Like Us" and "California Split" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" -- go ahead and imitate those movies all you want. You'll never get them, but you'll get something interesting. Because the nature of what Altman and Kieslowski are about is not gimmickry or surface. And even if they have distinctive styles, they're not about what you do with the camera or how you light for it. They're about finding ways to illuminate corners of people's lives that movies can do uniquely. And that's what anyone can do."

When I was trying to get into an "indie" frame of mind before I interviewed you, I read John Pierson's "Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema" [Hyperion, 1995]. At the end of the book he gets gloomy and says there's a big difference between a filmmaker setting out to make a great movie and what happens more often these days -- a filmmaker looking around at what's being made and thinking he could do better than that.

I think he's right. And that's something you see a lot, not just in the American independent scene, but in French movies. Something that distinguishes "The Dreamlife of Angels," for instance, is the sense that the filmmaker is trying to make a great movie. "The Dreamlife of Angels," which may be my favorite movie of the last five years, is a movie where this guy gave it everything he had, where he drew on everything he knew. It was clearly influenced by Ken Loach -- but this guy brought something completely new and fresh to it. He made an Erick Zonca movie. Working at Miramax, there was no way I could see that movie and not want to immediately work with Erick Zonca on his next film.

What about companies like Miramax and USA? How do you define them? Boutiques? Mini-majors?

In my speech I refer to them as quasi-independent production divisions of distributors. Or they're the production divisions of quasi-independent distributors. They really occupy a new tier that we're going to have to find words for. They're certainly not studio studios yet. But they are now producing most of their movies, on larger budgets -- and some of them are star-driven movies. It's hard to think of them as independent movies.

I think of them as niche movies -- they're not movies for the broadest possible audience. Virtually every movie that the big studios make, they're trying to reach the broadest possible audience. They would be thrilled if every movie they released would be seen by every person on the planet, and they are crafting their movies to that end. But the niche distributor is trying to reach the largest number of people who would be interested in a particular movie. Having worked at Miramax for three years, I can say that [co-chairman] Harvey Weinstein would stop at nothing to get as many people as possible in the world to see "Shakespeare in Love." But he doesn't expect, even in his wildest fantasy, that even every person in America will see it.

On the interview show "Raw Footage," David O. Russell talked -- respectfully and affectionately but also critically -- about going through "a classic Harvey Weinstein-slash-Sergio Leone situation" when making a deal for "Flirting With Disaster." He described Miramax as a "pressure cooker," because the company tries to do things for less money and get stars for a price. They do it, he said, "on the back of the filmmaker," meaning they use a director's reputation to attract high-priced talent.

What can I say? I'm sure David was happy with the cast he got with "Flirting With Disaster." Certainly I was as a viewer. (I joined the company when that movie was pretty much finished.) At this point, the niche film industry is established enough so that no filmmaker should have illusions about what they're getting into. You're making a $7 million movie at Miramax -- if you believe you can do that movie with no stars, you're deluded! Just as you'd be deluded to think that if you were making a $35 million movie at Universal, you wouldn't need bigger stars! And similarly you're deluded if you think you'll get stars for your $1 million movie that you're making on your credit card. Unless you happen to know them personally or have found some bizarre connection.

I'm not the place to go if people want to hear tales out of school about Miramax, because I had a great time there and got to work on some movies that I really liked. But it is true that as the budgets rise at companies like USA or Fox Searchlight, so do the pressures. One thing that Harvey Weinstein is very diligent about is that he doesn't like to lose money. You'd be amazed how many films that were not considered to be among the biggest hits at Miramax did not only not lose money, but in fact made money. That's because he was very smart about hedging his bets. Who is in this movie that will guarantee us a video sale, a television sale, foreign sales and a minimum of theatrical sales even if the movie turns out not to work in the end? That's just smart business.

The only problem comes when you've got people trying to shoehorn the wrong actor into a part to try and trigger those things. But I think that happens more at the studio level; Harvey is really good about this. In the niche industry, you're still talking mostly about director-driven movies. They don't usually remake the movie to fit the stars -- although it happens sometimes.

Whenever I interview film people from the U.K., it always surprises me that the movie they credit with turning the British film industry around is "Four Weddings and a Funeral" in 1994.

Because it went to No. 1 in the U.S.! Very cleverly, Polygram released it in the U.K only after it opened in the U.S., so it came back to the U.K. as "America's No. 1 hit" -- a British movie with British talent financed out of Europe. Now, "The Crying Game" [1992] was also a huge hit in the U.S. [where it was released by Miramax] -- but a flop in the U.K., where it was released first. Learning from that caused Polygram to do "Four Weddings and a Funeral" the other way. But for me the movie that really broke the stranglehold and changed things in Britain was "Shallow Grave" [1994], which was not a big hit in the U.S., but was a huge hit in Britain and all through Europe. It was the first small British movie to make a profit in Britain in at least a decade.

One thing we could do at Channel Four was give people the room to make movies they wanted to make.

Do the British generally do more to encourage filmmakers?

There's no good system. They all have flaws. After years of British producers saying we don't want subsidies, we want tax breaks, they got subsidies. And now you're getting a mountain of distributed, but unsuccessful and unprofitable British films that don't ever make it to the U.S. There's like one opening a week.

Well, with digital technology, there may be no centralized system of production and distribution.

Nobody knows what's going to happen next. Right now, we've got this growing underground mountain of undistributed independent films that remain on film. When you throw dozens of digital movies on that mountain, which is happening right now -- what's going to happen with those movies? I really don't know. A side-by-side underground mountain of undistributed digital movies? Or will there be new ways to get these movies directly on to the Net -- or directly on to cable and into peoples' homes -- in a manner that does empower filmmakers? I don't know -- that's certainly the idea behind it. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

From Miramax to Mao! When I interviewed Michael Powell before he died, he said he wished the British film industry after World War II had positioned itself as a force for quality the way the BBC did with television.

And the glories of the British TV system that he was talking about are really about the way it was at the BBC until about 1980-something. But at the same time, there's a reason that "1984" was written by someone who had worked at the BBC; there's a reason that "Brazil" was written by someone who worked at the BBC. Both of these pieces have vast metaphorical implications -- but they're also about what it's like to work at the BBC! It is a bureaucracy that even now feels more like being at the Bureau of Game and Fisheries than it does at being at a movie or TV studio. And if anything, part of the glory of the British TV industry may have come as a reaction to that, just as part of the glory of the Czech film industry in the '60s, or the glory of the Iranian film industry in the '90s, is a reaction to a repressive regime.

If filmmakers are not complaining, they're not gonna make good stuff. You need to have an antithesis to have a synthesis. It may be one of the reasons for the original independent boom in America -- a reaction to the repressive regime in Hollywood. And now that the regime has started to crumble and collapse, and embrace independent filmmaking with movies like "American Beauty," "Three Kings" and "The Straight Story" -- what the hell do you do?

Since I fell in love with movies as a kid, I've always felt that size and sweep were part of their nature. I think certain filmmakers should aspire to get bigger. So to me, the idea of indie filmmakers going into studios -- of David O. Russell making "Three Kings," of Steven Soderbergh doing "Out of Sight" -- is a healthy process.

I agree. I just hope it will keep replicating itself, and that there will be a place for the next David O. Russell or Steven Soderbergh to come up and be able to make bigger movies in the mainstream. My worry is that right now there's a bottleneck developing, and it's going to be harder to break through.

You know what always worries me? "The Edge of the World" was just reissued and is now playing at the Film Forum in New York. "The Edge of the World" was Michael Powell's 25th movie. "Summer With Monika" was what, Ingmar Bergman's 10th movie? It takes a while to learn what you're doing. Nobody has that nursery slope any more. You have to come out and knock one out of the box on your first movie, or you won't get a second movie. And I always wonder about filmmakers that I can't stand -- if they had time to make another 20 movies, could they actually get good?

My biggest hope about digital movies is that at least people will get to make films, even if they don't get distributed.

At "Cafi etc.," at MOMA, they had an Edison kinescope -- and as you watched it you realized this is just like watching a movie in streaming video right now, on the Internet. It's the same kind of flickering, seemingly impossible conditions under which to see a movie. Nonetheless, it does move. And when you think of what it took to get from there to here, you can't help thinking that the same thing will happen with streaming video, and you will be able to download a movie. Maybe that will be the equivalent of the old grind-house.

For me the biggest betrayal is that the multiplexes promised to have more screens, ergo more room for more movies. Nobody ever foresaw that a six-screen multiplex would have "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" on five screens. That's the only place where I get skeptical about getting too optimistic about the digital revolution, because if there's a way for people to make more money by doing something that seems really crass to you, they will.

David Puttnam himself has talked about the political and business mistakes he made while trying to run a Hollywood studio. But, especially when you look at what Miramax has done, in some ways was he ahead of his time at Columbia?

It's not even a question. Look at the slate he put together: "The Last Emperor" with Bernardo Bertolucci; "Hope & Glory" with John Boorman. "Time of the Gypsies," Emir Kusturica's movie, got laughed out of the room when we announced we were going to fund a movie made in a Gypsy language that would need subtitles in every country where it showed. But the articles have evaporated and the movie's still around. David would probably agree with me that the problem was we didn't make strong enough commercial movies to balance out the slate. We were all so thrilled to be able to make movies like "The Last Emperor" and "Hope & Glory," I don't think we gave the same amount of energy and care to movies like "Leonard Part VI" and others I'd be too embarrassed to speak about.

The greatest single achievement of Harvey Weinstein may be figuring out how to do it with one movie; that you didn't just have art movies on the left and commercial moves on the right, but that you can make a commercial art movie or artistic commercial movie. "Hope & Glory" is a movie Harvey Weinstein could have gone to town with. In fact, with that movie, if Harvey Weinstein wanted to reissue it right now, he'd do great with it!

But as John Pierson asks, do blockbuster art movies open the door for other art movies -- or just for other blockbuster art movies?

It's a good question.

I mean, why shouldn't as many people have gone to see Anthony Minghella's "Truly Madly Deeply" as "Ghost," which it resembled, or as Minghella's current "The Talented Mr. Ripley"? (I know you love "Ripley" -- I don't.)

I love "Truly Madly Deeply" too. I've seen it three times and cry every time and it works much better for me than "Ghost" -- which, by the way, is a movie I also like. But I'm sure some people who saw both preferred "Ghost." This issue is problematic only because each movie raises the bar for the movies that follow. Until "Pulp Fiction" crossed the $100 million mark, nobody thought that was possible. And "Good Will Hunting" made more money than that. And Minghella's "The English Patient" probably made more money than that. There's been a kind of creeping gigantism in independent distributors here. Remember, when "Howards End" made $25 million in 1991, that was unheard of, that was sound-the-trumpets time.

And now, as an exhibitor, you're not scrambling for product. You have more product coming at you than you know what to do with or than you have room to show. Every chain like Landmark Theaters and people who consistently show niche product -- like the Angelika in New York -- they've got more than they can handle and a lot it is very high quality stuff with names attached and press hoopla. How can you say no to that?

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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