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The woes of independent films

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They don’t call ’em popcorn movies for nothing. Every summer, Hollywood studios serve up pricey, nutritionless buckets of seductively scented, buttery morsels just begging to be gobbled up. But it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable stomach-churning hangover hits — and that’s where those low-budget, high-IQ independent films usually come in. At least until now. This year, the indie world is suffering its own colossal hangover.

After succeeding with such hearty alterna-fare as Lone Star, Trainspotting, and Emma last summer, the indies haven’t come up with one certifiable hit in 1997 except for Miramax’s Chasing Amy, which opened back in April and has racked up $11 million. (Last year, by contrast, 20 independent movies broke the $10 million barrier.) Given that more than 50 indie films will have reached screens by summer’s end, the problem may be a simple one: There are just too damn many little movies out there.

”No question about it, there’s a glut,” says Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein. ”With so many art films out there, they’re killing each other. The goose that once laid the golden eggs is slitting its own throat.” In fact, the casualties are piling up: Miramax’s own Brassed Off — despite its hyped-to-the-hilt star Ewan McGregor — has racked up a less-than-stellar $2.1 million. And the news has been just as bleak for Fox Searchlight’s Paradise Road ($1.9 million), Fine Line’s Love! Valour! Compassion! ($2.5 million), and Gramercy’s Commandments — one of the dozens of 1997 indie releases that have failed to crack the million-dollar mark.

In one sense, the sheer volume of indie films is encouraging news — a sort of trickle-down effect from last year, when The English Patient (Miramax), Shine (Fine Line), and Fargo (Gramercy) seemed to usher in a changing of the guard in Tinseltown. But the bean counters at each of these boutique companies are too deep in this summer’s bloodbath of red ink to take that as consolation. ”Indie movies just aren’t working,” laments Sony Pictures Classics’ copresident Tom Bernard. ”Last year was a magic summer — films like Lone Star and Welcome to the Dollhouse crossed over — but it just isn’t the same story this year.”

The summer of ’97 has yielded one minor success story — Victor Nunez’s beekeeper flick, Ulee’s Gold (Orion), has wooed critics and done respectable business. But for every diamond in the rough, there are many more lumps of coal than there used to be. With three or four Gen-X clones like Dream With the Fishes opening every weekend alongside the big studios’ steroid-fueled blockbusters, the little guys are getting stomped like a math nerd at a Hell’s Angels rally — and they’re beating up on themselves as well. Of course, it doesn’t help that the companies releasing these movies often have no idea how to sell them. (Just asking: Why did the trailer for a good little three-hankie drama like Love! Valour! Compassion! rely on men-in-tutus sight gags?)

Some indie studio execs simply shrug off the slump as part of the cyclical nature of the biz — there can’t be a Scream, a Secrets & Lies, or a Sling Blade every year. But there may be a more obvious reason why recent indie films like Jack Nicholson’s Blood & Wine, Harvey Keitel’s City of Industry, and Keanu Reeves’ The Last Time I Committed Suicide have been getting the bum’s rush. ”Independent doesn’t necessarily mean good,” says Chasing Amy‘s writer-director, Kevin Smith. ”There are just as many low-budget dogs as big-studio dogs.” Smith also admits that some of the topical freshness that used to be an indie hallmark is becoming a bit stale. ”I do think the whole indie back story of filmmakers maxing out their credit cards or being the lesbian movie-of-the-week is losing its charm. But I’ve been both of those things,” he adds, ”so I hope not.” Echoes Ulee director Nunez: ”In the past, the turkeys never found a distributor. But now the old Darwinian attrition is gone.”

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