Losing Our Independence

The new movie "The Man From Elysian Fields" poses some intriguing questions. What desperate acts will struggling novelist Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia) resort to in order to support his family? Who is the mysterious entrepreneur (Mick Jagger) promising him easy money? The most critical question surrounding the film, however, has nothing to do with its plot: will audiences ever get to see it? The $9 million drama was financed by billionaire Gateway cofounder Norman Waitt. But it does not yet have a distributor and is heading to a leading venue for independent film, the Toronto International Film Festival, this week in hopes of finding one. "The few people who have seen the movie are responding favorably," says Garcia, who also produced the movie. "But American distributors aren't always interested in the quality of the movie."

Two years after the surprise success of "The Blair Witch Project" sparked a new frenzy in moviemaking outside studio walls, both the films and their distributors have crashed back to earth. "Croupier" distributor Shooting Gallery has folded, and Robert Redford's planned Sundance Cinemas chain died. Screen Gems, which labored but failed to turn its expensive purchase "Girlfight" into an art-house hit last year, is now focusing on mainstream fare like this week's Vivica Fox comedy "Two Can Play That Game." After reaping a windfall on "Blair Witch," Artisan Entertainment turned out the turkey "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2." Artisan's current priority is not buying a slate of daring art films but making silly sequels like "Dirty Dancing 2." Rebuffed by distributors, some filmmakers now take projects to Showtime and HBO. In short, many of the independent outfits that several years ago provided smart alternatives to mindless Hollywood formulas are now emulating the cautious studio policies they were set up to circumvent. "There are only two kinds of distributors left," laments Ira Deutchman, who produced the Toronto entry "Ball in the House." "Those without money, and those without balls."

The very definition of independent film has never been more ambiguous. Ever since Charlie Chaplin formed United Artists in 1919, filmmakers have looked for ways to make movies free from studio meddling. But as the modern UA equivalents like Miramax grew successful, they were snapped up by bottom-line behemoths. Today, Hollywood considers a movie like "Best in Show" an independent film, even though it was produced and distributed by Warner Bros. "The independent distributors have essentially disappeared. They are now labels owned by conglomerates," says Robert Lantos, the producer of "Picture Claire," another Toronto title seeking distribution. Truly independent films are subsidized by multiple credit cards, loans from Mom or lucky encounters with the idle rich. And it is those films that are struggling to reach moviegoers today.

For sellers like Garcia, Lantos and Deutchman, this week's Toronto festival offers a key test. Nearly 400 films were released into art houses last year, up from 205 movies in 1990. But even with higher ticket prices, last year's independent movies grossed $220 million, down from $262 million in 1990. Unless the dozen-plus new American movies debuting in Toronto can lure distributors, they may not even make it to a video store's darkest corner. "It's scary," says Paul Miller, a producer of "Prozac Nation," an adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel's book starring Christina Ricci. "Theoretically, we can get a good deal for our film. But the opposite can also be true: that everybody decides they don't want it."

Like so much of what ails Hollywood, the slump in the art-film scene is directly tied to the pursuit of profits. The studio-owned specialty-film divisions like Fox Searchlight were partially victimized by their own success. Movies with modest expectations like "The Full Monty" turned in huge earnings, making the studio parents expect similar profits from subsequent films. Independ-ently financed movies couldn't meet that unreasonable test, so the studio-owned outfits started producing more of their own movies, but the results were generally unimpressive and left less room for films made outside the studios. Says USA Films' Scott Greenstein: "There are definitely fewer people buying."

Ironically, the year's best-selling art film was turned down by everybody. Director Christopher Nolan's puzzling, backward-running "Memento" was eventually self-released by its makers. "The Believer" had an equally difficult time. Writer-director Henry Bean's disturbing drama about an anti-Semite won the top prize at this year's Sundance festival, but it will debut Sept. 30 not in theaters but on Showtime. "It feels like a defeat to me," says Bean, who believes distributors were scared off by the subject matter and complaints from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The independents aren't giving up without a fight. MGM is relaunching its United Artists label with indie star Bingham Ray, formerly of October Films, at the helm. And Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, whose attentions have been focused on making the $105 million Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle "Gangs of New York," has returned to the acquisitions scene, snapping up the foreign-language titles "The Closet," "Amelie" and "With a Friend Like Harry." "It's not the Dimension Films formula, where you sit back and watch the money fly in," Weinstein says of brother Bob's sister label, which released "Spy Kids" and "Scream." "But I want to get back to our roots." All the same, Miramax, now owned by Disney, is far more cautious than before, unloading its films "Kids," "Dogma" and "O" to other distributors over fear of protests.

Writer-director Brad Anderson, whose independent films "Happy Accidents" and "Session 9" are languishing despite several favorable reviews, says impatient theater owners and risk-averse filmmakers must share responsibility for the malaise. "But you have to blame the audience a bit, too," he says. "Because I did go see 'The Mummy Returns' in its opening weekend. So I'm part of the problem."