Your Year in Review section of the December 26, 1997, issue included a simplistic and misleading chart called "The Producers" created by Adam Langer. I would suggest that Mr. Langer spend more than 15 minutes researching who "really made all those charming little independent films."
For Mr. Langer's and your readers' benefit, I feel that I should explain that true independent films are financed without the Producer's Financing and Distribution (PFD) contract underwritten by a major distributor (the way studio films are financed). This means that these independent films are paid for through unconventional debt financing, presale of foreign territories, and gifts from family and friends. This independent type of financing describes most of the films in Mr. Langer's chart.
Mr. Langer suggests that we should "follow the money" on each of these films. It would be good if he did the same. For example, his chart implies that Sony Pictures Classics paid the producers of In the Company of Men to make the film. They did not. The five-figure (not "seven-figure") budget of this film was raised through the family and friends of the director Neil LaBute. The answer print was loaned to them by the film laboratory. Key members of the cast and crew waived a salary for a percentage of the producer's net gross, which after prints and advertising costs and Sony's distribution fee will be very little money. These people gave up their time and creative energy to make a great film. They had no connection, financial or otherwise, to Sony. It is insulting to these people to negate their sacrifice by suggesting that Sony was "lurking behind" the creation of this film. The Sundance Film Festival got them a foreign distributor, but Sony Pictures Classics did not agree to distribute the film domestically until three months after the festival and eight months after the film was "made."
Films like Cop Land and The English Patient are indeed financed with PFDs from major distributors and should not be considered "independent," but those are only two of the eighteen films that Mr. Langer mentions. True independent films like the majority of films that Langer slams are made on shoestring budgets with donated time, locations, lodging, and food. After these films are completed, they are sent to film festivals in the hope that the festival judges will see the vision that drove these filmmakers to forgo the financial stability of working within the Hollywood system. If their film is accepted into the festival, it might win an award. If it wins an award, it might find a distributor. If it finds a distributor, it might get a theatrical release. If it gets a theatrical release, critics might put it on their ten best films of the year lists. The odds of this happening are astronomical.
Even if the film beats these odds, it is important to understand that the people who actually "made" the film will probably not get paid. The domestic box-office gross of In the Company of Men was $2,600,000. The theaters that showed this film kept a sliding scale of 10 to 40 percent of that money after a house allowance for keeping the screen open. Typically, only 65 percent of the box office comes back to Sony in film rentals: in the case of Men, $1,690,000. Then the distributor will take out their 30 percent distribution fee from the film rentals, leaving a $1,183,000 distributor's gross. They will subtract the cost of the prints and advertising of the film. There were 107 prints made with an average cost of $3,200 per print. Advertising probably cost $500,000. Given this relatively low level of P & A cost ($842,400), there would be $340,000 left to cover the deliverables that Sony had to acquire for a theatrical release. Sony will deduct the cost of redoing the sound track and the synchronization and master use costs of the film's scoring. These costs are likely around $250,000. This leaves $90,000 to cover the $42,000 cost of the negative.
Mr. Langer should read a book or a trade publication before writing an article about the "backing" of "independent" films. I suggest he visit the eighth floor of the Harold Washington Library. Unfortunately, the evidence gathered on the page doesn't prove his presupposed conclusion as much as it proves that Mr. Langer doesn't know jack about how films are financed, produced, and distributed. He should apologize to the producers of these films who do.
The Peter Stark
University of Southern