Among the unexcavated gems at the recent Los Angeles Film Festival was a film called The Prime Gig. A tale of treachery and con men set amid the world of multilevel marketing, the film marks a return to form for Vince Vaughn and features Ed Harris, Julia Ormond and a host of other recognizable faces. Moreover, it was directed by longtime Lincoln Center house director Gregory Mosher, whose association with David Mamet goes back two decades and features that same blood-in-the-water capitalism of Mamet in his prime. But –as Joe Mantegna might say — here‘s the thing: You may never get to see it, and if you do, it likely won’t be at a theater in your neighborhood.

The reasons are murky and, in this specific instance, may involve behind-the-scenes machinations between producer Cary Woods and Fine Line Features, which inherited the film after the recent executive shakeup at New Line. Ultimately, however, it‘s part of a larger trend which, in today’s market, finds few willing to take chances on dicey dramatic fare. ”We are really in limbo here,“ says Mosher. ”According to Cary, they said, ‘Well, it’s nice, all three actors are really great and it‘s a great supporting cast, but how are you going to sell it?’“ Clearly the days when a great cast and a compelling story could serve as their own marketing hooks for independent film are long gone.

Recently, a spate of articles in the trades and elsewhere have bemoaned the lack of serious, intelligent, well-crafted films available to theatrical audiences. What has largely gone unsaid in these ruminations is that such pictures exist, were much in evidence at LAFF and Sundance, and are simply not finding theatrical distribution. The Believer, a portrait of a secretly Jewish neo-Nazi skinhead, which won the Sundance Grand Jury prize, will premiere on Showtime. And Things Behind the Sun, Allison Anders‘ fictionalization of her own childhood rape, sold to Showtime after theatrical offers failed to prove competitive.

Anders says that the decision to go to cable was made as much out of deference to the material as to her respective financial offers. ”What TV can do for independent films,“ she says, ”is really to make an event of the thing. The only movies that are events these days are like this ridiculous Pearl Harbor event. Especially with my subject matter, I was concerned that even people who really wanted to see it, or who needed to see it, wouldn’t have access to it. Or worse yet, would wait a couple of weeks, and by then it would be gone.“

To be fair, films about Jewish neo-Nazis and childhood rape may seem like daunting prospects to most indie distributors. Then again, so did Memento, on paper, leading every major distributor to pass and forcing its producer, Newmarket, to take the film out itself. At $15 million so far and climbing, Memento has more than doubled its $8 million asking price. There may be extenuating circumstances for the current distributor reluctance — the threat of production strikes, the subsequent glut of material that was rushed into production — but the fact is that after a 10-year indie boom, independent cinema seems to be receding into the brackish depths where it waited out most of the 1980s. Even if such depths are nothing more or less than the Hollywood of today.

As producer‘s rep Jeff Dowd (Blood Simple) puts it, ”Would Mystic Pizza get released today? Probably not. And where would Julia Roberts be? She got the Pretty Woman part off Mystic Pizza. So there would be no Julia Roberts industry, and Joe Roth would have lost one of his prime assets at Revolution Studios. Ben Affleck got Pearl Harbor off an independent film, Good Will Hunting. Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is the product of sex, lies, and videotape. Darren Aronofsky‘s Batman 5 will be the product of p. Everybody comes from somewhere.“

”I don’t think it‘s anything sinister,“ says former New Line production head Mike De Luca, who was just named head of production at DreamWorks. ”Some films were probably rushed into production with weak scripts in the strike frenzy, but some probably just turned out too uncommercial to warrant P&A [publicity and advertising] spending. It’s a very competitive marketplace, and the handling of ‘tweeners’ — films in-between mainstream and specialized subject matter — is becoming harder and harder. HBO Films kind of fills the ‘tweener’ niche now, so when someone produces one theatrically, they face an uphill battle. Taste is an up-and-down thing. Sometimes we exhibit more of it than at other times, but everyone always starts out with good intentions.“

Bob Hawk, a consultant for independent filmmakers and occasional producer (Chasing Amy, Trick), is succinct in his estimation of the current climate. ”This year at Sundance and the L.A. Film Festival,“ he says, ”I saw more strong narrative films than I‘ve ever seen in any year in memory, and I’ve been going to Sundance since ‘87, and every L.A. Independent Film Festival since its inception. The more established distributors are becoming lazier, and they’ve made some very bad choices, so they‘ve gotten burned. But audiences are smart — much smarter than a lot of the gatekeepers.“ Of course, one way or another, everyone in the film trenches is in the business of optimism, regardless of how the landscape looks to the rest of us. ”I want to make it abundantly clear,“ says Dowd, ”that every one of these specialized companies is still taking chances. They’re just taking one or two a year now. And it‘s absolutely terrifying.“

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