By Hugh Hart
It's a simple pay-to-play proposition that has brought "Cavite," "Autumn" and "Beowulf & Grendel" to the Bay Area this month. They're all part of the Truly Indie program, which charges filmmakers a flat fee to show their movies for one week in the Landmark Theatres chain.
"The flat fee covers everything a traditional distributor would provide, including publicity and marketing and, of course, the venue," says Truly Indie boss Bill Banowsky. "In the past, there's always been the need for a film to go through a third-party distributor to be released theatrically. We're basically cutting out the middle man and going directly to the filmmaker."
The program could prove to be a boon for foreign-language flicks such as "Autumn," a character-driven thriller from France, and "Cavite," which was filmed in the Philippines.
"Foreign-language films, I think, have suffered the most over the past few years," says Banowsky, who is also chief executive officer of Landmark Theatres and Magnolia Pictures (both owned by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner's 2929 Entertainment). "What we are seeing from the traditional indie distributors is fewer and fewer foreign-language films being released. ... I'm happy this program provides another venue ."
Although filmmakers pay, instead of getting paid, to have their movies seen on the big screen, the upside can be substantial. For movies that were shot on digital video, like "Cavite," Banowsky's distribution model eliminates the expense of making 35 millimeter prints, because most Landmark theaters are equipped with digital projection equipment.
Also, the filmmakers maintain financial control over their work.
"In the standard distribution model a film distributor acquires the title and then controls all the rights, usually for a long period of time," Banowsky says. "By eliminating the distributor, filmmakers continue to control their rights 100 percent. It really puts the power in the hands of the filmmaker to decide how much (money) ... to put behind the exploitation of this film."
Banowsky aims to release eight to 12 Truly Indie films and, so far, he's had no problem finding qualified participants.
"Just by announcing the program, we've gotten a tremendous number of quality submissions," he says. "We'll be out in front at festivals and the like, but at this point, the filmmakers are finding us."
A+ STUDENTS: UC Berkeley filmmakers took home two Oscars earlier this month in the documentary division of the 2006 Student Academy Awards. Carrie Lozano won a gold medal ($5,000) for "Reporter Zero," about Randy Shilts' groundbreaking AIDS reporting in The Chronicle in the 1980s. The silver medal ($3,000) went to Xiaoli Zhou for "The Women's Kingdom," about one of the world's last surviving matriarchal societies, filmed near Shanghai. Previous student Oscar winners include "Cars" creator John Lasseter, Spike Lee, Robert Zemeckis and "South Park's" Trey Parker.
MAN AND MOUSE: When DreamWorks' "Sinbad" bombed three years ago, the major studios pretty much threw in the towel on traditional animation. But Tom Hignite, a wealthy home builder from Wisconsin, hopes to prove that old-fashioned "2-D" animation still has something to say -- and he's putting his money where his mouth is.
"I have been a lifelong fan of Disney animation and, as an artist and businessman, when I learned about Disney closing its 2-D animation studios, I saw an opportunity," says Hignite, founder and president of Miracle Studios.
After Disney shut down its Orlando, Fla., animation studio in 2003, Hignite began rounding up out-of-work animators, eventually persuading 13 former Disney and Warner Bros. artists to relocate to Richfield, Wis., about 25 minutes north of Milwaukee. There, the creative team, whose collective resume includes "The Lion King," "Mulan" and "Beauty and the Beast," work in a 7,000-square-foot house built by Hignite's company on a 6-acre lot.
The artists are developing a feature film about the adventures of Miracle Mouse and his beaver pal Okey Dokey. To attract investors, Hignite is publishing an illustrated children's book, "Miracle Mouse: Cranky's Miracle." He has also produced a 75-second Miracle Mouse movie trailer to premiere next month on televisions installed in each of the model homes featured in the builder's annual Parade of Homes tour.
Hignite's methods may be unorthodox, but he's already beaten a few odds by setting up shop in his unlikely Midwest outpost.
Tim O'Donnell, a 28-year Disney veteran who moved to Wisconsin in January to serve as the studio's production manager, says that 2-D is "something we know, and we all love the pencil-to-paper kind of thing. We all feel if the story's strong, it doesn't really matter what medium you tell it in. "