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The Loss of Independent Films


According to the Associated Press, Time Warner is getting rid of two of its subsidiary companies, Picturehouse and Warner Independent. Time Warner is the fourth-largest media conglomerate in the United States in terms of North American market share. It owns several music, magazine, and book publishing companies. It's also the owner of the largest domestic grossing movie company, Warner Bros., which took $3.5 billion in 2007.

Once Picturehouse and Warner Independent cease to exist, it's unlikely that either will be greatly missed, perhaps by the people who worked for them, but not by anyone else. Neither company is older than five years, nor Warner Independent was not even profitable last year. Yet, should those companies be missed? What will their losses mean?

Warner Independent was established in August 2003 as a special division of Warner Bros. The purpose of it was to produce or merely distribute feature films that had a budget under $20 million. Why do this? Why even call the company "independent"?

This is due to a little something we like to call branding and marketing. Years ago, a curious trend started. Independent films were becoming increasingly more popular, not only within but also without the Hollywood community, all across the country in fact. The trend was all but started by Bob and Harvey Weinstein whose formerly independent company called Miramax proved how successful independent, and also how successful foreign films could be. Obviously, the bigger movie studios recognized this and wanted to capitalize off it. In fact, Disney bought Miramax and exploited it until the company was bled dry.

When Miramax first began decades ago, it was really done as a backlash to the unsatisfying product that the major movie studios were producing that arguably many felt weren't the best quality and were mostly driven by what was most profitable. Not that profit motives within the studios have changed, they just figure that they don't need any more of the backlash.

Unlike with other studios that simply bought out other independent companies, Warner Independent was a total invention and contrivance of Warner Bros., a complete and obvious branding ploy that it tried to pull. Now, I will grant that Warner Independent put out some great and highly entertaining films. One of its biggest commercial successes was 2005's March of the Penguins and one of its biggest critical successes was George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck.

Picturehouse was slightly different. This company started as a strange joint venture between New Line Cinema and HBO Films, both companies owned by Time Warner. HBO is of course the very popular cable network that replays box office movies as well as produces original TV programming like The Sopranos. New Line Cinema originally began as an independent studio.

HBO Films was created to assist HBO in creating original movies for cable as well as for distribution in theaters. As New Line Cinema grew into a pretty major mini-studio and created its own sub-division known as Fine Line Features, people in both camps saw the opportunity to pool their talents in a way that they hoped would foster more creative and more independent films. Voila! HBO Films and Fine Line Features merged, and Picturehouse was formed. The company's most notable release has been the Spanish-language film Pan's Labyrinth in 2006, and the company's distribution of the French film La Vie En Rose earned it two Oscars this year.

Miramax earned Oscars as well, many of them; so, no one could argue that it wasn't producing quality films. Nevertheless, that didn't stop Walt Disney, its parent company, from cutting jobs at Miramax, scaling back its budget, and limiting the number of films it distributed. Walt Disney itself announced that it was limiting the number of movies over $20 million it would put out as well.

With ticket prices and the economy being what it has been, it's no surprise. Because of digital cable, movies-on-demand, video games, and the Internet, the number of theatergoers has been steadily going down. There are still some large movies like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that can bring out large numbers of people, but in general attendance has been declining.

If you read the article in the March/April 2008 issue of Film Comment magazine by Alec Harvey and Donald Wilson, Time Warner's actions are in part a reaction to this and in another part in lock-step with Walt Disney's. The magazine article charted and analyzed 2007's movie box office wins and losses. For Time Warner, while overall revenues increased, its subsidiaries, as film distributors, failed to improve their market share. The number of films released for Picturehouse and Warner Independent went up, but the average receipt for each of their films went down.

For example, in 2006, Picturehouse produced six films that brought in $25 million total. Only two of those films did reasonably well individually. The others were flops and brought Picturehouse's per-film-average to only $4.3 million.

By the end of 2007, Picturehouse had earned $30 million here in the United States with a total of eight films produced. Yet, none of its films, unlike the year before, were bonafide hits. It lost more money, as its per-film-average fell to $3.8 million.

A similar occurrence befell Warner Independent. In 2006, its per-film-average was $2.5 million. In 2007, its per-film-average dropped to $1.6 million. Losses like that were observed with other subsidiary movie companies, as well as with purely independent distributors. The only exceptions were Fox Searchlight and Focus Features. Both of whom had monster hits in 2006 and 2007.

However, the Film Comment article posed the question, "Is there an upper limit to America's tolerance for art(sy) cinema?" In reality, what started out as a hobby became a full-blown assault. A whopping 631 movies were released in theaters in 2007, as compared to the 608 released in 2006, and the 547 in 2005, according to Box Office Mojo. The movie companies have kept increasing the number of output to a point of perhaps over-saturation. It may have become that there were simply too many movies for America to digest.

Yes, though it pains me to say, there were too many. However, what really pains me is not that there were simply too many movies put out in theaters. It's that there were too many bad movies put out in theaters. For example, Picturehouse released a great film in late August 2007 called The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. But, the film barely made any money.

This is in part because of several reasons. The first is Picturehouse's parent company, Time Warner, also released the sci-fi thriller The Invasion the same week. Critically, The King of Kong was far superior than The Invasion. Yet, over a three-month run, The King of Kong was only placed in a maximum of 58 theaters across the country. The Invasion got 2700 theaters in its first week of release. Despite the fact that The King of Kong required more marketing and more placement, it got significantly less than The Invasion. It got no national television spots for example!

This is odd because, a few weeks earlier that same month, Picturehouse released a film starring Jennifer Lopez called El Cantante and gave that film a release in over 500 theaters and had national television spots running for that film as well. Picturehouse can do all that for one film but not for another. Critics also rated El Cantante worse. So, one reason that The King of Kong didn't do as well is probably because the movie studio drowned it by trumpeting louder and worse films. Would The King of Kong have made more dough if the company had been allowed to stand behind it more?

Warner Independent also released two films last year in a weird way. Its films Darfur Now and December Boys were each released on only a dozen theaters across the United States or fewer, and each film only played for a month or less in those theaters, for some they only got a week or two. Yet, is there any surprise that neither of those two movies made any money?

The standard has become that a movie has to make so much cash in the first week or two, or it's considered a failure. Whereas years ago, a movie lasting in movie theaters for longer than a month wasn't an anomaly. Years ago, films had longer shelf lives. Again, cable TV and DVDs have changed that, and it's sad to see that films aren't even allowed to breath any more. Yet, the real shame is when films aren't even given a chance, as was the case with those Picturehouse and Warner Independent films.

Other films by other, more independent distributors were selfsame. Yet, those movies, not getting a lot of marketing or a longer time in theaters, can be understandable because some independent companies simply don't have the funds to do so. But, when it's a company like Picturehouse or Warner Independent that is a subsidiary of a larger corporation or conglomerate, the question is raised. What's really going on here?

All I know is that, as a result, there will now be less of the so-called independent, or art-house films, being produced by the major movie studios. Instead, what we're going to get are more of the big budget, special-effects-driven, comic book, ultra violent, teenage-demographic, remakes, or sequel-inspired movies. They'll suck all the oxygen out of movie theaters, as well as the oxygen out of indie films, and for what? So that companies can increase their market share!

What about all the quality films that will be passed over because companies like Picturehouse or Warner Independent won't be there to grab or foster them? The loss of these companies, and the decline of similar ones because of the bigger studios' actions will mean the loss of independent films, the loss of originality, of creativity, of diversity, of change, and of everything I hold dear as a theater-goer that the bigger budget stuff doesn't provide.

Think about it. The biggest movie so far is the new Indiana Jones, a sequel to a 20-year-old film that basically recycles everything from the three previous movies and re-serves it. Before that, it was the second Chronicles of Narnia film, and, before that, it was Iron Man, yet another comic book movie. Can't we get excited or more of anything new, or anything original?

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