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Indie Filmmakers: 'Chicken Little Was Right'

When <em>Ballast</em> didn't receive any offers from distributors that would allow him to recoup his costs, producer Mark Johnson decided to release the film himself — city by city.
Jesse Grant / Getty Images
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When Ballast didn't receive any offers from distributors that would allow him to recoup his costs, producer Mark Johnson decided to release the film himself — city by city.

For moviegoers who aren't quite satisfied with a steady diet of superheroes and sequels, the world of independent film has always been a welcome refuge.

But the indie business is getting tougher. Just ask Mark Johnson: He's produced a lot of big films, including The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as smaller projects, like the as-yet-unreleased film Ballast, about the effects of a suicide on a Mississippi Delta family.

Ballast is a very small film — no movie stars and a budget of less than a million dollars. Johnson didn't expect to get rich off of it. (Or, we should say, richer.)

Still, when Ballast won best director and best cinematographer at the Sundance Film Festival this year, he figured a film distributor would pick it up.

"I thought that, at the end of the day, quality would win," Johnson says. "We would like to think that if something is made well, it ought to be able to pay for itself."

But though he received a few offers for the film, he didn't feel like they were high enough to recoup the costs of production.

So Johnson and first-time director Lance Hammer are releasing the movie themselves, city by city. It's a laborious process — and a bit of an experiment.

"You have a 99-percent chance of being a failure if you are an independent film," says Mark Gill, a veteran film executive from the art-house world.

Gill points out that 5,000 smallish films, with budgets under $10 million, are submitted to Sundance each year. Of those, maybe one-half of one percent ever make any money in the theaters. (Gill elaborated on the state of the industry recently at the L.A. Film Festival.)

A Bright Idea From Among the Beehives

John Sloss has another option for independent films looking to make money. He runs a company called Cinetic.

Each year, Sloss and the Cinetic team are a big presence at Sundance, where they drive tough bargains for filmmakers selling their wares to studios. The company sold Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and Supersize Me.

Now Sloss is starting Cinetic Rights Management, looking toward what he calls "the digital future of film consumption." It's an idea that first occurred to him 10 years ago, when he was working on a film called Ulee's Gold, in which Peter Fonda plays a beekeeper.

"All of a sudden, all these beekeeping societies started contacting us, wanting to buy videos and book screenings," says Sloss. "I realized that if beekeepers are a community, there are an infinite number of communities any number of films can be marketed to."

The digital revolution provides the opportunity to sell these disparate communities — not necessarily by making a deal with one studio — but in bits and pieces, through the Internet, Netflix, video on demand and so on. (See sidebar.)

Meanwhile, Gill thinks there's still room for as many as 100 to 150 independent movies to reach theaters each year. But the bar for those movies will be high, he warns.

"Good enough isn't anymore," Gill says. "We used to say that mediocrity will be punished. Now, the good will be punished. You have to be very good, or great, or you will die."

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Kim Masters
Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She joined NPR in 2003.
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