Smaller Films Seek a Summer Place

In Concorde Pictures' upcoming "Bloodfist," world kick boxing champion Don (the Dragon) Wilson is nearly pounded into the ground by bad guys, but manages to bounce back and stay in the fight.

Executives at Concorde and other independent distribution companies appreciate the Dragon's problem. Having had their knees buckled last year by a glut of films, financial takeovers and a vanishing video market, they are now looking at the studio-dominated summer schedule and wondering whether this fight even has room for them.

"We can't afford to compete with the studios," said Roger Corman, who releases his New Horizon films through Concorde. "They spend millions in every region, while we can only spend a few thousand dollars. When movies like 'Batman,' 'Indiana Jones' and 'Ghostbusters' are all in theaters, we simply can't get a screen because those are such big moneymakers for exhibitors."

Nevertheless, Corman will test the waters this summer with "Lords of the Deep," a $1.5-million underwater production that may get washed away in the promotional wave 20th Century Fox has had planned for James Cameron's $30-million-plus underwater epic "The Abyss" next month.

"A lot of independents will not release anything during the summer, unless they spot an opening," said Tom Matthews, managing editor of Box Office, a monthly magazine that tracks film release schedules. "If they see a Friday where a lot of big films are not opening, they have to be ready to go at a moment's notice."

Summer comes at a bad time for those independents who are struggling to shake the B-movie image--generally low-budget films that receive little exposure in theaters, are advertised minimally and feature largely unknown casts.

"Not all independent productions can be considered B-movies," said John Krier, president of the Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations research firm. "Vestron had a hit with 'Dirty Dancing' last year, and New Line continues to find success with the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' series."

Krier cited Atlantic's "Wired," based on Bob Woodward's book about the late actor-comedian John Belushi, and Miramax's "sex, lies and videotape," Steven Soderbergh's directorial debut that won top honors this year at the Cannes Film Festival, as two examples of independently produced summer films that should compete well against the majors.

"But the independents are subject to the vagaries of the market," Krier said. "It's pretty tough to survive."

(Since Krier made those comments, the fate of "Wired" has already been thrown in doubt. Four top executives of Atlantic Entertainment recently resigned, citing the company's financial woes, and producer Ed Feldman is again trying to find a distributor for the movie.)

Independent feature-film production is down about 30% from last year. According to Daily Variety, 126 independent features have been released through May 31, compared to 240 films during the same period of 1988. Meanwhile, the major studios have released 63 pictures, three more than during the first five months of last year.

"The market has matured to the point where B and C products are no longer in demand, so everyone is concentrating on A products," said Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

That trend has resulted in an independent shakedown.

"For the past two or three years there have not been that many good independent films in the marketplace, so everyone said it was the demise of the independent," said Amir Malin, president of Cinecom Entertainment Group. "The companies that have survived, however, are a lot more powerful and turn out a much better product."

The independents began feeling the pinch last year when the number of feature film releases soared to more than 500, leaving independents scrambling for available theater screens. Many of the films were being produced by independent film companies that had sprung up overnight to capitalize on the money to be made in selling film rights to home video.

"We went through a period of time last year when there was excessive film production, most of them video-driven by people who wanted to make a quick buck," Gottlieb said. "When you start cutting the pie into 500 slices, every slice gets smaller and not everyone will receive their share of costs."

The surge in independent productions resulted in what Los Angeles independent film publicist Jeanie Bernie described as a "next batter up" syndrome--too impatient to milk slow-starting independent features for profit, theater owners simply sent the next film in line up to the plate and hoped for a hit. Meanwhile, independent film companies hoped to recapture their box-office loss through video distribution gain.

"Most video deals require some kind of theatrical release," Bernie said. "If the movie is bad and nobody wants to see it, some distributors use an age-old trick called 'four-walling'--they buy all the seats in a theater for a week or two to fit the needs of the video release."

The independents suffered in the video market, too, as retailers reduced their orders for the riskier small films and upped their orders for the higher-profile studio features. A recent study by Vidmark Communications revealed a 23% drop in video dealer purchases of B titles in 1988.

The downturn hurt all of the shallow-pockets independents. Some declared bankruptcy, others merged their meager assets. Spectra/Diamond Entertainment is a new independent distribution company formed last month when V International/Diamond Entertainment acquired Spectrafilm.

"We've been sold to a concern out of New York, and I haven't even been contacted yet to know where the company is going," Spectrafilm Vice President and General Manager Randy Slaughter said a few days after the buyout.

"We're more of a business than ever before," Slaughter said, "and the ones who are good businessmen--in addition to being good movie makers--are the ones who will last in this industry. There's a lot of independents out there just a heartbeat away from extinction. They're waiting for anything to help them out--an upswing in investment, a halt in studio production, anything."

One factor that may help some independent productions find their way into a theater this summer is the sheer number of screens--23,000 nationwide and growing steadily, according to the National Assn. of Theater Owners. As exhibitors continue to multiply and reproduce multiplex theater chains, independents will have more distribution outlets available to them.

"Los Angeles is over-screened," said Cinecom's Malin. "Right now there's more screens chasing films than films chasing screens. There's a great demand on the part of exhibitors for product, and less product than ever before, which is a boon to independent producers and distributors."

Bill Kartozian, president of the theater owners group acknowledged that exhibitors could be hurt by a product shortfall, but added that the pain will be eased "by the magnitude of the summer's studio pictures."

Despite the large shadow being cast this summer by the majors, there are several independents who feel their films are hot enough to cut a large piece of the anticipated $1.5-billion summer pie.

Avenue has teamed Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch ("Cocktail") as two drug addicts in "Drug Store Cowboy," a tale of crime and redemption, with cult novelist William Burroughs in a cameo role.

Sidestepping to the tune of "Dirty Dancing" and "Salsa," moviegoers will get a new lesson in dance when "Shag" opens next month, starring Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda and Annabeth Gish.

In addition to "sex, lies and videotape," Miramax has packaged Diane Keaton, Carol Kane and Kathryn Grody as "The Lemon Sisters" in a summer comedy produced by Keaton. Miramax will also release "Loser Take All," starring Molly Ringwald and Robert Lindsay.

When Fred Savage ("The Wonder Years") takes a look to find out what is lurking underneath his bed in August, he will find Howie Mandel in Vestron's "Little Monsters," directed by Richard Greenberg. Rock star Adam Ant contemplates murder when his art gallery fails and his Porsche is repossessed in Cinecom's "Trust Me," also starring Talia Balsam.

Cinecom's "Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills," a comedy directed by Paul Bartel and starring Jacqueline Bisset, has opened in eight theaters and has been well received by critics and audiences.

"There will be some films falling to the wayside this summer," Cinecom's Malin said. "But I don't think it will be the independent products. Just because someone sees 'Indiana Jones' doesn't mean they won't want to see a sophisticated film like 'sex, lies and videotape' or 'Scenes From the Class Struggle.' The fallout will occur with the standard studio fare that cannot compete with the 'Raiders,' 'Ghostbusters' and 'Batmans.' "

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