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Indie Hit-Makers Blazed Trail That Keeps Them on the Edge

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The first time that James Schamus met Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans, two of the co-founders of Strand Releasing, they were slouched in the back of a near-empty Berlin theater laughing all the way through a screening of “Golden Boat,” Schamus’ debut film as a producer.

“I had to know who these two teenage stoners were,” Schamus says, “especially since they were the only two people left in the room at the end of the screening.” They told him they were starting a film distribution company and wanted to buy “Golden Boat.”

“I said, ‘Sure, what the heck, nobody else wants the movie,’ ” recalls Schamus, who later produced “The Ice Storm.” “I knew I was talking to a couple of guys who would be out of business by the time they flew home from Berlin.”

That was 1989. This summer the Museum of Modern Art here held a monthlong retrospective celebrating the 10th anniversary of the maverick independent film distributor, an unusual event for MOMA.

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“We’ve done retrospectives of only two independent companies, Janus Films, and before that Joseph E. Levine, in the early ‘60s, and both of those involved donations,” says MOMA film and video curator Larry Kardish, who organized the 23-film tribute. “We normally don’t do retrospectives of films that are not in our collection.”

But when it comes to Strand, very little has been normal, in either its style or the films it has released, including such out-there titles as “Latin Boys Go to Hell,” “Neon Bible,” “Totally F***ed Up” and “The Natural History of Parking Lots.”

Meanwhile, next month, the L.A.-based Laemmle theater chain will launch a three-month, weekend retrospective of Strand films; it begins Sept. 11 and runs through Dec. 19. “Jon and Marcus and Strand have a tremendous amount of artistic integrity and a respect for their audience,” notes Greg Laemmle, whose theater chain includes the Sunset Five, where a number of Strand films have premiered.

The kickoff reception at MOMA preceding the screening of an upcoming Swedish film from Strand, “Show Me Love,” was a magnet for some of the edgiest filmmakers in the country--both those who have done films for Strand and those who just support the company.

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“They’re the Grove Press of the millennium,” director John Waters says between drags of his cigarette. A Strand supporter, he has never made a movie with them. “Just say I’m a satisfied Strand customer. They make movies that I want to see.”

If Strand releases the kind of movies that Waters--creator of “Pink Flamingos” (1972) and “Serial Mom” (1994)--wants to see, you can be sure that the company’s library of films hasn’t been on the marquees of cineplexes in the heartland:

* “Wild Reeds” (1994), which established the reputation of French director Andre Techine and won best foreign film awards from both the Los Angeles and New York film critics, is set in a French boarding school and includes a love scene between two boys.

* A psychotic 50-year-old unemployed Parisian butcher is the lead character of the recent “I Stand Alone,” the acclaimed debut feature by director Gaspar Noe; the hub of the Istanbul-set “Steam” is a Turkish steam bath.

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* One of Strand’s biggest hits is the recently released “Edge of Seventeen,” a gay coming-of-age story set in America in the mid-'80s. And “Boys Life,” winner of 10 festival awards, is a trio of gay-themed shorts including one by Brian Sloan, who has gone on to direct “I Think I Do.”

“Strand has picked up the spirit of what Dan Talbot and New Yorker Film was doing in the ‘60s, when they picked up a lot of films from distributors that might not have been picked up otherwise,” says Loews Cineplex film buyer Tom Brueggemann. “And then they found a way with theaters to make them work, and not only distribute films that are a little bit more challenging, a little bit more risky . . . but they also seem to return money to the filmmakers.”

“The point is, Strand is a company to celebrate,” says Kardish, a veteran film historian. “It’s small, it’s maverick, it’s independent, and it’s in L.A. You know, on the East Coast we don’t think of risk-takers in Los Angeles. We think of the films coming out of the West Coast as tried and true. Strand is a neat exception. It makes Los Angeles a much more interesting city for film.”

The Definition of Indie Film Has Become Blurred

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For cinephiles, Strand is also a rallying cry for independents in a media marketplace become more corporatized, much like the dying stand-alone booksellers crowded out by the superstores. Says Newsweek film critic David Ansen: “The true film independents are really an endangered species. They have been marginalized. If indie means Miramax and Miramax means Disney, it’s not a true indie.

“Miramax inflated the kind of money that had to be spent, and created a two- or three-tiered class of independent movie. Strand somehow comes up with ‘Wild Reeds’ that sweeps the foreign critics’ award and turns a nice profit. With ‘Edge of Seventeen,’ with basically no marketing budget, they can outgross Paramount with ‘Get Real’ . . . and basically they are two versions of the same movie.”

The scale of economics is Lilliputian compared to the majors. Strand’s most successful release, “Wild Reed,” topped at about $1.2 million at the box office. Five more have hit the $1-million mark, including “Boys Life,” “Claire of the Moon” and the reissue of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film “Contempt.”

“We have this strange ceiling at a million dollars,” muses Strand’s Gerrans. “We’ve hit that ceiling half a dozen times and never seemed to climb above that.”

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Solvency has been predicated on the proverbial shoestring--keeping overhead rock-bottom to allow the company to acquire marginally commercial films. “They have sort of perfected the art of promoting a movie on zero budget,” Ansen says.

Strand has always been a family act. The company’s launch in 1989 relied on a $5,000 loan from Evelyn Hu, Marcus Hu’s sprightly mother, to acquire the rights to “Macho Dancer.” “And I’m still waiting to see the money,” she says with a laugh, standing beside her husband and daughter, all of whom flew in from San Francisco for the MOMA event.

Notes entertainment attorney John Sloss, whose own clientele includes hot young directors like Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater: “At Cannes, you’ll see Marcus and his mother running around, and they just have this tremendous enthusiasm.” Evelyn Hu also has watched, nonplused, every Strand release over the past decade; she’s also been very tolerant of her son’s openly gay lifestyle.

“When I was 20, my boyfriend moved in and lived with my parents and myself and they didn’t even bat an eye. It was all very open about that,” Marcus says.

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Hu and Gerrans have also launched the inevitable production arm, called Strand/New Oz. Their partner, and the division head, is Victor Syrmis, the flamboyant former entrepreneur who glided into film from diverse pursuits such as owning a chocolate factory. The aim is for “between two and four pictures a year, mostly co-productions,” according to Gerrans. The company just wrapped its first feature, “Innocence,” which was shot in Australia on a budget of $1.3 million in Australian dollars (roughly $850,000 in U.S. dollars), and is currently shooting the spoof “Psycho Beach Party” in Malibu. The $1.5-million film, which they describe as “ ‘60s ‘Gidget’ mixed with ‘Scream,’ ” has a screenplay by Charles Busch, the eclectic Broadway icon who penned “Sodom Vampire of Gomorrah” and the recently opened “Die! Mommy! Die!”

It’s just such niche programming that keeps Strand afloat and an industry darling. Fox Searchlight President Lindsay Law points out that “fewer and fewer companies are releasing the kinds of movies that Strand is releasing. . . . Most people have given up on reaching that small public; it’s enormously financially risky.”

Adds Liz Manne, senior vice president of programming at the Sundance Channel: “This is a really, really rough business, one of the toughest aspects of the entertainment industry food chain. Theatrical distributors tend to ebb and flow, anyone who makes it to the 10-year mark has a lot to be proud of.”

The message, says attorney Michael Donaldson who has been with Strand through the ups and downs for 10 years, “is that you can survive in Hollywood . . . without losing your integrity. You may lose your shirt, but you don’t have to lose your integrity.”

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“Look, anybody who could make a hit out of the film ‘Steam’ deserves a distribution award. It’s hardly ‘Boys in the Band,’ ” Waters says. “And it had quite a long run. They get films that many other people wouldn’t distribute, and make successes of them.”

CREDIT ONLY FOR PHOTO OF DEREK JACOBI


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