Indie spirit at Showtime

Special to The Times

The cable channel Showtime is throwing itself a party at the Sundance Film Festival Monday night. Penciled in to attend are, among others, Salma Hayek, Nick Nolte, James Woods, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Stanley Tucci, Daryl Hannah, Kyle Mac- Lachlan, Claire Forlani, Ernest Dickerson and Frank Pierson -- a mix of new Hollywood, old Hollywood and the independent film world.

They are gathering here for good reason, to celebrate a Showtime record of five films at the festival: Dan Klores and Ron Berger's "The Boys of 2nd Street Park," Dickerson's "Good Fences," Hayek's "The Maldonado Miracle," Michael Burke's "The Mudge Boy" and Pierson's "Soldier's Girl."

Asked if this year's presence at Sundance is an omen of festivals to come -- normally they have one or two films here -- Showtime president of programming Jerry Offsay says, "I'd love to say that." He can't, of course, no more than any other programmer can. But he can promise an expanding slate of Sundance-type films with the establishment of a new Showtime filmmaking entity known in-house as 6 Figure Films, which, as the name suggests, will produce films costing less than $1 million.

"The Mudge Boy," made for $800,000 and in the dramatic competition, is the first of these to appear at the festival. (The cable network made four such films eligible for this year's festival and will make eight to 10 for next year.) The other Showtime films here are either acquisitions (the documentary "The Boys of 2nd Street Park") or products of its traditional filmmaking, with budgets up to $6 million.

What separates 6 Figure Films from these projects, aside from the budgets, is that they are made to be theatrical ventures rather than made-for-TV movies. In other words, Showtime has become an art-house studio, and it's channeling Sundance films (as it happens, it also owns the Sundance Channel).

For years, Showtime has positioned itself as an alternative to rival HBO by offering some of its filmmakers the chance to sell their films theatrically. Usually they're given a window -- say 60 to 90 days -- to interest a distributor. If they sell, Showtime makes a modest profit and airs them after the theatrical release. If they don't, the cable channel presents them first.

HBO, on the other hand, has traditionally insisted that it screen first the movies it produces or picks up, which of course makes a theatrical release unlikely (though it made an exception with last year's Sundance audience award winner, "Real Women Have Curves," and will continue to do so on a select basis). HBO has made and continues to make the argument that an art-house film will receive a far bigger audience on TV than it ever will in theaters.

This is a good point, but many filmmakers don't want to hear it. So by not telling them what they don't want to hear, Showtime has been able to lure filmmakers and material that they might not otherwise see. But this strategy comes at a price. Such films cost $250,000 more right off the bat because they are treated as theatrical films contractually. (The directors and actors are paid more, and editors get 10 weeks to put the film together rather than the usual four allotted for movies made for TV.)

In the past, Showtime has been able to defray up to 50% of the budgets on these films by selling the rights overseas. Then, if a domestic art-house distributor was willing to shell out the other half, plus an additional amount (totaling in the $3-million to $4-million range), Showtime would sell theatrical rights to the picture. In practice that was rare, and it's become increasingly so as foreign distributors have pulled back and Showtime's share of the cost of these films has increased.

"If you make an art-house movie, there's a lid on how much [distributors] want to pay," Offsay says. He says it's about $1 million and adds that he turns down low-seven-figure offers because they don't meet the costs of making the films. Which is why 6 Figure Films works nicely.

This year, "Soldier's Girl" is the only real representative at the festival of the traditional bigger-budget approach. "The Maldonado Miracle" won't be for sale, nor will "Good Fences" or "The Boys of 2nd Street Park."

Hayek didn't like the "Maldonado" script, but after finishing "Frida," she decided to go for it.

"They came to me, a first-time director, with a script they were ready to shoot, and I was asking for 95% changes, and they said yes," says Hayek, who subsequently sold a series idea to Showtime. "Normally they shoot in Canada. They let me shoot in Utah. They had a lot of trust in me. They really inspired me."

Showtime gave Burke, director of "The Mudge Boy," an even freer hand, since there wasn't as much money at stake. Burke says getting a shot at theatrical distribution was one reason he went with Showtime.

This is the sort of thinking Offsay is counting on. In addition to being attracted to the low risk and potentially high profile associated with the art-house business -- which the Independent Film Channel has been exploiting successfully for several years -- he says he set up the 6 Figure Films division because he kept having to pass on scripts he liked but that didn't merit a big budget ("Igby Goes Down" was one such project).

He hopes these kinds of films will make Showtime money and also help forge talent relationships, even as the company scales back on bigger-budget films. To that end, he's trolling for talent and material at such outfits as Killer Films and Hart Sharp Entertainment, as well as the Sundance screenwriting and directing labs, where "The Mudge Boy" originated.

"One big sale for one of these movies pays for the whole slate," says Robert Kessel, of Hart Sharp, citing the $5 million Miramax paid for the Indigent Film "Tadpole" at last year's festival.

Offsay says that "my job description is to make people feel like they're missing something if they don't have Showtime."

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