Where filmmakers run free

Times Staff Writer

At Cinema Libre, a small new film studio and production house in Canoga Park, the decor sets the counterculture tone. From beneath his ever-present baseball cap, muckraker Michael Moore grins down from a poster for his "Bowling for Columbine" documentary. Studio offices are named for film revolutionaries -- the production office for Costa-Gavras, the special effects suite for Jean-Luc Godard.

Carved out of a former medical clinic behind a mini-mall in the 8300 block of De Soto Avenue, Cinema Libre will make and distribute independent films, said its 42-year-old founder, Philippe Diaz. By independent, Diaz means movies that have attitude, take chances and reflect the vision of their creators, not the consensus of a focus group. In short, films longer on character than car chases. The studio's official mission: to be "a haven for filmmakers with views." One of its most radical tenets: The moviemaker will have final cut of his or her work.

If that sounds like a wine-induced manifesto scrawled on a cafe napkin, it's no wonder. A devout cinephile, the Parisian-born Diaz is as French as good brioche. A veteran director and screenwriter, Diaz has produced a dozen features in Europe and the U.S., among them 1986's "Mauvais Sang" (Bad Blood), winner of the Louis Delluc award for best French film and the first to star Juliette Binoche, and 1989's "The Bengali Night," which gave Hugh Grant his first leading role.

Opened in June, the 6,500-square-foot studio was launched with $1 million from European investors, much of it spent on current filmmaking technology. The plan is to produce five films a year, most with budgets of less than $2 million. Such tiny budgets are newly realistic thanks to digital technology that has made the quality of independent moviemaking soar and costs plummet, Diaz said.

Money is a major reason the studio is in the San Fernando Valley, short on cachet but rich with filmmaking expertise: "We liked the non-Hollywood ambience, and the cheap rent," said Beth Portello, Cinema Libre's head of marketing and business development.

Smaller independent studios and production houses like Killer Films and GreeneStreet Films have popped up in recent years, mostly in New York. But the Valley isn't the first place the movie business thinks of when it comes to independent film.

And for Diaz, that's just the point. He says the Valley location makes sense, both economically and philosophically: "We want to be different. Let's be elsewhere."

And sometimes elsewhere is the perfect place to be. Cinema Libre discovered its newest director at the Laemmle Fallbrook 7 theaters in West Hills, one of the Valley's rare venues for art and indie films. There, Diaz recently watched 31-year-old Asian American director Eric Byler do an unscheduled Q&A; after a screening of his "Charlotte Sometimes," nominated for two Independent Spirit awards.

Charmed by the movie, Diaz was also impressed with Byler's grasp of filmmaking and the deft way he interacted with the audience. His manager subsequently sent Byler's latest screenplay to Cinema Libre, and a deal was struck.

The studio will produce and Byler will direct "American Knees," his adaptation of a novel by Shawn Wong. It is one of four feature films in production at the fledgling studio.

Byler is thrilled with the prospect.

"I could tell right away their artistic sensibilities were perfect for producing 'American Knees,' " he said. "Their aim is to make films authored by filmmakers, not by committee."

Then there is the money. Byler made "Charlotte Sometimes" for just $20,000 -- "$13,000 from my parents, $5,000 from my uncles and $2,000 on my credit cards." His next film is budgeted at more than $1 million.

Noted a delighted Byler: "Instead of paying, I'll be paid."

Best of both worlds

Why do the founders of Cinema Libre think they can beat the odds and survive in the cutthroat indie marketplace? Independent studios have had the half-lives of fruit flies in recent years, either going under, as FilmFour and Next Wave Films did, or becoming boutique operations within major studios that are semi-independent at best.

Diaz argues that Cinema Libre offers the best of two very different worlds -- European-style reverence for the filmmaker's vision combined with American-style production savvy and freedom from government control. Unlike their American counterparts, European investors don't balk at giving filmmakers artistic control, Diaz said. In France, a director's right to cut his or her film is guaranteed by law.

While Diaz admits to bringing a European sensibility to filmmaking, he also understands the limits of European moviemaking, where government subsidy often means government interference: "Cinema is more free in America than it is in Europe," he said.

At the same time, the half-dozen filmmakers who started the Canoga Park studio both admire and are appalled by much Hollywood filmmaking. Diaz's own filmography includes producing "Heavy Metal 2000," a forgettable animated rock movie from Columbia Studios.

Diaz hopes Cinema Libre will appeal to both hungry newcomers and seasoned filmmakers disillusioned by the typical Hollywood experience.

He points to pioneering Chicano writer and director Luis Valdez. Despite the success of his 1987 film, "La Bamba," Valdez spent years trying to get projects greenlighted by major studios on artist Frida Kahlo and labor organizer Cesar Chavez. Neither has been made.

One of the first artists to sign with Cinema Libre, Valdez wrote and will direct "Mundo Mata," about brothers on opposing sides of Chavez's effort to organize California farm workers. Other studio projects include writer-director Neil Abramson's "Soldier Child," about a 9-year-old Ugandan boy forced to become a rebel soldier, and director Nicole Ballivan's "Sleeping on Stones," about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ties across the pond

Cinema Libre should benefit from its strong European ties, Diaz said. In recent years, European film production has been battered by the crash of the German stock market and the disappearance of television pre-sale financing. Diaz has been running an international film financing and distribution company -- Sceneries Europe -- with offices in Paris, London, Madrid, Rome and Tokyo. Now that the company has been absorbed by Cinema Libre, partner Philippe Lenglet will oversee the international operation.

Cinema Libre will seek the best possible distributors for its films, Diaz said, but it has the option of using its own distributing arm. And the studio's overseas relationships will help it identify promising foreign projects to co-produce and bring foreign investors on board, said Diaz, who is also exploring the creation of a cable channel for foreign films on American TV.

Having a mechanism for distribution may give Cinema Libre a Darwinian edge in today's tough indie scene. Independent film production is thriving, according to Dawn Hudson, executive director of IFP/LA. Finding a distributor is another matter.

"The state of independent film is exciting in terms of production," Hudson said, "and absolutely daunting in terms of distribution.... Smaller, riskier films that are not star-driven have a harder time than ever getting a toehold."

The indie spirit, she said, is to make the movies you love, even if they don't make millions: " 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' can't be your business plan," she said. "You have to be able to take some losses."

Because paring costs is key to survival, Diaz said the studio will encourage the use of digital technology whenever possible. To keep cash flowing in, the studio will discount and aggressively market its services and facilities. Filmmakers can one-stop shop at the studio, or they can rent the screening room for a single evening.

For Byler, Cinema Libre's approach is a refreshing departure from the Hollywood norm. He also trusts that the studio will deliver on its promise not to hijack his movie and turn it into something else -- as some big-name independent studios are said to do.

Asked if he has qualms about working with an unproven studio, Byler said: " 'Too good to be true' comes to mind. I don't want to get too excited yet."

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