One film thinks big, one looks for its niche among fall influx of indies

Remember the emperor in "Amadeus" who complained there were "too many notes" in Mozart's music? After struggling for years to build an independent-film movement free of Hollywood domination, some participants are worrying that the campaign has succeeded too well - allowing too many movies into a marketplace that's not robust enough to accommodate them all.

If the gloomiest predictions come true, a handful of eagerly awaited "indies" may reach a significant number of theaters in coming seasons, but the rest will kill each other off by spreading audiences too thin. This could discourage new filmmakers from entering the field and hand yet another victory to Hollywood's power brokers.

The modern wave of indie filmmaking began in the 1960s, when John Cassavetes used his earnings as a Hollywood star to finance a series of highly personal productions still unsurpassed for integrity and originality.

A milestone came in 1989 when Steven Soderbergh's comedy "Sex, Lies, & Videotape" took the Cannes festival's top prize and an Oscar for best screenplay, becoming a box-office smash along the way.

One of its messages was that indies could make big money if launched and marketed right. If anyone missed the message on that occasion, they got it when "The Blair Witch Project" flew into theaters last year, brewing up the healthiest cost-to-profit ratio in American film history.

This sounds rosy until you talk with a practicing indie filmmaker like Bette Gordon, whose haunting "Luminous Motion" opened in theaters last spring. She fears indie production is proceeding too prolifically and haphazardly, creating a glut of pictures that today's fragmented marketplace - divided between theatrical films, video, and other media - simply can't support.

"There are more and more people making movies," she told me recently, "but we're almost at the point where there's too much product and not enough distributors and theaters that will show it. Critics go out on a limb and ask the audience to be more critical and engaged, but distributors and theater owners are scared they can't make their money back. So many films are made, and few of them see the light of day. Something has to give."

It's possible that more young talents will turn to the Internet or straight-to-video production, handing their limited share of the theatrical scene back to the big studios by default. The days have already passed when non-Hollywood offerings could expect indulgent reviews.

Two of this week's openings mark opposite ends of the indie spectrum.

Girlfight emerged from the midwinter Sundance Film Festival - like "Sex, Lies, & Videotape," which helped put Sundance on the cultural map - and gathered more advance momentum at other specialized events. Its theatrical debut was cannily delayed until autumn, allowing word-of-mouth buzz to build for months and positioning it as a "serious picture" with spirit and substance.

All of which means indie-conscious moviegoers are primed for "Girlfight." They'll find it delivers what its promotion promises: a touching plot about a teenager who uses prizefighting as an escape route from her working-class home, and a punchy performance by Michelle Rodriguez as the heroine.

They may find Karyn Kusama's filmmaking a touch on the conventional side, however, recalling other movies - even Hollywood ones - about troubled households and feisty kids. While the picture may score a knockout by attracting everyday audiences as well as indie buffs, there's a chance it will do disappointingly with both groups, appearing too traditional for the indie crowd yet too scruffy for multiplexes. Its progress will be instructive to watch.

At the other end of the scale is The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy, which follows the frequent indie practice of niche marketing - in this case, the sizable audience for gay-oriented stories made in a mainstream style.

In many respects, the movie is as old-fashioned as its subtitle, spinning the interwoven yarns of several lovelorn Los Angeles characters. The only twist is that its heroes are primarily gay men, played with varying degrees of charm by a mostly young cast presided over by the more seasoned John Mahoney, of TV's popular "Frasier" show.

As much as they'd like to attract general audiences, director Greg Berlanti and the other makers of "The Broken Hearts Club" will surely be content if they can dominate their chosen niche - unlike the "Girlfight" producers, who clearly hope for a demographic sweep.

'Girlfight,' rated R, contains violence and vulgar language. 'The Broken Hearts Club,' rated R, contains sex and vulgarity.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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