IFC turns homes into art houses

More and more these days, television is proving to be a kind of savior to the small motion picture with the eccentric viewpoint. Zone in on The Independent Film Channel (IFC) and you reap most of the benefits of a film festival.

The IFC features pictures that may have played only a week on your local art screen or never played anywhere but in film festivals: Steven Cantor's documentary "Crossover" or Mark Kitchell's "Berkley in the Sixties."

There's the art house hits, too, of course – "Buena Vista Social Club" and "The Winslow Boy."

Observers say the channel offers viewers who don't live on either coast a chance to see independent films. "Here in Boston, we have a large number of independent movie houses" says Cathy Perron, professor and director of the Television Program at Boston University. "But if you live in Topeka, you don't."

Bravo executive Kathleen Dore spun off IFC in 1994, when she and her fellows began to see a growth in public interest in independents like "The Piano" and "Pulp Fiction."

Bravo had presented independent films, but as the indie movement began to burgeon along with cable, a channel devoted to the movement felt right.

"There was a niche here that was distinct from the arts programming we were running on Bravo," says Ms. Dore. "We did it because I felt we could both expand the audience for independent film in general and expand the opportunities to get good films made and shown."

These typically aren't films that come to the South or the Midwest, and they are not available widely in video stores.

There are still some markets that are not served by the IFC. But there are at least 28 million subscribers all over the country now and the network is growing.

Dr. Perron says that what's interesting about the IFC is that they are being sampled by both film savvy viewers and people who would not ordinarily tune into this niche programming. "While they're sitting there surfing ... they're stopping, and it may create a whole new appetite for something they didn't even know they were interested in."

In 1996, IFC moved into the filmmaking business with "Men With Guns," by John Sayles. They put their money into films that had budgets under $5 million because they felt those needed the most help in getting financing, says Dore.

At first, they worked with established indie filmmakers – filmmakers who could get theatrical releases because of their track records. And the third part of the model was to allow filmmakers complete creative control. The IFC Advisory Board includes first-rate directors such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Tim Robbins, and Jodie Foster.

IFC also produces and distributes films for theatrical release. Critically acclaimed features from previous years include Kimberly Peirce's Oscar-winning "Boy's Don't Cry," Maggie Greenwald's "Songcatcher," and Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding." In effect, IFC Productions is supplying programming for later broadcast on its channel.

It makes so much sense, supporters of the channel say. It takes $5 million to make a single episode of most TV dramas, where the same money could be better spent on real movies made by genuine artists. John Sayles is currently working on an IFC feature, "Casa De Los Babys."

"Boys Don't Cry" was underwritten by IFC, but then sold to Fox Searchlight for distribution. Then two years ago, IFC took some of the films they were producing and started distributing them, too. IFC expanded the business even further by acquiring films they had not underwritten like two of this year's independent hits, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien," for distribution.

The executives saw that there was an advantage to producing and distributing well-made low-budget films. As the technology of television evolves – video on demand and other new technologies – IFC owns the rights to these films.

"We really have created a new paradigm for a television network," says Dore.

******

Curling up with a good mystery in an air-conditioned room on a hot day is a fine summer relaxation. Even better when one is curled around a really good mystery such as Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (PBS, July 22-Aug. 12).

Four fresh adventures of the real-life model for Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Joseph Bell (played with distinguished steel by Ian Richardson). The writer, Arthur Conan Doyle (aka, Watson) is sharper than his own literary version. He's also played by the devilishly handsome Charles Edwards.

In the first mystery, as young Dr. Doyle is setting up his practice, a young lady with a mysterious hallucination comes for a consultation. She thinks she sees a hooded cyclist following her home each night down a lonely stretch of woods. But is he a hallucination or something scarier? Doyle and Bell follow the clues.

The 19th-century setting, the fog, and the dignity of the investigators all makes for a splendid atmospheric mystery. Bell and Doyle's mentor-protégé relationship is at once poignant and admirable.

• Staff writer Lisa Leigh Parney contributed to this article.

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