''Not made in Hollywood''
Cambridge, Mass. — Wanted: Filmmaker's apprentice. One-year job. Sixty-plus hours per week. No pay. - Notice on the bulletin board at the Boston Film and Video Foundation.
So this is the BIG TIME? Well, maybe just the big time.
There is a deafening silence where there ought to be the expensive sound of deals being made over the clink of china and silver at, say, the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge. Or how about just a good old-fashioned ''Roll 'em!''? A barely audible ''Print it!''?
Surely there are a few cameras lying around to conjure up images of plush movie-mogul offices, beach-type houses in which to escape the madding crowd, some well-heeled ''yes men''?
No, instead of stumbling over such icons of artistic success, one must avoid tripping over the plastic tricycle on the sidewalk and plunging through the rotting wooden step here in one of the less-than-Gucci neighborhoods in Cambridge and the greater-Boston area. It is the home of independent filmmaker Jan Egleson - not yet a name to draw gasps from hordes of moviegoers, but nonetheless a significant force in the moviemaking business.
Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss has dubbed filmmakers like Egleson ''the evidence that independent regional cinema is beginning to achieve the vitality and clout of America's burgeoning regional theater.'' So far, though, it is the titles of the films, rather than their makers, which are the better known: ''Harlan County, USA,'' ''Best Boy,'' ''Heartland,'' ''Gal Young 'Un,'' ''Northern Lights,'' ''The Return of the Secaucus Seven,'' and ''Chan is Missing ,'' among others.
Far from the Hollywood hills, these films spring to life in the hands of Egleson and his fellow filmmakers. They work without stars, without big budgets, without advertising, and essentially without studios. They make films where they live, because they have a need to.
They are also beginning to make a name for themselves. Long considered unworthy of mass circulation by distributors, independent films are beginning to attract distributors' attention. European television stations, independent distributors, suppliers of cable-TV programming, and even some Hollywood studios are starting to cast semi-hungry glances their way. At the fourth Annual Independent Feature Film Market held in New York last October, over 100 buyers showed up - a 50 percent increase over the year before. Critics and observers are now calling the independents among the most significant new forces in American filmmaking.
''These films are made because somebody had to make them,'' said Roger Ebert, Pulitzer-prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times: ''not because somebody wanted to make money. That's important, and it's directly opposite to what the major studios do. Anytime you can get ideas on film not filtered through commercial sensibilities, that's good.'' Film Comment magazine described the group as ''emerging from around the country to offer an alternative to Hollywood. (Hollywood) is not being challenged by the independents - they are merely filling an obvious void created by the industry.''
Deac Rossell, former film critic and now director of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts cinema series, is lolling in his office, stabbing the air with his fingers, and talking about what he loves best - offbeat, independent, specialized films. Resplendent in rumpled safari jacket, he tosses out filmmaking-chronology tidbits like bait.
''From the end of World War I to 1947 there was a vertical monopoly on filmmaking in America. The Hollywood studios owned the theaters, so essentially everything came from MGM. This was not true in Europe, India, and Brazil. In fact, what we in America call 'foreign' films are really their independent films. But in the US, we've never had anything to challenge the studios - that is, until now. The new independents are really the first time in the history of US filmmaking that there has been any real alternative to Hollywood.''
According to Rossell and other observers, the independent movement sprang up during the '60s, when alternative cinema - foreign and domestic - was just coming into vogue. With the concurrent development of new, more portable cameras and sound equipment, the age of ''cinema verite'' (literally, ''film truth'') dawned, changing the look and feel of film forever.
''Suddenly, filmmaking wasn't a secret anymore,'' continues Rossell. ''Kids literally grew up with films and they were saying, 'Hey, I can make a movie, too.' And they were right.'' Vincent Canby, the New York Times chief film critic , put it another way: ''Truth, which had been eluding mankind for several millenia, was now at hand. All one had to do was go out and point a camera at it.''
Many of the young new filmmakers started out making political documentaries on the Vietnam war. But since then they have splintered and fragmented as their interests and techniques have changed and improved. Today, independents, most of them now in their 30s, make everything from full-length features to animated shorts. And while their films rarely play in first-run theaters, they have garnered a host of awards and a loyal following at festivals, college campuses, and art houses.
While the subjects and locales of the films now range all over the map - political parties in Minnesota, mine workers in Appalachia, college graduates in New Hampshire - several common threads unite the moviemakers: a passionate belief in the artistic merit of everyday characters and places, and an equally strong desire to retain financial and artistic control of their product.
A number of independent filmmakers happen to live in the Boston area. Reasons for that are as common as clapboard triple-deckers here. ''Boston has always been the conceptual center for New England,'' says Austin Lamont, a former filmmaker who is now a Boston-based fund-raiser and writer on film. ''It is also an educational center, and a lot of schools - namely Boston University and MIT - now have film and video departments. Also, there are a fair number of industrial companies that offer many more jobs than the commercial film market. And finally , Boston has one of the biggest and broadest media centers - Boston Film and Video Foundation - in the country. That is of immeasurable help to local filmmakers.''
If you trip over an architect in Boston, the old saw goes, you fall on a filmmaker. Chances are that filmmaker is up to his ears in debt, worrying about being invited to the right film festivals, rewriting a foundation grant proposal , getting his film subtitled in German for foreign TV sales, and hounding his distributor - all the while trying to figure out how to launch his second film. This is the life of a movie director?
''First of all, you only embark on this if you're nuts, because you're always going to go into debt, no matter what.'' Jan Egleson is explaining the subtle motivations of a free-lance filmmaker. In blue jeans and a beard that resembles an afterthought, he looks like a construction worker with a master's degree from Harvard. Smart, but working outside the establishment.
As in any free-lance activity, going against the establishment has largely meant going uphill. And unlike other free-lance artists, musicians, actors, and dancers, filmmakers do not enjoy the protection of a union. For them, nothing, including their own salary, is guaranteed. Yet Egleson is fortunate: he has two films under his belt - ''Billy in the Lowlands'' and ''The Dark End of the Street'' - both of which received favorable reviews. ''Billy in the Lowlands'' also won a local Emmy. But even with his track record, Egleson has not escaped the two pitfalls of independent filmaking: getting funding and getting distributed.
''Our first film took about two years to make, and then it took another three years to get seen. Eventually we sold it to public television and it won a local Emmy. So we thought, 'Oh well, sure, now we'll be able to get money.' And, of course, it was no easier whatsoever. When we finally made our second film, Richard Corliss reviewed it in Time. He said it was a great film and why isn't anybody distributing this film? Time magazine, you think that oughta help. No. The economics are simply against it. It's hard, because you think, 'I've done a good job,' but the economics are simply against it.
''Ultimately, that's the problem: distribution. It's always been the problem. Distributors say: 'OK, great, you made a wonderful film. That's great. But it's going to cost a million dollars to market it - buying prints, advertising. And we have to ask ourselves: ''Is it going to gross the $5 million needed to return our $1 million investment? No. No, it's not.'' ' And that's what happens time after time.''
Why is independent film distribution such a tough nut to crack? The problem seems to be - as so many are in the celluloid industry - one of image. Traditionally and necessarily, the films have been low budget; and ''most people think low budget means inferior,'' says one observer. With the cable-TV market burgeoning, however, several of the big studios - Universal, Columbia, and 20th Century-Fox - have created divisions specifically to snatch up the most marketable independent films, foreign and domestic. What they can't profitably market in theaters, they sell to pay television.
Some observers, while applauding this latest maneuver, think it is still just a drop in the bucket. Jeff Dowd, film producer and marketing expert for the Utah-based Sundance Institute, a three-year-old forum for independent filmmakers , says three changes must occur before there will be a substantial market for independent feature films:
''First of all, direct sales to cable TV has to open up a lot more. Secondly, we need a big increase in the number of multiplex film houses, such as the 14 -theater cineplex in Los Angeles, to cut overhead. And finally, the independents themselves have to start telling more significant stories. For all their richness and variety, most of them seem to have a fatal flaw that hinders their marketability.''
Not surprisingly, there are voices of dissent.''See, I am not convinced of what everyone says about independents - that they're not commercially viable. Independent films offer an alternative to Hollywood. But they also offer an alternative voice that doesn't get expressed very often.'' Christine Dall, writer, director, and producer of films along with her husband, Randall Conrad, is talking, sitting in her living room, getting incensed about film while her cat winds its black body around a vase of dying roses. It's hard to tell if she is raising her voice out of passion or because someone in the next room is editing a film that sounds, when run backward, like small pigs or squirrels squealing.
''I don't see us as trying to teach people anything with our films. I think that a lot of people out there are living lives that are different than what's presented in the media. People aren't leading glamorous, sexy, adventurous lives. People are leading complicated, interesting lives. And I think they would like to see this expressed. I think they'll pay to see this kind of life on the screen - the lives of real people.''
Their film, the award-winning ''The Dozens,'' chronicles the struggle of a young woman to establish herself as a wage-earner and mother when she's an unskilled 21-year-old former check forger out on parole. ''Brilliant,'' trumpeted the Boston Globe. ''It is powerful,'' proclaimed the New York Times. While all this is a tremendous boost to the filmmaking duo, what seems to matter most is that the film expresses each of their concerns - Dall's interest in women's issues and Conrad's concern with prison life. For them, filmmaking is simply a matter of conscience - an attitude they feel will find its own audience.
''There is a significant percentage - 6 or 8 percent of the filmgoing populace - that has declared a preference for independent features,'' says Conrad from the other end of the couch. ''Those people will eventually find their way to our film.''
''The best comment we get,'' Dall chimes in, ''is when people come up to us and say, 'We saw your film and talked about it for three hours.' Or, 'I thought about your film all week.' That's terrific because it's really stimulated them, really reached them. That's what I want to do, and it makes all the years and years worthwhile.''