It was nine years ago that brothers Richard and Robert LaPorta came up with an idea for a movie about a frustrated architect struggling with a creatively stifling boss, a wife who's ready to have children and a noisy upstairs neighbor with a penchant for cranking rock music at full blast.
Armed with a screenplay, they tried to drum up financial support for the project over the years, but there were no takers.
"We didn't have any real game plan; just trial and error and meeting with people," says Richard. "It didn't seem like there would be any savior."
Like the LaPortas, many young, unknown filmmakers trying to get started in the world of independent film face a long, tough battle raising enough money to make a movie, and an even tougher competitive environment once the film is completed. With the proliferation of digital technology and a growing number of budding filmmakers trying to get noticed, sticking out from the crowd to get funding and attention has become a difficult task, but one that can bring enormous rewards.
Quick, Sell the Nova!
Eventually, Richard, a 35-year old Chicago-based filmmaker, had to sell a 1967 Chevy Nova that had belonged to his grandfather to get enough money to produce a short film based on a scene in the script.
Called Man and Wife in Bed, the film was shown at the Telluride film festival in 1997 and generated enough positive attention from festival-goers that the brothers decided that they were on the right track. Though the praise was welcome, it didn't translate into cash.
Then in 1998, the critically acclaimed Danish film The Celebration, which was filmed using digital cameras, gave Robert an idea. If they made their movie using much-cheaper digital technology and equipment, the cost of production would be much lower than using film.
Robert convinced Richard to give it a try, and the two were able to drum up enough money from friends and family to get the movie made on digital. Completed last year, One Man's Ceiling debuted at New York's Tribeca Film Festival two weeks ago.
"The paradigm of how you get there has changed," says Richard Raddon, director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, of today's young filmmakers. "In the '70s they made short films at USC, sent them to the studio and got noticed. Now, for somebody to go from an unknown to getting a feature film off the ground, you actually have to make an independent film."
For those who do succeed, the rewards can be very lucrative. Though independent films grossed only around $523 million of the $8.35 billion total in box office earnings last year, they can be extremely profitable, according to L.A.-based box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.
Many independent films cost less than $5 million and have little or no marketing budgets, so they don't need to have $100 million opening weekends to turn a profit. Perhaps the most well-known success was The Blair Witch Project, the smash hit distributed by Artisan Entertainment in 1999 which grossed more than $140 million in the theaters, making it the most profitable film ever in terms of return on investment.
So while multi-million dollar movie blockbusters like Spiderman and Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones still invade theaters every summer, smaller, niche movies are gaining importance as well.
"Generally speaking these are not big blockbuster firms, but in their own right they are successes," says Exhibitor Relations president Paul Dergarabedian.
A Hit With the Critics