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
That also means the number of independent releases are growing, as many distributors try to find the next The Blair Witch Project or Pulp Fiction. Exhibitor Relations currently tracks around 50 more independent films per year than it did five years ago.
"For major studio films, there might be some 150 films in a year," says Dergarabedian. "The other 300 might be the smaller independent films."
But it's not just money driving the growth of these upstart films. Many of the films made outside of the major studios are critical successes. Some of this year's Oscar nominations and winners came from independent films like Lions Gate Entertainment's Monster's Ball and In the Bedroom, which was picked up by Miramax Films after debuting at last year's Sundance Film Festival.
That notoriety is not lost on young filmmakers, who are trying to get noticed and make a name for themselves at the growing number of independent film festivals like Sundance or the recently launched Tribeca Film Festival. L.A. Film Festival director Raddon says his event has received some 2,500 feature film entries compared to 1,700 just two years ago.
Big Names, Big Notice
Getting noticed at these festivals is no small feat. Distributors want movies that are unique but commercially viable at the same time. Some filmmakers have been able to land big-name talent for their projects, which inevitably gets them more notice.
Keith Snyder, director of Emmett's Mark, which also premiered at Tribeca, was lucky enough to get Tim Roth, Gabriel Byrne and Scott Wolf from the Fox Network's Party of Five series in his film.
Snyder's movie, about a terminally ill man played by Wolf who hires someone to have him killed so he won't have to end his life suffering in pain, was inspired by a conversation he had with his father, who theorized once that JFK was assassinated in the same manner.
Even though he did not leave the festival with a lucrative distribution deal, he says the publicity and exposure stemming from his debut at the festival were a boost, especially in light of high-profile jurors like Kevin Spacey and Frances McDormand, who were both spotted at the screening of his film last Friday.
Of course, most of the attention on Snyder's movie focused on how he got such big names to star in his film. He says the secret was not connections, but simply sending the scripts to the actors' representatives.
"I just really spent a lot of time writing a script that I thought would be interesting," says Snyder. "All of the actors' representatives really responded to that and subsequently, the actors did. That's it."
Indeed, Snyder's father, who passed away two months ago, often ribbed his son about the time he was taking to write his script during the two years he worked on it. "My Dad was a big fan of telling me the story of how Sylvester Stallone wrote Rocky in three days," says Snyder. "It got a day shorter every time."
Struggling for Success
Snyder would not comment on how much it took to produce his film or how much he paid the actors, but he and his producers are in the process of selling the film for both overseas and domestic distribution.
"I'm confident it will get purchased, the question is at what level and for what market," he says. "All independent filmmakers want to get at least a limited theatrical release and tell our moms that they can see it at the local multiplex."
The LaPorta brothers will only say that One Man's Ceiling, which stars Robert LaPorta and his real-life wife, actress Alexa Fischer, cost as much as "a nice wedding with chicken and a cover band" to produce.
And while they also did not walk away from the festival with a prize or a juicy distribution deal, the exposure at the star-studded event was enough positive affirmation to keep them going for now.
"We just want to keep making films," says Richard. "That's the goal."