The DGA Independent Directors Committee (IDC) held its annual member gathering on September 25 for a screening of committee member George Hickenlooper's new documentary, Mayor of the Sunset Strip. The evening included a pre-screening reception where members discussed the challenges of independent film distribution. A Q&A with Hickenlooper and IDC member Jamie Babbit followed the screening.
Committee member Mary Lambert's opening remarks reflected the optimism and community that has always marked the IDC's approach. "I love tonight and I love this committee because it gives me a chance to step back from my poor old self and think about the macrocosm — the film industry and who we are. We're a force. And we have power if we bring our voices together."
After noting such DGA accomplishments as the Low Budget Agreements, the Director's Finders Series and the Under the Influence Series, Lambert turned the podium over to IDC Chair Stephen Gyllenhaal, who talked about their newest initiative — a think tank devoted to out-of-the-box thinking about innovative modes of independent film distribution.
Gyllenhaal briefed the group on recent meetings between IDC members and executives from NATO (National Association of Theater Owners), Showtime, Yahoo, Landmark Theaters and Digital Cinema Services, Visionbox and others.
One of the key messages emerging from these sessions, Gyllenhaal said, was the importance of indie directors becoming entrepreneurs as well as filmmakers. "We have to figure out when we're making the film, what our core audience is, where to get to them and how," reported Gyllenhaal. All of which is currently possible. Yahoo, for instance, has the capability to target a film's appropriate demographic, advertise the film to that group and direct them to their nearest theatrical showing, services they already render for the larger studios.
Think tank "experts" also encouraged independent filmmakers to think globally. It may be true that only a relatively small percentage of the American viewing audience is interested in independent film. But when you add to that similar percentages in England, France, India, Japan, etc., the potential for audiences — and profits — is significant.
Gyllenhaal discussed other ideas proposed during the sessions, including corporate sponsorship of films or film services, and digital saloons. He added that while previous panels on these topics have often inspired "doom and gloom," what has unfolded in the new think tank is "a growing sense of optimism. There is slowly emerging — through new technologies, globalization and other areas — the possibility you'll be able to make independent film and actually live a life at the same time." The dream to become "independent filmmakers, as opposed to dependent filmmakers," can indeed become a reality.
Next on the agenda was Hickenlooper's Mayor of the Sunset Strip, which premiered at the IFP/Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and was one of only five American films selected for this year's New York Film Festival. It ultimately sold for $1.3 million, the second-highest selling documentary of all time (Bowling for Columbine is the highest).
A spirited Q&A with Jamie Babbit (But I'm a Cheerleader) followed the screening. "I've seen this movie three times. I just love it because there was so much more to it than I could have imagined," she enthused. Mayor examines the life of club impresario and L.A. KROQ DJ (and according to Hickenlooper, "unsung hero of pop music") Rodney Bingenheimer. The film is ultimately a colorful meditation on our culture's fascination with celebrity.
Babbit asked what drove Hickenlooper to create this film. "Rodney reminded me of myself and why I came to Hollywood," he replied. "I wanted to be a filmmaker of course, but naturally, we're all attracted to the glamour, to this phenomenon of celebrity and fame.
"Our culture is so fragmented — with the breakdown of the nuclear family," he continued. "We fill that gap with celebrity — it's more popular than ever. Rodney was so obsessed with fame. I thought if I could make him a metaphor for Western culture, without being condescending to his life, then I could make a really strong documentary."
With an early 2004 release date, Mayor will undoubtedly join the current wave of successful documentaries like Bowling for Columbine, Spellbound and Capturing the Friedmans. "Documentaries are doing well now. They are really filling a void," Hickenlooper noted. "With few quality dramas being released at the studio level, there's an appetite for real stories. I'm happy the movie exists."
"Me too," agreed Babbit. "I think we all are."