"We’re not altruistic," says Jonathan Sehring, IFC Films president, "although somebody said at Cannes, ‘Oh, you guys are the one patron saint now of financing independent films, because there’s not a lot of equity out there without strings attached.’ Well, we have strings, if you want to call them strings, but they’re supposed to be as filmmaker friendly as possible."
Though too raucous to be saintly (let’s remember, they put their money on Divine Trash), the Independent Film Channel has become a bright shining star in the firmament since launching IFC Films in March 1997. This was an ambitious move for a cable company, for it was not about creating TV movies, but financing dramatic features specifically for the theatrical market.
IFC Films comprises two parts: IFC Productions, intended to cofinance or fully fund three to five projects per year in the $1-$4 million range, and Next Wave Films, set up to provide finishing funds and other assistance to three to six low-budget features per year. While Next Wave targets up-and-coming filmmakers [see The Independent, July 1997 and June 1999], IFC Productions was designed to work with established directors, like those on its board of advisors–Steven Soderbergh, Tim Robbins, the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and Jodie Foster, among others. Since last year, IFC Productions has expanded its mandate to include first-timers who have seasoned producers attached.
So far, IFC Productions has kept pace with its ambitions. Its slate [see sidebar for roster of IFC Production films] includes one film released (John Sayles’ Men with Guns); three debuting this fall (Errol Morris’ Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., Tom Gilroy’s Spring Forward; and Kim Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry); two that began production in June (Happy Accidents, by Brad Anderson; and Girl Fight, by John Sayles protege Karyn Kusama); and two new projects to be announced later this year. (There was one more film on their slate, Victor Nunez’s The Professor’s Wife, but that recently lost a key financier and has been put on hold, though IFC intends to stick with the project.)
When IFC commits, it does so whole-heartedly. This means they’ll often buy a director’s earlier work, if they haven’t already. ("It makes a lot of sense programming-wise, and there’s promotion and good will with the filmmaker," says Sehring.) But their commitment doesn’t fence people in. In other words, no multi-picture contracts. "We’re not obligating people to do their next projects for us," explains Sehring. "But hopefully their experience will be such that they’ll come back. Maybe that’s a bit naive on our part, but we’re really trying to make it as friendly an environment as possible."
In June, Sehring and Caroline Kaplan, vice president of film and program development for IFC Films, sat down with The Independent to discuss IFC Production’s goals and track record, and flesh out some details on their finished films.
What was IFC’s impetus for financing movies for the theatrical market? And how did you justify that to your bosses?
Sehring: It’s funny, our bosses came to us and told us that’s what they wanted. I’d been the head of Bravo/IFC programming and Caroline was head of development. In starting to do original programming for IFC, we’d done a project with Tim Robbins and Adam Simon on Sam Fuller, The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera. It received a lot of critical acclaim and enjoyed success in terms of festivals. Then we had the Spalding Gray project, Gray’s Anatomy, sitting at the company; it was not intended for theatrical release when we got involved. Caroline is good friends with Steven Soderbergh and mentioned that we were developing this project with Spalding and couldn’t find a director. Steven said, "Oh, I’d love to direct." Based on the success of Gray’s Anatomy, which was picked up by Fox Lorber for theatrical, the company came to us and said, "Boy, you guys know what you’re doing; we want you to be in the feature film production business." A lot of projects were coming our way from our advisory board, and it just seemed like the logical next step was to begin to finance films.
What rights does IFC seek?
Sehring: The way we set the company up is not unlike American Playhouse in terms of the spirit, but it’s a bit different. We’re not in the business to make films for television. So we differ from what Showtime does or HBO does or really any other cable television network that’s investing in films. We’re making these films for the theatrical marketplace. What we’re looking for in exchange for our investment is: we have an equity position in the pictures; we also receive the first post pay-television window; and then, after the initial distribution agreements expire, the exploitation rights revert to IFC Films.
Our company is interested in content. And rather than let somebody else control library rights, our company is interested in building a film library. We want to build the biggest and best film library in the world. Some of that we are supplementing through acquisitions, some of that is through production; we’ve talked about entering the distribution business and may do that as well.
What do filmmakers get with you two on board as executive producers? What’s your level of involvement?
Kaplan: During production, we don’t get too involved. We just let the filmmakers know we’re here; we provide a safe haven. In post, we’re involved in the screening process and in helping strategize [festivals and distribution].
Sehring: We’ve never asked to have creative input; we’ve been asked, on almost every picture. We have asked for another draft of a script and given comments before we’ve committed to a script, but we’ve never said, ‘Change this and change that.’ The one thing I will say is that Caroline provides more emotional support to the filmmakers and producers than she would probably like to admit.
What’s the synergy between IFC Productions, IFC, and Bravo?
Sehring: IFC Productions projects will air both on IFC [20 million homes reached] and IFC Fridays on Bravo [39 million].
Kaplan: We do electronic press kits–short and long. [Producer] Michael Solomon went to Chiapas, Mexico, with John Sayles, to Auschwitz with Errol Morris, and to New Jersey with Tom Gilroy shooting material for the EPKs. They’ll run on IFC, Bravo, and the appropriate sister networks, so we have an unbelievable amount of distribution in the aggregate sum. [Parent company Cablevision also owns American Movie Classics, Romance Classics, MSG Network, and World Cinema, among others.]
For instance, the Men with Guns EPK aired during its theatrical release. When the film finally airs on IFC/Bravo, we’ll have this great footage of John directing his actors. Also, Bravo is in Latin America as well, and the lead actor, Federico Luppi, is an enormous star in Argentina and throughout Latin America. That footage is really valuable to us, just to create additional material for our networks down there.
Sehring: There’s also cross promotion through our monthly series At the Angelika. And we talk with John Pierson [producer of IFC’s Split Screen series]. Pierson aired a segment from Divine Trash [Steve Yaeger’s documentary on John Water’s Pink Flamingos] and encouraged Caroline to meet with Steve during the Independent Feature Film Market. Steve needed finishing money for Divine Trash. We looked at it, and it was very tough. Pink Flamingos is tough for the network, and Divine Trash had every outtake that John Waters likes to refer to as his "money shots." So to be able to put that on the network was, you know . . . . But we supported Steve and gave him money to finish that. On top of that, we also gave him money to do an entire retrospective of John’s work, called Bad Taste. All that was an outgrowth of Split Screen.
What’s the synergy with the larger Cablevision system?
Sehring: This is the reason why Miramax and others at one time looked to buy us. Between Bravo and IFC, we have so many key demographics in terms of movie-goers. And our parent company owns the Clearview theater chain in the New York area: Clearview is in the suburbs of New Jersey, Long Island, and Connecticut and controls probably every screen that plays arthouse films. In Manhattan, they control those theaters that Loews had divested themselves of [including the Zeigfeld, Beekman, Waverly, Metro, and Chelsea theaters, among others]. They plan to create an arthouse track. And Clearview has committed [to IFC’s productions]; they want to show every single picture we finance. With Cablevision’s presence in the New York market in so many different ways, we have many options to launch and promote a picture in this market.
There’s an appetite in our company to make sure we are covering all areas, from traditional finishing fund, to feature film financing, to digital film. Clearview is going to be putting digital projectors in their theaters. And we’re launching a new digital strand on broadband.
Cablevision’s appetite for film financing is huge. When he saw Men with Guns, [Cablevision founder and chair] Chuck Dolan said to me, "Why aren’t we doing 30 a year?" The projected number of features was originally based on the amount of money the company was giving us. They have [since] given us more money and said if there are other projects you want to do, do them. I think it’s all going to be based on the quality of the projects that come our way.
Are you open to people sending scripts?
Sehring: It depends who’s sending it. If it is a first-time filmmaker, it’s got to be a great script with a good cast attached and a good producer. We’ll probably do only one to two projects like that a year.
Kaplan: We’re looking for established directors (someone who has made at least two films that have played the festival circuit or gotten a release) or seasoned producers. I’d prefer queries to come in the form of a fax, saying what the film is, who’s the producer, who’s the director, any attachments, a general synopsis, how far along it is, and what’s the budget. And then we’ll request a script.
Caroline Kaplan, Bravo Networks, 111 Stewart Avenue, Bethpage, New York 11714; fax: (516) 803-4506.