Solondz Fares Well; Wellspring Gushes for Palindromes

Director

Todd Solondz has once again found safe haven in New York City. One of American independent film’s most polarizing figures has sold North American rights to Palindromes, his newest and perhaps most controversial film, to Wellspring, a Manhattan-based company, for a mid-to-low six-figure sum. The movie stars Ellen Barkin and landed prime forthcoming Friday- and Saturday-night slots at this year’s New York Film Festival. Wellspring is planning a spring release.

For Mr. Solondz, the sale represents an escape of sorts from the studio system. Universal refused to let October Films, then its subsidiary, distribute his 1998 film Happiness,which had aprominentstory line about pedophilia (asdoes Palindromes). New Line subsidiary Fine Line tried to force the director to edit a graphic interracial sex scene in 2001’s Storytelling to head off an NC-17 rating (he opted to insert unsightly red boxes instead). Neither Mr. Solondz nor hisrepresentative, Bart Walker, could be reached to comment on the acquisition of Palindromes, but in a statement distributed by Wellspring, Mr. Solondz said: “I am so happy to be working with such smart, hard-working, and nice people—and also because they always distribute my favorite movies.”

The deal is a clear indication that this scrappy company, headed by two former rivals—head of distribution Ryan Werner, 30, and acquisitions executive Marie Therese Guirgis, 32—is an emerging force in New York independent film (it also probably didn’t hurt that Ms. Guirgis’ brother, playwright and actor Stephen Adly-Guirgis, plays the part of a truck driver in Palindromes).

Founded in 1994 by a media executive named Al Cattabiani, Wellspring originally produced health and wellness videos. Winstar New Media bought the company in 1998 and later merged it with Fox Lorber Associates, a home-video company with a significant library of film classics, under the name Winstar TV and Video, with Mr. Cattabiani at its helm. Winstar Communications filed for Chapter 11 in 2001, but Mr. Cattabiani rescued the TV and video division with the help of private investors, renaming it Wellspring Media.

In February of this year, the Las Vegas investment group American Vantage bought Wellspring from Mr. Cattabiani for a reported $8 million, vowing to transform the company into a significant indie player. Their first hire was Mr. Werner, a film-world journeyman poached from Palm Pictures whose résumé includes stints at the now-defunct Shooting Gallery and the Independent Film Project. American Vantage’s goal, like so many others before them: To create a mini-Miramax (a pre-turn-of-the-century Miramax, that is). “I’ve had a sense for a while, the godfather of this business, Harvey [Weinstein], was going in a different direction—and that you could just sense a loss of momentum at a place like Miramax for this kind of type of cutting-edge independent film,” said American Vantage Media’s C.E.O., Stephen Bannon, who speaks with Mr. Werner several times a day.

But the new venture was largely unknown outside of the cozy (some might say incestuous) independent-film community, until it took on the task of distributing Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, a.k.a. the Chloë Sevigny blow-job movie, last August. In April, Wellspring had the foresight to acquire Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, the first-ever feature-length film to be made on a home computer—a hit with the press at Sundance but little-seen by distributors. Mr. Werner paid what he said was a modest amount for the movie, investing considerably more in post-production. Tarnation has since screened at Cannes and Toronto and recently received a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival. It’s enjoying a solid run at the Film Forum and Wellspring plans to expand the release to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit and Boston. “We sold out a number of shows and the box office has been on the rise since we opened, which means word of mouth is spreading,” Mr. Werner said. “I thought it was a promising opening.”

The company now has four films in the New York Film Festival (tied at the top with Tom Bernard and Michael Barker’s Sony Pictures Classics, which likewise has four): Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique, Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen (acquired in the week before the festival), Tarnation and now Palindromes. Come winter, they plan to release In the Realms of the Unreal, a documentary about artist Henry Darger by Academy Award winner Jessica Yu. They are also slowly expanding the release of the French thriller Red Lights, about a married couple’s rocky car trip through the South of France.

“I think it is—not to toot our own horn—unusual that we would acquire a Godard film and The Brown Bunny in the same six months. But we have the skill to do both kinds of movies,” said Ms. Guirgis, Wellspring’s acquisition executive, who brokered the Palindromes deal.  “We’re young,” she added. “We’re quite young.”

“We would like to compete on a higher level,” Mr. Werner said. “But it takes time.”