In Basement Meeting, Indie 50 Plot to Take on High Costs

The e-mails that bounced from inbox to inbox had the urgency of distress signals. Last year, during the typically serene summertime for moviemakers, the independent film community in New York City was responding to a call to arms. Over 50 independent producers and members of local production companies gathered far from the public eye in the Soho basement of the HERE arts space. While noshing on pretzels and Cheetos and drinking soda out of Styrofoam cups, they discussed their one common agenda: reducing the cost of film production in New York City.

“This is the first time I’ve seen everyone in one room without a cocktail in your hands,” said HDNet Films’ Jason Kliot jokingly over the drone of the A/C. Sober and determined, they went to work.

Eight months later, they have emerged as the Producers Group under the auspices of IFP/New York, with a Web site in the works and several cost-saving initiatives well on their way to becoming realities.

Back in July, though, the situation looked a little more dire. Recent hikes in union benefits, along with the lack of information regarding impending tax-incentive legislation, had spurred Mr. Kliot and two colleagues at HDNet Films, Joana Vicente and Gretchen McGowan, to send out an e-mail organizing that first meeting.

Among those plotting in the basement were This Is That’s Ted Hope and Anthony Bregman; GreeneStreet’s president, John Penotti, and production head, Tim Williams; John Sloss of Cinetic Media; IFP/New York’s executive director Michelle Byrd; and Killer Films co-founder Pam Koffler, along with representatives from a variety of other production companies, both big and small, including Hart Sharp, Robert Altman’s Sandcastle 5 and the 7th Floor.

“I was expecting six people to come to my office,” said Mr. Kliot, who along with Ms. Vicente also runs Deutsch/Open City Films. “The day before, 60 people had RSVP’d.”

On any given day, though, these same people would be at each others’ throats competing for scripts, directors and, most importantly, money. But Mr. Kliot had hit a nerve, quite like the MPAA screener ban had less than a year ago. And if they could be victorious then, why not again?

“Last year, when we challenged the MPAA on its uneven and abrupt policies,” began the July e-mail, which was sent out to over 150 producers and production companies thanks to help from IFP’s Ms. Byrd, “it became evident to us all that independent filmmakers can gain a great deal by banding together around common causes.”

This time, however, the problem was broader.

To tackle the issue, they created three separate subcommittees: one to address the unions, another to address ways to exploit the soon-to-be-instated tax incentives, and an additional one to work on outreach and education.

No. 1 on the itinerary: working with the below-the-line union umbrella organization IATSE to figure out a “tiered system” that allows movies of any size to afford union workers.

“I think that if we can find a way for this stratification to occur, then we can make every single movie union,” said Mr. Kliot, who likened the proposed system to that currently in place at the Screen Actors Guild.

Mr. Kliot claims that both sides stand to benefit. At first, however, the Producers Group remained a largely clandestine organization because its members feared the wrath of the unions, who viewed the newly formed entity warily.

“They were worried that if word got out, that it could be misconstrued as somehow being anti-union,” said Ms. Byrd. “Somebody who was sitting there, as a fly on the wall in the meetings, would see that that was not the case.”

In the end, though, money talks-a lesson not lost on the production executives. As part of their outreach/education agenda, several members of the group have begun preliminary talks with a local university to create the first objective report regarding the financial impact of the independent film companies.

“We’re not Miramax and the movies are $2 million to $8 million, but on a regular basis we produce films in New York,” said GreeneStreet’s Mr. Williams, who is part of the consortium’s steering committee and has an encyclopedic understanding of the local unions. “What I’m finding is that people sort of knew that we were there, but they had no idea how expensive the monetary value of the films that we were doing as a group.”

The report, which they hope will become an annual endeavor, will become a bargaining chip not only at union negotiating tables, but in front of state and city legislators as well.

And then there are the tax incentives that were passed on both the state and city levels last year. To be sure, they have provided a much-needed boon. (Mr. Kliot credits them with saving Awake, an $8 million co-production with GreeneStreet Films.) But in order to exploit the tax incentives, one must shoot at least one day on a pre-approved soundstage-most of which prove prohibitively expensive for films operating on a tiny budget. Moreover, the rebate, which could account for upward of 16 percent of a budget, can only be received after the film is done. The Producers Group is currently exploring, along with Pat Kaufman, the commissioner of the Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development, and Katherine Oliver, of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting, financial strategies that would involve bond companies and bank loans to initially cover the guaranteed tax incentive, providing much-needed money up front-a system similar to that found in the more production-friendly environs of Canada.

“We would have done this eventually anyway,” said Ms. Kaufman over the phone. “But because they have this group and they’ve brought it to our attention as something they need sooner rather than later, we’ve begun that educational process.”