The Reel Revolution

On a recent Thursday afternoon in December, Larry Meistrich, the chief executive of Film Movement, spread out eight potential magazine ads on the company’s conference-room table. They were part of an advertising company’s pitch to oversee his two-year-old indie’s national campaign, to be launched early next year. He fingered one with a pithy catch line that read, “Go to a premiere in your underwear.”

“What do you think?” the 38-year-old asked, looking casual in a tan, ribbed turtleneck, black pants and shiny loafers. He waited a moment and then answered his own question: “I don’t like it.”

Mr. Meistrich has been vetting advertising firms for over a month now, but to no avail. After all, it’s a big decision for someone who’s trying to revolutionize the way we watch first-run movies.

The last two years have been one long experiment to see if the Film Movement-an Internet-based subscription service that allows cineastes from Podunk to Poughkeepsie to view first-run independent films on DVD the same day they premiere at the Quad Cinema in New York City or at the ArcLight in L.A.-can be profitable, and perhaps save independent film from itself. According to Mr. Meistrich, the profitability has been achieved-and as for the latter goal, his success will ultimately depend on Film Movement’s national advertising campaign.

“Put a quarter of a million subscribers-not an unrealistic number-at the table. We feel that [companies like Focus Features and Fox Searchlight] will be asking if they can compete with us,” Mr. Meistrich said seriously. “The hardest thing to talk about is that we work in an industry that is fundamentally fucked up, economically. And unless people like me stand up and say so and point out why, it’s going to go away. That is my opinion.”

It’s obvious that Mr. Meistrich knows something about the stresses and strains of traditional movie economics. In the footloose and fancy-free days of the Internet-boom 90’s, Mr. Meistrich’s film company, the Shooting Gallery, expanded at an exponential rate: producing Oscar-nominated independent films like Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade and Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, setting up its Gun for Hire production and post-production facilities in New York, L.A., Vancouver, Toronto and Miami, and distributing films through the Shooting Gallery Film Series, which put independent movies like Mike Hodges’ Croupier in Loews theaters. The company was part of a vibrant independent-film scene that included the Good Machine triumvirate of James Schamus, David Linde and Ted Hope, as well as Christine Vachon’s Killer Films. But the Internet bubble did burst, as well as the dream that truly independent film companies could rival their counterparts on the West Coast. Neck-deep in debt, the Shooting Gallery met its maker in June 2001.

“Knowing what I know now about doing this, and knowing what I know about Shooting Gallery,” Mr. Meistrich began, speaking about the traditional mode of independent-film distribution, “I think that buying a movie at Sundance for x number of dollars as an advance and opening it in five, 10, 20 screenings and hoping for the best is pure gambling. It’s economically idiotic-I don’t care who you are. It makes no sense.” For Mr. Meistrich, it boiled down to this: “When we were all high-flying, all of those companies, people were a lot less concerned with their money. And now when you meet with investors, it’s ‘How am I getting my money back, and when?’ People always asked those questions, but they weren’t as adamantly put as they are now. To do financing in this environment, you need to be very buttoned-up, very well thought out, very focused with a plan.”

For Mr. Meistrich, Film Movement’s approach to film distribution-which collapses the window between the release of a film in the theaters and its DVD release and cultivates a built-in audience, much like a cable station-is a way to minimize the gamble of independent-film distribution, which relies on the rare breakout success of movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Blair Witch Project. According to Mr. Meistrich (who is reticent about the exact figures), all he needs is roughly several thousand active members to turn a profit, most of whom subscribe a year at a time. Subscribers pay $19.95 per DVD, or an annual fee of $199, to receive one film a month. It’s Netflix meets Chinatown-but Mr. Meistrich promises you the real thing, not some out-of-focus bootleg copy.

“We are very patient. Because we don’t need 50,000 people to be profitable, we have the luxury of being able to take our time.”

In the meantime, independent film has become an even riskier investment in recent years. Aside from The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, which were both anomalies, try naming any truly independent films that made a dent in the marketplace: You can count them on one hand. The New York independent-film community has become a fractured amalgamation of city-states where once there was a kingdom called Miramax. Profits rely on the occasional breakout hit and home-video libraries generating DVD revenue-which means long nights working on expensive national publicity campaigns and a lot of Monday-morning Pepto breakfasts waiting to see the opening-weekend grosses. And even if they wanted to break out and try something different, the indies-along with their larger counterparts-cannot escape the myriad outlet deals with cable channels and large rental and retail chains if they want to see a profit someday.

“I think a lot of people think we’re wrong because the structure of their business model doesn’t allow them to collapse the window,” Mr. Meistrich said. “So we have to be wrong-because if we’re right, then their whole business model is wrong. I think every article that you read about trends in the business press is saying that the windows are going to collapse. But we did it-and we did it first. We collapsed them. And I know it works.”

But some in the film industry have their doubts. “I don’t know anybody who subscribes to [Film Movement],” said a film-industry insider who didn’t trust Mr. Meistrich’s estimate of his profits. “I’d be surprised if they weren’t losing tons of money.” This insider then zeroed in on the problem: “In concept, the subscription idea may not be a bad thing, but Larry’s not the guy to do it.”

Mr. Meistrich obviously relishes being an underdog. People in the New York film community have alternately categorized him as a frat boy and a bully-a megalomaniacal businessman who was hell-bent on making the Shooting Gallery into a multimedia empire.

“Maybe I am an asshole,” he admitted. “But maybe my methodology doesn’t suck.”

For the last two years, Mr. Meistrich has been trying to prove the latter. For a year after the collapse of the Shooting Gallery in June 2001, Mr. Meistrich basically went into hiding (perhaps from more than a few creditors clamoring to collect on defaulted payments). Within a year, Eureka! Film Movement was built with capital raised from 20 private investors, including a lot of people who actually work at the company (including Mr. Meistrich himself). His pitch was simple: This is a sound investment, with the added bonus of disseminating quality films.

“You have to balance what’s good for the art with what’s good for the money. The reasons that the Met and the Guggenheim work are because those are straight-up businesses. They run like corporations. And then they are able to create a box of artistic freedom. And that’s what we’re saying. And I know people don’t like to hear movies referred to as ‘product’ or the phrase ‘customer acquisitions costs,’ but I have to pay attention to that. Because it is product-it’s artistic product.”

If New York cinephiles shudder at the thought of films as product-Dan Talbot, the legendary head of New Yorker Films, would never have referred to them as such-they may be in for an even ruder awakening: If Mr. Meistrich’s dream comes true, suburban communities across the country, largely relegated to the marketing niche reserved for NASCAR racing and W.W.E. wrestling promotions, will be able to see those offbeat films that New Yorkers relish at downtown meccas like the Quad and the Anthology Film Archives as soon as they come out. Houston Street could lose its allure and become as culturally irrelevant as the Tin Pan Alley. Mr. Meistrich is pitching New York exclusivity and high-cultural hegemony to the masses. He provides them with discussion guides, organizes free screenings in public libraries-Film Movement has over 1,000 libraries participating in its programs-and soon plans to give away free tickets to screenings during opening week.

“I know that 10,000 people are not going to pay [to go see an independent film in its opening week],” he explained. “So why don’t I give away 5,000 free tickets to the Film Society, to the March of Dimes? I’ll get 5,000 more people to [pitch the Film Movement] who are telling me that they like movies of this ilk because they went to the Internet and signed up for a free movie pass. You want a free ticket, give me your name and e-mail address. That’s it.”

For now, Mr. Meistrich’s plan has allowed Film Movement to distribute films that you’ve probably never heard of: Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s documentary OT: Our Town, about a Compton high school’s production of the Thornton Wilder play, or El Bola, Achero Manas’ exploration of child abuse. But with a national campaign in the works, expect to hear a lot more about the Film Movement, whether or not the New York film community is ready to pay attention.

“I don’t mean to be flippant about it, but I couldn’t give a shit about what the filmmaking community thinks about me or doesn’t think about me,” Mr. Meistrich snapped. “They’re not subscribers.”

The Reel Revolution