In the US, independent producers are doing it tough- and some fear for the future of intelligent dramas.
16 Jun 2009 - 9:06 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 8:30 PM

If a violent crime saga like Quentin Tarantino's 1994 hit Pulp Fiction were launched today, it probably wouldn't last more than a couple of weeks in US cinemas. No Hollywood studio is now likely to finance an intelligent thriller set in Africa like the 2006 Leonardo DiCaprio starrer Blood Diamond. And within a few years, a film with a challenging subject like Gus Van Sant's Milk may not even be released in cinemas.

Who says? Those dire prognostications come from pretty credible sources: the producers of those movies. Some leading US filmmakers have issued grim warnings about the future of adult dramas as the studios focus primarily on tent-poles aimed at 16-to-24-year-olds.

And they're painting a bleak picture for producers outside the studio system amid the global financial crisis. That might threaten the diversity, risk-taking and distinctiveness of the indie releases we see in the next few years.

“Studios don't believe producers are necessary,” Producers Guild of America president Marshall Herskovitz declared at the guild's recent Produced By Conference in Los Angeles. Showing a refreshing willingness to bite the hand that often feeds him, Herskovitz criticised studios for spending all their time and money on films with bloated budgets and leaving everything else in the dust. And he had a whack at the "outrageous" salaries commanded by the top stars.

The producer, whose credits include Defiance, The Last Samurai, I Am Sam and Traffic, cited his Blood Diamond as an example of a film that probably wouldn't get made today, because "it just didn't make enough money," despite grossing US$171 million worldwide.

Tarantino's long-time producer Lawrence Bender told the conference that Pulp Fiction would get two weeks in cinemas today, compared with its run of many months back in 1994. Michael London predicted that, in the not-too-distant, future a movie like Milk won't even get a theatrical window.

London, whose production company specializes in adult fare such as The Visitor, Sideways and Appaloosa, expressed a grim outlook for movies aimed at that demographic. “Right now there is such an enormous challenge in getting studios to assign a distribution slot to a movie that they perceive as belonging to this shrinking market,” he told a roundtable organized by the Los Angeles Times. “It's hard to give them a rationale to devote one of their precious eight or nine distribution slots to one of our movies instead of holding it back for a tent-pole, a comic-book, pre-sold franchise.”

Reflecting on the recent box-office failures of Duplicity and State of Play, London said, “I think right now there is a premium on escapist material that makes people feel good.”

At that roundtable, Herskovitz observed, “The reality is that most producers are financially struggling and being driven out of the business, and you have fewer and fewer independent producers.”

As filmgoers, we have to hope that the Hollywood studios' surviving speciality arms, primarily Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features, continue to back a mix of intelligent, adventurous dramas and comedies.