Can 'Multiple Sarcasms' survive the indie movie curse?
Brooks Branch is best known in Hollywood circles as a veteran Paramount Pictures licensing executive who, from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, oversaw the studio's strategic marketing and development of its top film properties. But now he's done the one thing that any business executive would tell him not to do -- he's gone off and directed an indie movie and decided to basically distribute it himself.
That's the story behind "Multiple Sarcasms," an oddball drama that stars Timothy Hutton as an unhappy architect who tries to find himself by writing a play about the relationships in his life. The movie has its moments, and it has a nice supporting cast that includes Mira Sorvino, Dana Delany, Mario van Peebles and Stockard Channing (who is hilarious as a hard-as-nails agent). But there's no way to put this nicely -- "Multiple Sarcasms" is like hundreds of other low-budget indie movies that people like me see at hundreds of film festivals every year.
It has all sorts of strikes against it: It doesn't have a big-name star, it doesn't have a crowd-pleasing storyline and it doesn't have anything that would distinguish it from all the other nicely made, well-intentioned films that never see the light of day in terms of a mainstream theatrical release. So, when I sat down with Branch, an engaging guy who comes off like a much, more upbeat version of the character Hutton plays in a film, I had to ask him: What was he thinking?
"I know, I know," he said. "I'm the guy that the studios would bring in to try to break through all the clutter in the marketplace, so it's ironic that now I'm the guy -- as a writer-director -- who's trying to get the salmon to swim upstream. I'm the epitome of the guy who knows not to make a one-off film."
As it turns out, Branch didn't really want to reinvent a whole new distribution model for small films like "Multiple Sarcasms." He wrote the film in the 1990s, when he was still at Paramount. He eventually raised about $3 million to get the film made, shooting it in the spring of 2007. But by the time he was ready to look for a distributor last year, the bottom had fallen out of the indie film marketplace. There were no serious buyers.
"The joke is on me," he says good-naturedly. "When we started doing this, there was still an indie film template where you could market a film like this to a niche audience. But while I was away, finishing the film, the whole indie film world imploded. It was like, by the time I got to the party, the party was over. We had some private-auction screenings, but it was pretty obvious that the best offers would basically be a New York and L.A. release -- and then the film would disappear."
So Branch has put together an ad hoc distribution system and has his actors out beating the drum for the film. He's opening it in four cities this Friday (N.Y., L.A., Seattle and his hometown, Salt Lake City) before adding two more cities on May 14, with the hope that a few good reviews and some nice audience buzz might propel the film to bigger and better venues. It's still a long-shot gamble, but Branch remains optimistic.
He doesn't have a lot of marketing money, but as puts it: "That's what I've always done for a living. I make the money go further. We're trying to get a lot of media exposure that we don't have to pay for. For a film like this, it's not going to be Taco Bell cups and billboards. It's going to involve a lot of viral marketing and hard work, and figuring out ways to use free media."
As for the future of indie film, he says: "I think the expectations of success need to change. You can't shoot for the moon anymore. You just have to make enough money to justify your existence. The irony is that I've been this guy who helped the studios market their assets, and then I'd moonlight on my own movie. But now I'm trying to find a way to merge the two. I think it can happen, because I still believe that people have a real thirst to see interesting movies. That's your audience. You just have to find them."
I wish Branch well, but I still wonder what the future holds for indie movies. It used to be a wonderful niche business, but for now, the niche in the marketplace seems awfully small.
Photo: Brooks Branch taking questions after the premiere of "Multiple Sarcasms." Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images