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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'The Visitor' proves indie film isn't dead

July 7, 2008 |  4:03 pm

Visitor_2 When I first saw "The Visitor" in the weeks leading up to the Toronto Film Festival last fall, I was moved by filmmaker Tom McCarthy's soulful account of a widowed college professor (played by character actor Richard Jenkins) who is spiritually reawakened by a chance encounter with an immigrant couple in New York City. (Go here to read why McCarthy felt compelled to make the film.) But when you see movies as a reporter, your reaction is always complicated. It's one thing to love a film, as a fan. But as cold-eyed industry observer, I thought--in an era where every specialty company is desperately hunting for the next "Little Miss Sunshine" jackpot--who will possibly buy a movie that doesn't have a name actor or any crowd-pleasing fervor?

Michael London, the film's producer, thought the same thing. Maybe that's why he's so astounded to see the film, now in its 13th week of release, still hanging around the Top 20 box-office leaders, long after the big studio releases that were in theaters when "The Visitor" made its early-April debut are long gone. You can say, what's the big deal, since those early April films--"Prom Night," "Street Kings," "Leatherheads" and "The Ruins"--all have made more money. But in the gloom-and-doomed filled world of specialty movies, where film after film has disappeared without a trace, "The Visitor" is a small ray of sunlight. Spurned by every established specialty division in town, never having grossed more than $1.1 million in any week of its release, it has quietly turned a sizable profit, nearing the $10-million box-office mark this past weekend, when it actually had the highest percentage upswing in business of any film on more than 100 screens in the country.

Why has "The Visitor" managed to survive amid so much horrific indie failure? And does it point the way to indie film rejuvenation and revival?   

A veteran producer of such films as "Sideways" and "Thirteen," London remembers the film's low ebb all too well. Buoyed by early reactions to the film, he went to Toronto thinking his new company, Groundswell, and its partner, Participant Productions, would have an easy sale. Even before "The Visitor's" credits had finished rolling after its Friday-night debut, London got e-mail and text messages from specialty division executives, all saying how much they loved the film. But as the weekend rolled along, the e-mails stopped coming. The phone never rang.

"By Monday, after all the specialty production guys had spent the weekend talking to their marketing and distribution people, they were paralyzed," London recalls. "We didn't get one solid offer. I was totally depressed by the wall of cynicism the specialty companies had about the marketplace. By chance, I ran into [Overture Films chief] Chris McGurk, who'd heard so many people say how much they liked the film that he congratulated me on having sold the picture. I told him he was wrong--we hadn't even gotten an offer."

That's how Overture, a start-up company, came to buy the film for $1 million, a price that’s looking better and better as time goes on. As London bluntly puts it: "If we didn't find Overture, a new distributor that needed movies, this movie would be on DVD right now. Everyone told us, 'We love it, but no one's going to go see it.' "

But why did everyone get cold feet? London believes the collapse of the specialty market has less to do with audiences abandoning well-made movies than indie film companies abandoning their core business model. "They just got out of touch with what people wanted," he says. "They got very seduced by movies like 'Juno' or 'Little Miss Sunshine' that could gross $75 or $100 million. It's like everyone took a hiatus from their core business, which is supposed to be all about: How do we grow something special?"

Anyone who's been to the recent round of festivals knows how bleak the sales picture is. Even films with top-name talent, including Steven Soderbergh's "Che," James Gray's "Two Lovers" and Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," are still looking for U.S. distributors. The one big sale at Sundance was "Hamlet 2," an attempt at broad-based commercial comedy. The recent L.A. Film Festival was reduced to opening and closing its festival with wan big-studio fare. The malaise is everywhere.

Still, London isn't gloomy, in part because he has a movie that's attracted a small but loyal audience, largely thanks to lively word of mouth. "I have to admit that I was terrified when Overture picked us up," he recalls. "I mean, there we were, with a distributor that had never put out a movie before. But four or five weeks into our run, we started to feel the movie was taking on a life of its own. We'd get these crazy e-mails from friends or family, saying that everyone they knew was going to see the picture. When the grosses keep going up every weekend, you know something is happening."

"The Visitor" also had a little luck. It was never meant to still be playing in the middle of summer, but once it survived April and May, with no specialty division fare going up against the big summer studio releases, it suddenly had the indie market to itself. Overture has been careful with its marketing buys--I can remember London calling me one day, moaning about the postage-stamp sized ad Overture had taken out for the film in The Times. But Overture's belief in positive buzz had been rewarded. "They've done a great job," London says now. "The movie has struggled whenever they've tried to broaden it into smaller markets or more mainstream suburban theaters. But in terms of the top 150 art theaters in America, it's had a wonderful life."

But what's the lesson here? Is it really a success to have to spend four months of sweat and tears to get a movie to $10 million, when a big studio release can hit that mark on a Friday night? "The audience is still there," London says. "And if $10 million is the ceiling, then indie distributors will just have to adapt to a much smaller business model. There will still be brass-ring movies like 'Juno,' but the days when every distributor in town could chase after the brass ring are over."

London laughs. "I guess if this were the stock market, you could say we'd had a healthy correction. The days of chasing the big hits are over." 

Photo of Richard Jenkins, left, and Hiam Abbas in "The Visitor" from Overture Films.