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IFC's Ever-Expanding 'House'

12/12/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

The much-beloved Waverly Theater in New York's Greenwich Village has been an eyesore in recent years — boarded up and dormant on a busy stretch of Sixth Avenue. Currently, it is undergoing massive construction that will transform the movie house into one of the most unusual and ambitious venues for independent film in the world.

The theater, rechristened the IFC Center, speaks to not only the future of indie film, but the future of IFC Cos., the holding company for all of the various businesses sprung from the hip of the Independent Film Channel.

IFC's Business Units
Independent Film Channel 1994
IFC Productions (film production) 1997
IFC Films (film distribution) 2000
IFC On Demand 2003
IFC Center 1Q 2005

When it debuts in the first quarter of 2005, IFC Center will include three state-of-the-art theaters with great sight lines and comfortable seating. It will have production and post-production facilities that will be digitally wired, with high-definition production and delivery capabilities as well as editing suites.

FANCY FOOD

A well-known restaurateur, yet to be announced, will run the center's restaurant and provide for concession stands.

The whole place was conceived as a venue for New York's independent film parties, panel sessions and film premieres. It will also allow IFC's film units to get more exposure for their properties. In other words, it's a kind of “brick and mortar” version of what IFC has always been about, an all-embracing home for independent film.

The digital revolution may be forging “convergence,” as media serves different formats, but “emergence” is the buzzword that best describes IFC in the digital age. While IFC is anchored in the linear TV channel business, where it began in 1994, IFC Cos. has taken the brand in a number of related directions. The company now produces and distributes theatrical features through two units: IFC Productions finances film and low-budget digital video features, while IFC Films distributes features to theaters.

As the brand has expanded, two veteran executives have kept IFC steady, which is remarkable in a business permeated by restlessness.

Jonathan Sehring is president of IFC Entertainment, a holding company for IFC's theatrical productions, and Caroline Kaplan is senior vice president of production and acquisitions for IFC Productions. They've been at IFC since the beginning, 10 years ago.

Besides cold technology, warm and fuzzy relationships helped build the new units. Early on, Sehring and Kaplan leveraged friendships with such talent as the directors Steven Soderbergh and John Sayles, director and actor Tim Robbins, the performer Spalding Gray and documentary filmmakers Errol Morris and Kevin MacDonald.

And while documentaries are all the rage today, IFC embraced non-fiction for their first original productions. Soderbergh delivered Spalding Gray's 1996 performance piece Gray's Anatomy; that same year Robbins executive produced a documentary about filmmaker Sam Fuller, and MacDonald had a film about Oscar-winning documentarian Morris.

Another early IFC documentary was Werner Herzog's My Best Fiend, a personal account of his professional relationship with actor Klaus Kinski.

“These were docs we made for TV, but they were playing big festivals like Cannes and Toronto,” says Kaplan. As a result of IFC's growing reputation, established directors like John Sayles approached IFC about helping them with “pet projects.” At that point, that the parent company determined “we knew what we were doing, and told us to get into the movie business,” says Sehring.

The occasional narrative feature started to emerge, like Sayles' Men With Guns and several films that made the Sundance Film Festival, including Girlfight and Happy Accident.

IFC Productions later got behind such theatricals as the Oscar winning Boys Don't Cry; Songcatcher; the Liev Schreiber starrer Spring Forward; Mira Nair's romantic comedy Monsoon Wedding; and Todd Graff's musical Camp.

IFC Productions also formed the innovative digital-video production unit InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment), headed by Gary Winick and the lawyer and producers rep John Sloss. The unit delivers digital video features costing about $300,000. A piece of first dollar grosses go to all participants, as films are sold off to other distributors.

“We're on our 15th film and have had unprecedented success, since we've sold 11 or 12 to market,” says Sehring. Among the successes was InDigEnt's Tadpole, starring Sigourney Weaver, which Miramax Film Corp. reportedly scooped up for $5 million.

With all its productions, IFC is pretty much hands off. Says Kaplan: “We're not really in the development business, but we're very director- and script-driven. Depending on who we're working with, we give as little or as much support as they need. We're here to finance, keep the cash flow going and give our emotional support.”

Production deals vary, but in all cases the unit secures a window for the IFC network.

IFC FILMS GENESIS

The impetus to form the distribution unit IFC Films came at Sundance in 2000, where a deal for an IFC Productions' films fell through with a well-known studio specialty division. The unhappy experience sent IFC into new pastures. “We thought, 'Why should we tie up our titles with others?'” says Sehring.

IFC Films debuted in December 2000 with the theatrical release of Spring Forward. The distribution arm has sprung forward with a vengeance, releasing such potent hits as Y Tu Mamá También and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The sexy Y Tu Mamá was idling in Cannes International Film Festival's Cannes Film Market when IFC grabbed it.

Kaplan explains that IFC Films enters into a variety of deals for its acquisitions, including pre-buys — as was the case for Kevin MacDonald's mountain-climbing film Touching the Void. For the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, IFC Films partnered with Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.

For 2005, IFC Films already has a lineup of 10 features set for theaters. As they debut, it will become increasingly clear that IFC is partnering more. As Sehring explains, “It's just not cost effective for the bigger specialty film divisions to handle the smaller films for theatrical.”

In addition to the large slate of theatrical releases and the new IFC Center, the new year is likely to see IFC play a more prominent role in the video-on-demand and subscription VOD sectors. IFC On Demand offers films only from the IFC Films Division and are available the same day they are released in home video through MGM/UA.

In certain areas of the country, IFC's Digital Media Division also offers Uncensored On Demand, which includes a lineup of uncensored films, series, and TV programs that veer toward the controversial.

The division's World Picks On Demand, on Cablevision Systems Corp. since July 2003 and recently added to RCN Corp., offers programming for Hindi, Latino, Mandarin, and Russian-speaking communities. According to Cynthia Burnell, senior vice president and general manager of digital media for IFC On Demand, “World Picks has been and is performing extremely well.”

Burnell emphasizes that the distinctiveness of IFC Films On Demand and Uncensored On Demand lies in its exclusivity. Programming on IFC TV is not recycled to the on-demand services.

The advantage that IFC Films On Demand has over video rental stores or online subscription rentals like Netflix, says Burnell, is that movies on IFC Films On Demand are available the same day they are released on home video. “It's that huge convenience factor.”

Thanks to VOD, Sehring sees the “emergence” of a new distribution strategy for IFC. “VOD offers a great future for lower-budget films,” he says, underscoring that the theatrical business has become very challenging for smaller features because of escalating marketing costs, product clutter, and the “short attention spans” that make multiple-week play-offs in theaters very difficult.

In his scenario, Sehring foresees certain IFC films opening theatrically in New York and Los Angeles to take advantage of the immediate media and reviewer attention but leveraging all that coverage by also going out to other appropriate markets via VOD.

Sounds like the “emergence” of a great strategy for all independent films.