Executive Producer Barney Oldfield on NewFilmmakers
Published on April 2nd, 2012 | by Ryan Wells1
Barney Oldfield reflects on the past, present, and future of NewFilmmakers, an ongoing bi-coastal series he co-founded and still runs that showcases films and videos often overlooked by traditional film festivals.
Anthology was founded by the previous generation of independent filmmakers at a time when it was not only difficult to screen films but actually illegal without a permit. Anthology Founder Jonas Mekas was once arrested for showing Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures” along with Jean Genet’s “Chant d’amour.” In 1959, before Anthology, Jonas had helped start the New American Cinema Group, which created a new model of distribution and exhibition for independent film. Throughout his career he has always championed the right for all films to be shown.
In 1998, I became a new board member at Anthology and Jonas let me start the NewFilmmakers series in order to bring a new generation of filmmakers into the fold. We started showing my NYU friends’ films and then my NYU friends’ friends’ films and soon word of mouth flooded us with films from everywhere in the world. We were all volunteers, and still are, and we didn’t charge submission fees―we now do―and the audience paid a five-dollar admission to stay all night and see new movies; we recently went up to six dollars.
Why People Maxed Out Their Credit Cards* (*And Probably Are Still Paying for Their Sins)
In the 1990s, film replaced rock ‘n’ roll as the purveyor of culture, at least to the urban hipsters who inhabited downtown New York and maybe Chicago and Los Angeles. “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” had kicked the party off in 1989, and anyone who went to film school back then thought that they were following Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, and others into a new world of imagined and unimaginable fame and fortune.
It turned out not to be the case. But at the time we started NewFilmmakers, 1998 and a couple years after, the sweet smell of impending success still filled the air. Otherwise rational people were maxing out their credit cards in order to finance their film, one filmmaker made a short about it and how he used one credit card to pay another in an endless shell game till his feature got sold. It didn’t.
Film festivals and screening series like NewFilmmakers were the beneficiaries of this boom and every week another 35mm film or 8mm video print would come through our door. Many were extraordinarily good, with a sensibility that reflected the time and place. We showed “The Blair Witch Project” on video before it went to Sundance, albeit a midnight screening there, and got turned into a big hit. There were many others.
We soon cut deals with Internet start-up Center Seat, and a couple other companies including IFilm, to put us on the Internet, even if the 56K dial-ups made it next to impossible to actually see anything. About this time a friend put his feature “Dead Broke” with Paul Sorvino on the Internet and it made the front of the Wall Street Journal as the dawn of a new age. Banker types showed up in their over-sized suits and gold cuff links and threw money around. Colleagues at Pseudo.com were smoking weed and burning millions of investors’ money.
In addition to running the screening series, I personally had a film to sell, “Too Much Sleep,” directed by NewFilmmakers programmer David Maquiling. With some Internet money we opened the film ourselves, basically jumping into the pool without knowing whether there is any water there. Amy Taubin, whose Village Voice review had put “Clerks” on the map, gave us a great review and the rest of the press followed. Shooting Gallery picked up the film and distributed it nationally through a deal with Sony.
The Party’s Over
There was a slight problem. The indie film business and the Internet industry were illusions. Films were funded by credit cards and not box office. It was not hard to get a credit card back then, offers flooded mailboxes daily. The Internet was operating on Wall Street money, which thought eye balls could easily be turned into cash. No one noticed that outside big cities no one really wanted to see the films we were making; they were still watching Hollywood fare. No one noticed that the Internet was way ahead of itself and had not figured out a way to monetize its content, or stream video for that matter.
Then, in March 2000, the bottom fell out of the Internet boom and the lavish infusion of dotcom cash abruptly stopped. Only a few months before, seventeen Internet companies had spent two million dollars each for a thirty second spot on the Super Bowl. I remember going to one office that had hundreds of employees only to find rows of empty desks; only an abandoned light saber remained.
Center Seat went under and so did our dreams of international reach on the Internet. Last year we got back in the game with NewFilmmakers Online, now that there really is broadband technology. As far as my personal dreams, Shooting Gallery closed like a scene from Gibbon’s “Fall of the Roman Empire,” a sad end for a very good company. “Too Much Sleep” was the last film before they fell apart.
The business had changed and one after another indie distributor bit the dust or was acquired by a major studio and disappeared into the blob-like corporate mass. As the new century ground on, Sundance, the bellwether of the movement, changed from a low-profile venue for small-budget, independent creators from outside the system to a media extravaganza for Hollywood celebrity actors, paparazzi, and luxury lounges. A friend who had won one year told me that he was not submitting his film because it has no name talent in it and would never have a chance of even getting in.
But filmmakers were still making good films and NewFilmmakers continued as usual; our sushi receptions sponsored by Internet money were replaced by chips and dip. Many good festivals failed, New York Underground and DocFest disappeared. The IFFM Film Market, once the big event every fall, slowly faded into black. New ones took their place for better or worse.
The strength, or weakness, of indie filmmakers is that they make their films and then try to figure out what to do with them later. Hollywood, on the other hand, first sees where the market is and manufactures a product for them.
The New Century
I think NewFilmmakers survived and has prospered like the filmmakers we service because we have very low overhead and care about what we are doing. We have some very loyal volunteers, a few listed here and a regular audience and we are still the best buy in town. Maybe we don’t have sushi anymore, but you could get cheap wine and a night of good movies on the cheap.
In 2000 we brought the Havana Film Festival to New York. Ivan, a Cuban who ran the festival, visited us one hot summer night. We had a packed house, and perhaps because of the heat or the luck of the draw, everything broke down and there was pretty much chaos. Ivan said it reminded him of Havana, nothing worked. That spring, the Havana Film Festival came to Anthology and now is a regular fixture in New York.
In 2001 we worked with Cablevision to create the Metro Film Festival on their Metro Channel. The show simultaneously showed movies on cable and on the screen at Anthology. The week-long festival was the highest rated non-sports series on the channel but was not renewed when Metro stopped original programming. We recently started talks with another company to use their new digital broadcast channel.
In 2002 we started NewFilmmakers L.A., first at Cinespace on Hollywood Boulevard and later the Archlight on Sunset and then in 2008 moved to the Sunset Gower Studio. Being in Hollywood, NewFilmmakers L.A. has step & repeat red carpets and full bars. The Sunset Gower Studio is the former Columbia Film Studio and has tapped into the Los Angeles indie film scene.
We formed Film Groups that include NewLatino Filmmakers, Middle East Filmmakers, and Women Filmmakers. We have a regular college screening program and have had NYU, USC, and many other schools participate.
Recently we started NewFilmmakers Online, which gives anyone on the Internet the opportunity to see many of the films we screen at NewFilmmakers N.Y. and NewFilmmakers L.A. on their computer/ iPhone as well as make permanent DVD copies and watch them on their TV.
We now are on Moviemaker with video interviews with filmmakers who screen in New York and Los Angeles. We have a Twitter page to give daily updates about the series, as well as a long-term website with information about past and current programs. And you can sign up for a weekly email bulletin that lets you know what’s up this week.
In spite of the proliferation of films and videos―we get many hundreds each month―the business of indie film has not recovered. There are fewer and fewer theaters showing indie films in New York and across the nation. The Pioneer Theater near Anthology recently closed, and few of the films at the other local theaters show films without name stars and large promotional budgets. The days of making a film and bicycling it from one theater to another are over.
DVD sales, which were once a growth industry for Hollywood and indie films, have steadily declined. We hope that film festivals and screening series such as NewFilmmakers N.Y. and NewFilmmakers L.A. will give films their start and Internet sites such as NewFilmmakers Online will replace DVD sales so people can see these films, and filmmakers can make some of their money back.
Whether or not indie filmmaking will ever become, or ever was, economically sound, I have no doubt that filmmakers will still make their films and we will continue to show them.
As told to Ryan Wells