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by Beth Pinsker

Big news at the 21st annual Independent Feature Film Market is when acquisition representatives from places like Fine Line and Miramax merely come to a show - not that they've pulled out their checkbooks and bought something. This is just one way of noting that the IFFM, although devoted to the cutting edge of American independent film, is not Sundance. The other way is that the weather is nice and all the screenings are in one building. Also, the hierarchy and pretentiousness of most film festivals is non-existent.

The IFFM is a talent showcase. It is raw, uneven and utterly exciting. Ultimately, it has more to do with filmmakers being able to meet development executives from studios at "meet-and-greet" events than it has to do with anyone giving them money. The daily panels pack big names in the independent film world, and the informal settings help nurture real discussions on practical matters like finding a producers' representative or getting financing.

The centerpiece of those panels is the detailed case study, this year focused on Tumbleweeds. The panel included director Gavin O'Conner, his brother and producer Greg O'Conner, their editor, lawyer and the two marketing representatives from Fine Line who were in on the sale of the film at Sundance in January and are responsible for the film's November launch in the marketplace.

Tumbleweeds has an almost quintessential indie backstory. O'Conner came across the material through his then-girlfriend, Angela Shelton, who was writing a kind of loose memoir about her childhood trekking back and forth across the country with a crazy mother. O'Conner, who had been working on short films and other projects, said to her, "There's a film here." The two of them then set to writing a script from the material, bringing on brother Greg as a producer to try to get the money to make the project.

They shopped the script to all the "usual suspects," whom they identified when prompted as Fine Line, Miramax, October, etc. The budget they pitched was $3 million. They got no bites. They took encouragement that they were not laughed out the door. In fact, O'Conner said they almost got offers when they managed to attach British stage actress Janet McTeer to play the mother. McTeer had just won a Tony for A Doll's House in New York, and she was fast becoming a favorite. Still, she wasn't well known enough to get a greenlight from any moviemaking house.

The O'Conner brothers then did what they urged the filmmakers in the audience to do if they ran into a wall getting money for their film. They got the money themselves and set to filming. In their case, they liquidated some of their inheritance from stock in their family's company. That gave them under the $700,000 they thought they needed for the whole film, but enough to start the shoot.

They were able to get far enough on that to get a rough cut to their editor in New York, who then assembled a seven minute trailer. This is usually where the IFFM comes in. Filmmakers who assemble their material in trailer, short film or rough cut form can exhibit their work at the festival and invite investors and studio executives to the show, hoping to emerge with completion funds and perhaps even a distribution deal if they are extremely lucky and far along in the process.

The O'Conners, instead, went the private route and screened their trailer for a group of investors from Wall Street. They collected checks from every person in the room as they left - including McTeer.

Then came the selling strategy for the film, which was to get the film into Sundance. They did. And the first screening of the film was so incredible that they were kidnapped after their second screening by the acquisitions team from Fine Line, which has learned from past experience never to let the filmmakers of a film they want to buy out of their sight.

The aspiring filmmakers in the audience lapped up the details, but one actually seemed discouraged by the tale. He asked, "So are you saying that the only way to get your script made is to do it yourself?"

O'Conner shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well, basically, yeah." The Fine Line executives, Marian Koltai-Levine and Brian Caldwell agreed. They said they rarely buy scripts from unknowns because the financial risk is too great even at $3 million. Most films that they end up buying, they've rejected in script stage, as they did with Tumbleweeds and another luminary, Shine.

The key, they all agreed, was to have something to show for your work. And that's what the IFFM does best. The panels may be the most intriguing, but that doesn't mean that screenings are not a primary focus of the action. There were over 300 works shown in seven days. Some were completed features, some documentaries, and then there were unfinished rough cuts of both varieties, as well as shorts. All serve as calling cards for filmmakers trying to attract attention by showing what they can do.

Attracting the most attention was a feature film starring Bernadette Peters and directed by newcomer Adam Marcus called Snow Days, which may actually pick up a distribution deal straight out of the festival. Also notable were the features Dead Dogs, a heist thriller, and The Young Girl and the Monsoon, a strange love story. Skirty Winter, a tale of a young actress, attracted an audience because of Austin Pendleton's hilarious performance. Harold Perrineau was also something to watch in A Day in Black and White, even though the film was uneven. The same goes for the performances by known actors such as Luke Perry and Kathy Nijimy in Attention Shoppers, Soleil Moon Frye in The Girl's Room, Moria Kelly in Henry Hill, Stacey Dash in The Personals, Chris Noth and Patricia Arquette in Pigeonholed and Brad Renfro in the Theory of the Leisure Class.

The general consensus among the critics attending the festival was that there was no major discovery this year of the caliber of past years - no Kids, Brothers McMullen, Roger & Me or My Dinner with Andre. Not at least on the surface. It will surely not be long before one of this year's crop of talent emerges as the next great hope for independent film.

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