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Independent films win awards, share in box-office booty

This year's Oscar winners confirmed the trend: Independent filmmaking has taken on a new and vital importance in the movie world. The list of Academy Award nominees included what Variety, the entertainment trade paper, called an ``unprecedented'' proportion of independent films. The results gave further notice that Oscar victories are no longer the near-exclusive turf of Hollywood's major studios.

``Platoon,'' the runaway winner for best picture and best directing, was produced - after all the big studios turned it down - by Hemdale Films, a British company, and distributed by Orion Pictures, one of the most visible American independents. ``A Room With a View,'' another big victor, was distributed by the low-profile Cinecom for Merchant Ivory Productions, a venerable concern with a conspicuously non-Hollywood approach to mature, literate filmmaking.

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Other independent pictures in the Oscar sweepstakes included ``Salvador,'' ``Blue Velvet,'' ``Mona Lisa,'' and ``My Beautiful Laundrette.''

Not long ago, box-office success - and the Oscars that sometimes go with it - were dominated by Hollywood's traditional ``majors,'' the nickname given to such giant studios as Paramount, Columbia, Universal, Twentieth Century-Fox, MGM/United Artists, and Warner Bros.

Today's movie scene must reckon not only with these but with a ``mini-major'' like Walt Disney Productions and a host of such independent producer/distributors as Tri-Star, Cannon, Island, and the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.

For the film industry, this means that more companies are grabbing a share of the box-office booty. Last year's ticket sales reportedly added up to almost $4 billion, making 1986 the second-best year ever if no adjustment is made for inflation. Yet industry observer A.D. Murphy, quoted in Film Comment magazine, notes that the 1.03 billion tickets sold represent the exact average sold over the past 25 years. Paid admissions aren't increasing, therefore. Yet more production and distribution outfits are competing for a chunk of the audience.

One movie veteran who sees a big future in independent film is Jane Alexander, who served as executive producer of the recent ``Square Dance'' in addition to playing a leading role. In a recent interview, she told me of her growing activity as a developer and producer of modest, humanly scaled pictures that the ``majors'' would consider unworthy of their enormous production facilities and overhead expenses.

``Square Dance,'' an example of such fare, was distributed by Island Pictures, which has also handled such movies as ``Kiss of the Spider Woman'' and ``The Trip to Bountiful,'' both considered ``indie'' hits. Their profits were small by big-studio standards. But by keeping costs in line - and by figuring in long-term ancillary revenues like satellite and videocassette rights - developers of such movies can demonstrate enough profit potential to bring their projects into production and eventually onto theater screens.

A number of factors have contributed to the growth of the independents. Perhaps most important has been the longing of unconventional filmmakers (such as ``A Room With a View'' director James Ivory and ``Platoon'' filmmaker Oliver Stone) to realize their visions without the commercial compromises often demanded by big studios, which increasingly aim their fare directly at the lucrative youth market.

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Also noteworthy is the growth of such secondary markets as cable TV and VCR cassettes. And the changing face of movie-theater design has played a part: ``Multiplex'' cinemas, with two or more small auditoriums, allow limited-audience films to build their followings gradually - and, if popularity allows, to play for long stretches, as did ``My Beautiful Laundrette'' and ``A Room With a View.''

The independent-movie scene holds out stiff challenges as well as possible rewards for its participants. Every production outfit dreads an out-and-out flop, for instance - yet today's ``majors,'' owned by conglomerates rather than old-fashioned moguls, have enough financial backup to survive all but the worst ``Heaven's Gate''-style fiasco. The new breed of ``indies'' don't have such corporate backup, making them especially vulnerable to failure.

Yet their number and their visibility are growing - good news for moviegoers who want more than Hollywood formulas to choose from.

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