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Staff Reporter

It’s an old saw in Hollywood that independent filmmakers get the critical acclaim, while the big studios sweep up all the money.

But in 1996, the independents got an unusual amount of both.

Industry pundits have dubbed 1996 “The Year of the Independents” and that phrase becomes more accurate with each passing day, as the industry’s top awards for 1996 releases are swept up by independent filmmakers and 1996 revenue figures are compiled showing it was a record-breaking year at the box office for the “indies.”

When film critics around the country released their Top 10 lists for the best movies of 1996 last month, unusually few studio-produced films were among those cited.

That response from critics is being powerfully reinforced by the industry’s various awards programs and ceremonies.

For example, at the Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 19, the two top awards for motion pictures were both won by independent film companies (“The English Patient” produced by Saul Zaentz Co. and Miramax Film Corp. in the drama category and “Evita” produced by Cinergi Pictures Entertainment Inc. in the musical or comedy category ).

The Broadcast Film Critics Association also gave top awards to “The English Patient,” as well as such independent films as “Shine” and “Fargo.” And four of the five nominees for top film of the year by the Director’s Guild of America were produced by independent movies.

The Academy Award nominees have not yet been selected, but most Hollywood observers expect an overwhelming majority of independent films to be nominated.

“In the grand search for quality, it seems the critics are turning away from (studio-produced films),” said Alan Horn, chairman and CEO of Beverly Hills-based Castle Rock Entertainment. “But then, the studios can live with that. I’m sure they’d much rather have money than nominations.”

But an unusually large share of the money went to indies last year. An annual survey released Jan. 23 by KPMG Peat Marwick found that export revenues for members of the American Film Marketing Association, which represents 130 independent film companies, hit $1.65 billion in 1996 a 21 percent increase over the previous year.

The most marked improvement was in revenues derived from licensing of films to cinemas around the world, which jumped 37 percent to $501 million, according to the survey. Television revenues, which account for 44 percent of all sales income for AFMA members, were up 11 percent to $736 million.

AFMA officials attribute the gains to an increase in the number of movie screens being built abroad and advances in, as well as physical expansion of, television technology around the world, which is leading to increased demand for content.

AFMA Vice Chairwoman Kathy Morgan, who also heads West L.A.-based international sales and production company Kathy Morgan International, said an additional factor fueling the demand for and critical acclaim of independent offerings is that major studios are no longer very interested in making lower-budget, more-artistic movies.

Morgan contended that major entertainment companies are concentrating on making “synergistic movies” films that can be exploited across the range of media owned by the studio. Big-budget “event” films, which can be spun off into licensed merchandise, turned into TV shows or video games or something else, are now the main goal of the major studios, she said.

“You’re not going to make a theme park ride, or launch an animated TV series, based on most independent films,” Morgan said.

Of course, most supposedly “independent” film companies are closely allied with studios, if not outright owned by them. The vast majority of independent movies are at least partially financed by studios, as well as distributed by them domestically and sometimes internationally.

Many of AFMA’s biggest members are even owned by big studios such as Beverly Hills-based New Line Cinema Inc., which is owned by Time Warner Inc., or West Hollywood-based Miramax, owned by Walt Disney Co.

Horn of Castle Rock which is also owned by Time Warner, but is identified as an independent because it chooses and produces its own projects without input from Warner Bros. maintains that the business climate for independents is looking up, whether they are owned by studios or not. There are fewer players in the business (due to years of slack demand for indie fare), and international demand is skyrocketing.

“Last year’s international sales figures are a good sign (for independents),” Horn said. “We look increasingly to the overseas market for a greater percentage of our revenues.”

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