The Gift of Gabbert

FOR A CHILLY assessment of the current state of indie filmmaking and distribution, consult the first paragraphs of most Variety reviews filed from the Sundance Film Festival. Take this self-fulfilling prophecy, for instance, written a year ago on the subject of the Joyce Carol Oates adaptation Getting to Know You: "Though exceedingly well-crafted and performed, lack of marquee names and difficult material will limit playdates to specialty situations and cable." Translation: There's no theatrical market these days for well-made indies without major stars--and especially not if they're "difficult." To wit, Getting to Know You sold on the first day of the festival--a full year after it had premiered, that is, and to the Sundance Channel, which will premiere it in small-screen form next month. (Walker Art Center screens it Saturday at 7:30 p.m. as part of the monthlong "Women With Vision" series, formerly known as "Women in the Director's Chair.")

"It has become much more conservative," says Getting to Know You producer Laura Gabbert of the indie business she entered six years ago. "There are only ten or twelve people from five or six companies who make the [acquisition] decisions--so it depends entirely on their personal tastes and on how well they think they can market the film. If you look at Sundance over the last five years, the films that tend to get snatched up right away are basically low-budget Hollywood movies. And because there are more and more films being made every year, it's even harder for the more innovative work to get through."

Based on a trio of short stories from Oates's Heat, and directed by sometime documentarian Lisanne Skyler, Getting to Know You is a reflexive story about storytelling in which two teenagers (Heather Matarazzo, Michael Weston) in an upstate New York bus terminal exchange family histories that may or may not be true. When this deliberately mysterious film failed to sell at Sundance in the year of Happy, Texas (this despite strong notices from a number of critics), Gabbert gladly exploited a few of those "specialty situations" to which Variety had alluded--taking the movie to a handful of festivals in Europe and the U.S., arranging an exclusive tape deal with Blockbuster Video. She has also booked upcoming engagements at well-regarded indie rep-houses such as the Roxie in San Francisco and Film Forum in New York.

Having proven that conventional distribution isn't the only path for an unconventional indie, the Minneapolis-born, Los Angeles-based Gabbert, age 32, believes that indie producers don't have it nearly as hard as indie directors--and especially female indie directors, those "Year of the Woman" reports from Park City to the contrary. "I think people still assume it's a man's job," she says. "Most people who go to Sundance--buyers, agents, executives--are looking for the next hot, baseball-cap-wearing guy director. A lot of that sexism is probably unconscious, but it's still there. It's funny: Because two women wrote Getting to Know You [Skyler and her sister Tristine], and a woman directed it, people see it as a 'women's movie.' And we had never, ever thought of it that way."  

Gabbert and Skyler will introduce the Walker's screening ofGetting to Know You on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; (612) 375-7622. Earlier, at 1:00 p.m., they'll lead a seminar on the film at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design; (612) 338-0871. The first week of the Walker's "Women With Vision" series also includes several programs of "Home Girls" shorts by local female filmmakers, and a screening of Chantal Akerman'sSud (South) at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday.

 
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