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Insider Q&A: Gill Holland’s insider take on Sundance, the movie biz and what Robert Redford is really like

by Terry Boyd

Gill Holland at Sundance with movie and television actress Alexie Gilmore.

Like Adrian Grenier as movie stud Vincent Chase in HBO’s “Entourage?”

Thank Gill Holland, who cast Grenier in Grenier’s first movie, “Hurricane Streets.” Grenier played “a punk,” and he had one line.

Like Edie Falco as the long suffering Carmelo Soprano? Thank Holland, who cast her in “Hurricane Streets” all the way back in 1996.

There’s Gill Holland, then there’s the rest of us.

When he’s not recasting East Market Street as Nulu, he and his wife Augusta are building a world-renown Green Building. And when he’s not doing any of those things, he’s jetting off to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival.

Sort of lost lately in all his political activity (Holland was one of a herd of people on Mayor Greg Fischer’s transition team) is that Holland’s main gig is producing indy features and documentaries.

His films include “Hurricane Streets,” “Sweetland,” with Allan Cumming and Ned Beatty, and “FLOW: For Love of Water.”

Before the president of Group Entertainment LLC left for Sundance earlier this week, he sat down with Insider Louisville for a Q&A session:

Insider Louisville: What was your last movie at Sundance?

Gill Holland: Two years ago, we had “FLOW: For Love of Water” and “Adventures of Power.”

I thought you were executive producer for the movie about the woman who was the Andy Warhol star ….

That was “Candy Darling.” That wasn’t at Sundance, believe it or not. That was at Berlin. I don’t think we got into Sundance. Sundance programs very few documentaries on dead people. It’s more features. There are probably 12 docs in competition. Twelve to 16 features. Probably more international features and special screenings of features because a lot of Hollywood features use Sundance t0 launch because you have X-thousand journalists in Park City for 10 days. So you might as well screen your movies. There are more features than docs.

You’ve been to Sundance a lot. After the first time, does it get better or worse? More interesting, or too predictable?

So my first year … ‘97 was my first year. We filmed (“Hurricane Streets”) in ‘96. So everyone says that was the last year the Indies were really strong. That decade from ’87 to’ 97, if you look at the people … Todd Haynes. Lots of interesting auteurs in that decade. I mean, Tarantino! A lot of people.

But a lot of people say “Hurricane Streets” … We were the first film ever to win three prizes at Sundance (in one year.) A lot of people thought we had a commercial film that just happened to have no stars, even though Edie Falco is a big star now. A lot of people point to that year.

Every year after that year seem to be more star heavy. More swag parties. It reached its climax in 2001 … it was huge. All the internet movie distribution sites were launching and there was just tons of money. Then there was the collapse, and it was kind of quiet for a couple of years. Ten it started going crazy again in 2005, maybe. And the Paris Hiltons of the world were showing up at Sundance kind of like the Running of the Bulls or Mardi Gras.

Did that change the ambiance?

Yeah. Then “Entourage” had Adrian Grenier, the star of our film “Adventures in Power,” they had him on the show, going to Sundance with his movie. He had one line in “Hurricane Streets,” which I think was his first movie, and I remember him saying he was going to do a documentary. And I said, ‘Dude, no one is going to care about your documentary unless you get famous!’ And he did!”

Also, I feel like (Sundance organizers) were really going too pro-Hollywood in their programming, and every single film in competition had movie stars, even though they still had to be first or second time directors. But when you looked at it, they were all big budget films and you said, ‘Where is the sense of discovery?’

That was the whole fun of Sundance for me.

So finally, last year in a brilliant move, they said, “Let’s have a category for films under $100,000 budgets.” That’s where our film “Bass Ackwards” was in. And Louisville’s Cheyenne Marie Mize, who’s on our label, has a song on the closing credits of a movie “Together,” that was in that $100,000 category.

So, what do you have at Sundance for 2011?

My company produced this film “Hot Coffee,” which is a documentary about tort reform centered around the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit.

The Group Entertainment – my partners Matt (Parker) and Carly (Hugo) – were the lead producers on the Vera Formiga film “Higher Ground,” which she directed and stars in. While she was pregnant, no less. Based on a true story about a woman who joins this fundamentalist group.

Both of those are in competition. Pretty big deal to have one film in doc competition, one film in feature competition when you look at that 12 out of 3,000 were accepted into competition!

And then I can’t remember if I’m co-producer or associate producer on a film called “Catechism Cataclysm” (by) this young auteur Todd Rohal. It’s his second film. He did a film called “Guatamalan Handshake,” which starred Will Oldham. This one stars Steve Little from “East Bound and Down,” which is getting a lot of hype on HBO. He has his own fan club.

We made the film for less than $50,000

It’s about a priest who has kind of lost his way and who has invited his hero from high school – this down and out rocker wannabee – on a boating trip together. It’s like Cronenberg meets Jarmusch. A little bit of “Scanners,” a little bit of “Stranger Than Paradise.”

It’s in the midnight section. So despite the tiny budget, it’s actually in a big selection.

A tiny budget being?

Forty thousand dollars. You know, normally you don’t want to talk about budget before a festival because you want to start a bidding war. If distributors know you spent $40,000, they’re going to offer $41,000. But this film … there are only a certain number of people who are really going to love it. It’s kind of like what an indie film was 15 years ago.

Have you ever been shut out?

Oh yeah, I’ve had lots of films rejected. I’m not the lead producer on films that small anymore because it’s too much work. But I love being involved and helping develop up and coming talent. And it increases your network and sphere of influence. And that one will actually make a little bit of money. I think we’re going to make a little bit of money on all of them, which is a pretty confident position. Usually I don’t feel that way, but they’re all solid.

What has to happen to make money?

In the old days, you went to Sundance. You created a bidding war. You sold it. In the US, the buyer usually buys all rights. Theatrical, DVD, TV whatever. That’s what happened with “Hurricane Streets.” We made it for $400,000, sold it for $1.8 million. Home run. That’s like a legal way to quadruple your money in less than 18 months. That’s pretty amazing when it works. But the next 10 films didn’t make any money.

Were you surprised it was so easy, then so hard?

I didn’t know. I didn’t have any frame of reference. Even when we were shooting, I was like, “We’re going to Sundance”’ And people said, “Have you been to Sundance?” and I said, “No! But the movie’s great. Script’s great. The actors are great!” That was that blind-faith optimism and luck and everything coinciding … and doing a little bit of homework to make sure everything is set up properly.

Now, it’s so different with all the online stuff. Cable TV is more powerful. There are more TV movies as opposed to “movies of the week,” a completely different sub-genre that didn’t compete with indy films. There are fewer independent theaters. The DVD market is collapsing, or has collapsed.

Well, everyone wants on-demand. My kids only watch NetFlix on-demand.

It’s all different.

Now, we may not want a bidding war. Somebody says, ‘We’re going to release it in X-number of cities theatrically.’ Sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s bad. Theatrical usually loses money, but you get the reviews. Film comes out in NY, you get a New York Times review. Village Voice. Daily News. All the media outlets have to review it if it’s in a theater for a paid week. That’s worth something if you need press reviews for your DVD box. But now, nobody buys DVD anymore. And there are so many blogs, so do you even need to be in real theaters?

That’s why “Bass Ackwards” got so much press last year. It was the first film that we released the same day it premiered at Sundance. You could download it on YouTube for $4.99 the same day we premiered at Sundance. So that was a big deal.

Now, you go for connections, good press. You want people to talk about your movies. You want buyers to see it and see audience reaction. Maybe they don’t buy it up front in the old school way, but maybe they enter into some cost-sharing distribution scheme, or they say “We do have a DVD line. We’ll take DVD rights and you can keep download to own.”

So this is going to be fun?

For those of us in the middle of it, it is a glorified trade show/industry conference.

Really? You know what my first question was going to be? ‘What’s Robert Redford really like?’

I can’t remember when it was … we were doing a photo together, maybe it was the year we had “Hurricane Streets.” When you meet him …  I didn’t get the immediate ‘movie star in the room’ feeling with him. Then he smiled for the camera when we were doing this photo shoot.

All of a sudden I was like, “Oh my gosh! Movie star in the room!” His smile was just incandescent!”

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