Mourning a loss of independents


Any time you initiate a channel change like the one Comcast did over the past weekend in Baltimore, there are bound to be unhappy customers. But, in this case, the group of those upset about the big reshuffling of our local cable world includes two Academy Award-winning filmmakers, a Sundance Award-winning documentarian and the John Waters.

What has the Maryland filmmaking community up in arms is Comcast's decision to drop IFC, the Independent Film Channel, from its digital cable lineup.

Founded in 1994, IFC is "dedicated to presenting the irreverent style of independent film unedited and commercially uninterrupted 24 hours a day," according to its mission statement.

With a board of advisers that includes such film auteurs as Martin Scorcese and Spike Lee, IFC has the largest library of independent films on television and has itself produced such indie triumphs as Boys Don't Cry. IFC is the voice of independent film on American television, and its disappearance in Baltimore raises concerns about the homogenization of popular culture and narrowing of artistic discourse.

"The loss of IFC in Baltimore is a real travesty for anyone who cares about independent filmmaking," said Steve Yeager, whose film Divine Trash won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival Award for best documentary.

"It's upsetting. This is a big issue in terms of new and independent voices being heard. IFC was one of the only institutions holding to the promise of independent film," Yeager said.

Susan Hadary, co-winner with Bill Whiteford of an Oscar for their HBO film King Gimp, said: "Bill and I think it is very important for independent voices to be heard -- there are so few venues for the work of independent producers to be showcased. It's nearly like a freedom of speech issue, with only corporate America getting to speak.

"It's the work of independent producers that is going to be the most innovative, the most provocative, the most personal. There must be a little space for us somewhere."

"I was shocked when I got back to town and found out that IFC was gone," Waters said earlier this week.

"I think a lot of people don't even know it's gone yet, and they too are going to be shocked when they find out. IFC may not have a huge audience, but it is an influential one. Advertisers take notice," Waters added.

Market research

In dropping IFC, Comcast replaced it on the digital lineup with two Sundance Channels, which also show independent films and help produce some of them. The decision was based on market research, according to Kirstie Durr of Nevins & Associates, the public-relations representatives of Comcast in Maryland.

"Comcast put on what it thinks Baltimore wants. The thinking behind the decision to drop IFC is based on research telling Comcast that customers would prefer to have the Sundance channels," Durr said.

Yeager spoke for most members of the area filmmaking community who were contacted for this story when he said, "I would question that research."

Durr said she was unable to be more specific about the research, but she asked that the controversy over IFC be placed in the context of 115,000 city customers being affected by the changeover and the overall level of complaints being relatively low, according to cable company.

IFC issued a statement to The Sun this week saying: "We are deeply concerned that Comcast has decided to deny their customers access to the largest independent film library on television as well as exclusive live events and acclaimed original documentaries.

"We look forward to IFC returning to Comcast, especially in Baltimore -- a city devoted to film."

If that last sentence sounds especially tactful, it's because if a cable channel is not on Comcast, it is generally not on cable anywhere in Maryland. Comcast is a big company, as is the Rainbow Media Group, which manages cable channels including IFC, Bravo, American Movie Classics and WE (Women's Entertainment).

Bravo, IFC's sister channel, was one of the winners in the channel realignment, moving to basic analog cable from digital. That means it will be in more Baltimore homes. IFC does not want to sour the relationship with Comcast, and believes being nice gives it a better chance of being reinstated.

Sundance, meanwhile, is aligned with the Showtime channels, of which there are now 10 on city cable. Sundance is generally considered more mainstream and commercial than IFC.

Why not both?

No one wants to make it a fight between IFC and Sundance. The thinking in the film community is that, with all the new channels Comcast is adding in its upgrade of what was a decidedly sorry system under TCI, why can't Baltimore have both a Sundance channel and IFC?

"Yes, I want them both if I can. Having both is good for film," said Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival, which has become an important showcase in its own right for independent film.

"I like Sundance. They show my films, too," Waters said. "But why can't we have both in Baltimore? I get IFC in New York; that's where I watch it most. But why can't Baltimore have it instead of, say, the Golf Channel or something?"

Waters acknowledged a personal interest in the matter, as he will serve as host of the 2002 Independent Spirit Awards live telecast on IFC March 23. The Spirit Awards, honoring the best in independent filmmaking on the eve of the Academy Awards, have become an important annual event, with this year's nominees for best film including such entries as Memento and Things Behind the Sun.

"You know, basically, I guess I'm kind of their Whoopi Goldberg. ... So, sure, I want people in Baltimore to be able to see the show," Waters said, describing his relationship to IFC and the Spirit Awards, for which he also served as host last year.

But, like the other filmmakers, Waters said the issue extends beyond him, with IFC bringing voices into American homes that might otherwise never be heard.

"You know, probably a lot of people watch IFC, but they didn't call the cable company and say, 'We're glad you have it.' To be honest, I didn't know you have to do that. But obviously you do."

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