Marla Grossman has spent the last seven years introducing Hollywood and Washington to each other. Now she has put her Rolodex to a different use, calling both sides for help in her new business.
Last year she and an old college friend founded Sidekick Entertainment, which helps finance independent films.
“I have a passion for it,” said the 31-year-old. “In school I probably spent just as much time going to indie films as I did studying.”
The school she is referring to is Harvard Law School, where in 1993 she earned a degree dealing with motion pictures and the Internet. That’s where she met Gary Barkin, the co-founder of Sidekick.
The company concentrates on late-stage financing for independent films, providing funding for special effects, credits, distribution and advertising.
Sidekick only finances independent films with budgets under $5 million. Since final-stage financing never amounts to more than 30 percent of a film’s total budget, the company contributes no more than about $1.5 million per movie.
“This way we contribute in a meaningful way but also have solid, attractive returns,” said Ms. Grossman.
Late-stage financing is more secure, she said, because by the time it is needed the movie is almost finished. It is easier for financiers to decide because they can see the product and know exactly what they are backing.
Late-stage financiers also are the first to see returns from films.
The traditional definition of an independent film is one that finds its production financing outside of the major motion picture studios and is free of studio creative control. The movie may be distributed by a studio or other distributor, but the producer raises all financing from other sources.
Overall, the movie industry has grown tremendously in recent years. Last year, box office revenues were at $7.49 billion, beating the 1998 record of $6.95 billion by 8 percent.
The independent film industry has grown, as well. In 1995, there were 250 entries to the Sundance Film Festival, the premier festival in the country for independent films. This year there were more than 800 entries.
Having practiced law and dealt with the film industry for years, it was natural for Ms. Grossman and Mr. Barkin to start Sidekick.
She worked on Capitol Hill as counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee during the 105th Congress (1997-98), dealing with filmmaking and Internet commerce-related legislation.
She left the Hill in January 1999 to start Sidekick but kept her day job as director of federal affairs with the law firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, where she works three days a week. The rest of her time she spends reading scripts, watching rough cuts of movies, and dealing with investors.
Mr. Barkin also kept his day job. At Sidekick, he is chief operating officer and deals with the company’s legal negotiations. He also attends the filming of movies Sidekick is backing.
A native Washingtonian, Ms. Grossman has always lived in the area except while she attended Yale for undergraduate and Harvard for graduate school. She now lives in Bethesda with her husband of almost five years.
While on the Hill, Ms. Grossman researched the financial aspects of starting a business, and Mr. Barkin looked into the market.
“We spent a good year exploring and researching ideas so our business made sense financially,” Ms. Grossman said.
The result was a 25-page business plan, which was convincing enough to attract several investors and a few million dollars, she said.
Ms. Grossman would not disclose how much money Sidekick has raised. But the money raised so far sits in a fund, which is tapped whenever the company decides to back a film. When revenue comes in, the investors will get returns.
Sidekick so named because it is always one of several companies backing a film plans a second round of fund raising in the spring.
In recent years, several independent films have scored big at the box office.
“The Blair Witch Project,” which came out last year, generated $140 million across North American theaters. The film’s budget was only $60,000.
Other independent films that brought the industry to the spotlight include “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Full Monty,” “Chasing Amy,” “Trainspotting,” “Jackie Brown,” and “The Apostle.”
About 60 percent of feature films produced in the United States last year were made by independents, which generated almost $1.6 billion to the economy, according to the American Film Marketing Association (AFMA), an independent filmmakers association.
Making independent films is “easier than it used to be,” said Andrew Frank, a D.C. coffeehouse owner who is reopening the old Embassy Theater this year to show foreign and independent films.
“The reason is because there is a resurgent interest all around in independent filmmaking,” he said.
Although its doors have only been open for a short time, Sidekick already has financed two films and is in negotiations for a third.
“The Trial of Old Drum” is its first investment. A family film set in Western Missouri in 1955, the film is based on a true story about a dog put on trial. The film comes to the big screen this summer and has already been picked up by Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet to air this fall.
“The Altoona Riding Club,” a drama starring Academy Award nominee Robert Forster (“Jackie Brown”), is the company’s second project. The film is in final production stages and will be released on the big screen this fall.
Sidekick is in negotiations for its third project, to finance the U.S. distribution of an Australian film called “In a Savage Land,” which won two awards from the Australian Film Institute.