Ted Hope on the past, and the future, of independent film

It seemed weirdly encouraging, a couple weeks ago, when I was on deadline to review some other film and Netflix nudged me to procrastinate by watching Nicole Holofcener’s 1996 debut, Walking and Talking, instead. Ah, the gloriously frumpy New York of a more innocent time — a time of bad jeans, rented VHS tapes, rotary-dial landlines with answering machines, and young Catherine Keener looking as lovely as you can possibly imagine. Still a funny story of hangouts, heartaches, and perfectly unassuming sincerity, Walking and Talking seems in retrospect also like a bittersweet respite from today’s unceasing abundance of Processed Independent Film Product. You just can’t make movies like that now — hell, you couldn’t make them like that then. Unless you were Ted Hope.

He writes about it, with help from film journalist Anthony Kaufman, in the new book Hope for Film: From the Frontlines of the Independent Cinema Revolutions. This was a time, the prolific producer Hope recounts in his book, when independent film “was about delivering stories to underserved audiences — based on race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and creed,” but also a time when “Hollywood was not focusing on the everyday, middle-class existence of most young adults, the small moments, like when your cat dies or you are losing your best friend.” As he rightly puts it, “This was Nicole [Holofcener]’s specialty.”

Holofcener shows up in the chapter called “Joyfulness,” along with Edward Burns and John Waters, and there are few better measures of the Ted Hope vision than his will to gather those three people in a single context. The book is about the hand he had in getting theirs and many other movies made, and about what producing independent films even means, especially now. Other chapter titles include “Patience,” “Community,” and “Change.”

Filled with tidbits of earned wisdom and stories from the proverbial trenches, Hope for Film is a sort of memoir-handbook clearinghouse for the author’s recent advocations in social media and various blogs. Or pontifications, if you prefer: As is arguably the prerogative of someone who’s improvised a career out of helping dreamers get stuff done, he habitually oscillates between the philosophical and the pragmatic. From very proactively snagging that first gig as a production assistant, to figuring out how Ang Lee’s mind works, Hope’s industriousness has proven highly scalable.

As an I-could-tell-you-some-stories producer, Hope seems quite director-friendly, if not exactly laissez-faire with screenwriters. Still, he acknowledges that a scene he’d made Holofcener cut from her Walking and Talking script — because “it didn’t advance the story, and it didn’t reveal the character” — was actually what got the movie funded. (An assistant sent the wrong draft to a would-be financier, who loved it.) So it just goes to show that…well, who really knows what it goes to show?

Elsewhere, he writes: “Pulp Fiction exploded on the scene, and independent filmmaking became the business of profit margins rather than the underserved audience.” Does that make Tarantino the ruinous Spielberg-Lucas-monster of the indieworld? In any event, one tidy Hope for Film takeaway is that the field has been a shifting sandhill for the duration of Ted Hope’s career. His edifying fortitude is in never deigning to view the state of the art as entropy.

For what it’s worth, the book also lets him dish a little about that huh? moment last year when he was in charge of the San Francisco Film Society and then suddenly he wasn’t. Those hurt feelings seem not to have fully healed. From there Hope decamped to Fandor, which may yet prove a better local laboratory for his cinema-culture experiments, and already is even better than Netflix for escaping new-release doldrums by watching more interesting stuff. I’m on there right now, actually, even though I’m also on deadline again. Hope springs eternal.