Stalled indies find new ways to pursue auds

Indie film’s easy-money era is over, but new opportunities are emerging.

These days, any seller hoping to land a distribution deal at a fest or market like Toronto in September realizes that only a few lucky winners will land a seven-figure minimum guarantee from a studio specialty division.

With New Line Cinema, Picturehouse, Netflix’s Red Envelope and Warner Independent scratched off the potential buyers list, only the most commercial, accessible and Oscar-worthy Toronto offerings will be cherry-picked by the studios’ specialty divisions.

This year’s Toronto hot tickets include Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” starring Mickey Rourke as a broken-down fighter; Kathryn Bigelow’s nail-biter, “The Hurt Locker,” starring Ralph Fiennes as an Iraq bomb defuser; Sidney Kimmel Entertainment’s “Management,” a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston; and Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles,” set during the iconic actor-director’s early theater days.

But another set of indie distributors is still in the hunt for product. As Picturehouse’s Bob Berney deliberately builds the foundations of a new-model distrib, the indie sector is checking out several alternative distribution models. IFC Entertainment and Magnolia Pictures’ video-on-demand/theatrical releases, for example, have proved so successful that more distribs say they will emulate them. And frustrated filmmakers are increasingly turning to customizable — but costly — service deals to execute their own release plans.

Among the indie buyers with open purses heading for Toronto are Summit Entertainment, which acquired Toronto world premiere “Brothers Bloom,” starring Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo back in December based on a two-minute clip, giving writer-director Rian Johnson (“Brick”) a chance to finetune his movie and skip Sundance. Summit will chase other pictures at the fest, however, as will Overture, which last year acquired “The Visitor,” one of the few bright spots for indie box office in 2008.

Even beleaguered ThinkFilm is back in the game, although last year’s ballyhooed Toronto pickup from Helen Hunt, “Then She Found Me,” lost money. The company paid a $1.7 million minimum guarantee for U.S. only and more than $2 million on P&A. The movie grossed $3.7 million and sold modestly on video. But amid the relative successes of the indie sector these days, ThinkFilm might have considered itself fortunate.

“That’s a success!” says Roadside Attractions co-prexy Howard Cohen, who chased that acquisition and feels he dodged a bullet. “If we had paid no minimum guarantee we might have made $400,000 profit.”

That helps to explain why many distribs and filmmakers are seeking alternatives to that business model.

The indie sector is scrutinizing the VOD model pioneered by two companies owned by cable systems. IFC Entertainment answers to Rainbow Media’s Cablevision, while Magnolia Pictures is run by HDNet owners Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner.

IFC has six pics screening in Toronto, all acquired out of Cannes in May. In just two years, IFC has released some 60 movies either through the Fest Direct program, a direct-to-VOD release with no theatrical component that is mostly foreign titles, or its day-and-date VOD/theatrical combo, IFC in Theaters.

IFC spends modestly (usually five to six figures) to acquire and market these pics, which are often foreign-language titles with otherwise meager expectations for the North American market. IFC opens many of its movies at its Manhattan theater, The IFC Center, and tailors each film’s theatrical run based on its reception from critics and audiences. Major theater chains still refuse to play any movie released simultaneously on VOD, arguing that it cannibalizes their business. But IFC and Magnolia argue that the VOD platform builds awareness and interest.

So far, two Cannes Palme d’Or winners — “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” — have been IFC’s biggest earners. This year, IFC opened Catherine Breillat’s erotic thriller “The Last Mistress” on June 27, day-and-date in theaters and via VOD on cable systems around the country. Available for $6.99 during a 90-day window, the pic has grossed $657,804 to date.

And IFC is actually expanding its acquisitions.

“We’re aggressively looking for product,” says prexy Jonathan Sehring. “We’re still experimenting. There are 52 to 55 million VOD-enabled households including DirecTV. Everybody on my team says we can do even more.”

On the other hand, Magnolia, which stumbled with its initial day-and-date experiment with Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble” back in 2005, spent $1 million to promote its release “Flawless,” a heist caper starring Demi Moore and Michael Caine, making it available on “Ultra-VOD” for $10 a pop three weeks before its March 28 theatrical release on 35 screens. The pic expanded to 65 screens, grossing a respectable $1.2 million, but really took off on VOD, earning some $6 million.

During the theatrical window, it was available on VOD for $7-$8, and finally $4-$5 during the regular pay-per-view window. Magnolia estimates that the movie will rake in more than $3 million in total profits.

“Stars or easily digestible synopsizable content helps on the VOD platform,” says Magnolia Pictures prexy Eamonn Bowles. “The sneak preview aspect of people getting thing first is compelling. But other movies like ‘Man on Wire’ need to build up a profile through word-of-mouth.”

Of course Magnolia, which will release more than 27 films this year, has the advantage of 213 Landmark screens around the country — although Cuban and Wagner are less interested in playing films from rivals like IFC whose films are available on VOD.

Going into Toronto, there will be many producers like Les Alexander and Jonathan Mitchell, who are hoping to sell their self-financed $15 million music biopic “Who Do You Love,” directed by Jerry Zaks and starring Alessandro Nivola as blues impresario Leonard Chess.

Filmmakers with indie product to sell are advised to contemplate plans B and perhaps C.

If they don’t score a sale, “I’ll be sending DVDs out to my family and friends,” Alexander jokes.

It’s not a joke, especially when Toronto buyers know that Sony-backed “Cadillac Records” has just wrapped, boasting a tonier cast led by Oscar-winner Brody, Beyonce Knowles and Jeffrey Wright. The harsh reality: Even if critics and Toronto auds embrace the picture, Alexander and company may need to brush up on the latest Indiewood trend: self-distribution.

These days, if filmmakers are going to the trouble of raising enough money to make a movie, they might as well set some cash aside to release it too.

“Bottle Shock’s” producers hired L.A.-based Freestyle to distribute and Roadside to publicize their movie. Producers of another Sundance film, “Ballast,” walked away from their IFC deal and decided to self-distribute, with Strand Releasing as a consultant. Other distribs and marketers-for-hire include Dylan Marchetti’s Variance Films, ex-New Line marketing chief Russell Schwartz, New Video, Peace Arch, First Look, Liberation, Screen Media and Vivendi — all companies that can mount short theatrical runs en route to DVD.

“Service deals present much less risk to the distrib,” says IFC acquisitions chief Arianna Bocco. “It’s a lot of risk for the filmmaker, putting up P&A. Service deals are becoming more prevalent because there are not a lot of other options with so many distributors hesitant to take bigger risks on theatrical.”

At Sundance in January, filmmakers Cora Olson and Marianna Palka and their sales reps at William Morris rejected all the lowball offers (which they deemed “crap”) for their dark relationship comedy “Good Dick,” which cost $200,000. Instead, they hired indie consultant Richard Abramowitz to book the film at Landmark Theaters this October, and 42 West to handle the publicity.

“We didn’t get the type of offers that were worth giving up all our rights for,” says Olson. “We were getting offers under the cost of our movie, which didn’t seem worth
while. How can anyone accept these deals? There’s no upside.”

Having sold some foreign territories, they decided to go on their own and raised P&A funds from their original investor.

Now that Netflix has shuttered its experiment in indie film investing, Red Envelope, the indie marketplace has lost a hungry doc buyer.

But filmmakers with an easily defined niche and some marketing flair can still assemble a distribution plan. After doc “Beautiful Losers” debuted at SXSW in March, the filmmakers considered traditional offers from distribs but decided to release the doc on their own. Sidetrack Films partnered with Nike Sportswear to sponsor art workshops, and a shoe and apparel company helped pay for its Aug. 8 launch at New York’s IFC Center and subsequent rollout to four more markets.

Longtime fest film seller John Sloss’ Cinetic Media also entered the fray this year with the Digital Rights Management group, led by former SXSW film fest director Matt Dentler, who is taking on some of the thousands of titles that are undervalued and haven’t sold after playing the fest circuit. Cinetic will take rights exclusively as a distributor does, and share all revenues 50/50, with no advance.

Filmmakers don’t have to give away the store with DVD deals anymore, but can pursue online distribution via Amazon and a host of rival online indie distribs, from iArthouse and iTunes to IndiePix, Jaman, Hulu, Vudu, Cinequest, Spout and GreenCine.

As Olson says, “Everyone is figuring it out as they go.”

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