Quality only goes so far with theatrical viewers

Nominations are nice and all, but in the increasingly cutthroat world of arthouse distribution, many a heralded film has died a quick commercial death.

While this year’s Spirits have a few obvious success stories (namely “Juno”), a number of nominees failed to take hold in theaters or haven’t even been picked up for release. As filmmaker and docu nominee Michael Tucker (“The Prisoner, or How I Learned to Kill Tony Blair”) says, “It doesn’t matter if it’s Spirit noms, Academy noms or Sundance prizewinners: Nobody is exempt from the savage reality of theatrical.”

Indeed, in example after example, critically lauded festival prizewinners met a chillier reception in the marketplace. With plenty of critical good will after its Sundance ’07 premiere, “Great World of Sound” (nominated at the Spirits for best first feature and supporting actor), for example, was picked up by Magnolia Pictures, but went on to gross a mere $22,000.

“In spite of how great the film is, the lack of known stars and unglamorous backdrop made it a tough go in the theatrical environment,” says Magnolia Pictures’ Eamonn Bowles, who believes that audiences are increasingly seeking “out of the box” content on television, DVD, online and video-on-demand, rather than in theaters.

For that very same reason, First Look Pictures’ Brooke Ford says the company chose to release Sterlin Harjo’s “Four Sheets to the Wind,” which garnered a supporting-actress nomination for Tamara Podemski, straight to DVD. “Because there isn’t a known cast,” she says, “we elected to take it to DVD. (The theatrical calendar) is just so crowded. We have to put our money where it can really matter.”

Still, distributors aren’t complaining.

They say they’re going to come out in the black. “You just have to be conservative about what you spend,” says Emerging Pictures’ Ira Deutchman, who claims that “Vanaja” (nommed for first feature and cinematography) has grossed just under $300,000 and will end up profitable — even including the cost of the elephant that graced its premiere.

Likewise, Richard Lorber says that even though doc nominee “The Monastery” grossed less than $50,000, reviews and awards have stimulated significant interest and a substantial sale to the Sundance Channel. “And we expect very solid DVD sales for a long time,” he adds.

With the conventional route to theaters proving so daunting, several filmmakers have chosen to take their films out on their own. Aaron Katz, director of “Quiet City” (nommed for the John Cassavetes Award), says that despite having no theatrical distributor and no money for promotion, he and his team were able to open the film in five major cites, including the all-important New York market. “We were even able to make a little money with the film,” he says, “which is something we never expected to do.”

Stephane Gauger, who produced, wrote and directed another Cassavetes nominee, “Owl and the Sparrow,” says: “The line between filmmakers and exhibitors is becoming more blurred, so that a film can potentially find an audience on its own without a coveted deal.” If distributors won’t roll the dice, says Gauger, filmmakers can. “And there is a sense of freedom in that,” he adds. Indeed, Gauger has turned that freedom into a small business opportunity, launching his own company focusing on the distribution of Asian titles.

Likewise, Chris Eska’s “August Evening” — nominated for best male lead and the Cassavetes Award — was acquired by actor-producer Moctesuma Esparza’s Maya Entertainment, as part of a new distribution effort devoted to another underserved audience, the Latino market.

If, ultimately, theatrical distribution remains elusive for smaller, quality indies, it may simply be the reality of the 21st-century marketplace. Says Jeff Nichols, writer-director of “Shotgun Stories,” another Cassavetes nominee that will be released this April by another nascent theatrical distrib, Liberation Entertainment, “The idea of people watching ‘Shotgun Stories’ in a mini-window streaming over their computer” — which is happening with the Spirit nominees — “makes me want to cry, but at least it’s being watched.”

“Bottom line, you want your films to be seen,” echoes Tucker. “Netflix and other new distribution models are making that possible. It’s not perfect, but clearly the whole business is turning upside down.”

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