Brewhouse, film fest, musician all have an eye on the arthouse

Though times have been tough for indie film distribs, a trio of upstarts — cut from different cloth — have jumped into the game or ramped up significantly this year, looking to harness unique areas of expertise and build niches of their own.

Yes, they know the odds are stacked, but the three ventures are notable for having found success in other realms before turning their eyes to the distribution biz:

• Alamo Drafthouse has nine theater sites in Texas and Virginia and is aiming to bring the home-brewed sensibilities that infuse its annual Fantastic Fest and Rolling Roadshows to theaters it doesn’t own.

• The Cinequest Film Fest, founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Halfdan Hussey and Kathleen Powell in 1990, is celebrating its 20th anni this year and wants to expand its reach to champion the types of lesser-known filmmakers who typify the fest, from “Trekkies” helmer Roger Nygard to Will Rokos, co-scribe of “Monster’s Ball.”

• Musician Dave Matthews formed New York-based production shingle ATO Pictures in 2002, but entered the distribution game this summer with ambitions of bridging music and movies with a consumer-driven approach.

Their roots and focus may vary, but the four nascent distribution outfits are quickly making an imprint on the scene:

Drafthouse Films

Theater chain founder Tim League was already a huge fan of helmer-scribe Chris Morris’ earlier TV work, the U.K. serials “Jam” and “Nathan Barley.” But when League saw Morris’ feature debut “Four Lions” at this year’s Sundance Film Fest, he knew the film would serve as an ideal flagship for the company’s startup distrib, Drafthouse Films.

“Lions,” a comedy about modern jihadism told through farce, also screened at South by Southwest and won the Independent Camera award at Karlovy Vary. “Audiences were responding to it, and it’s been a huge success in the U.K.,” League says of the pic, which has tallied nearly $5 million there so far.

The pic now stands to launch the distrib label with a limited rollout on Nov. 5 in nine cities including New York, L.A. and Austin, Texas.

“We’d been having these conversations about how to expand the brand beyond a cinema chain and how this would be a real interesting opportunity for us,” League says. “And we knew we wanted to get into the market with a film that we were personally passionate about.”

Along with its beer-and-a-movie chain, Alamo Drafthouse, founded in 1997 and based in Austin, hosts the largest genre film festival in the U.S., Fantastic Fest.

Drafthouse Films will work in conjunction with the event, specializing in the distribution of genre films.

“We’ve been known for putting on a show — (with) good, old-fashioned, hoopla,” says League, of the exhib’s other calling card, the Rolling Roadshow fest. “I feel like I’ve got a sense of how to find an audience.”

Cinequest Mavericks Studio

Cinequest created its own distribution arm, in part, to champion the lesser-known filmmakers featured at its fest. But the Silicon Valley-based company also will be dabbling in production.

The Cinequest Film Fest, which started in 1990 and whose next edition runs March 1-13, is home base for the newly formed distrib Cinequest Mavericks Studio.

The distrib’s debut production will be Irish-Mexican crime drama “To the Dogs,” co-scripted by Hussey and producing partner Barnaby Dallas. The film is projected to start lensing Nov. 12 in San Jose, Calif., with an estimated budget of $7 million.

Hussey says inhouse productions, with larger production costs and higher-profile talent, are pegged for theatrical releases, while pics acquired from the fest, typically with budgets up to $500,000, will go out through the distrib’s Internet-to-TV platform.

With Cinequest’s distribution effort still in its early stages, most of its inhouse productions will go out theatrically through various distribution partners at first.

“Potentially, as this grows, we might release films solely internally,” Hussey says. “But Cinequest has really been able to develop great partnerships and work with people on the things they do best, while developing an internal division that fills a need.”

As part of the distrib’s digital distribution model, Cinequest released 2006 indie title “Flourish” using an online distribution strategy. Two spec scripts, “Son Up” and “Ora,” which won the fest’s screenplay competish in 2006 and 2009, respectively, are also on the label’s development slate.

ATO Pictures

ATO stands for “art takes over,” and the crossover mindset is a big part of the new distribution outfit’s DNA.

Temple Fennell, co-founder and CEO of ATO Pictures, points to ATO’s music background as one of the leading influences for the company’s consumer-driven distrib strategy.

“The sweet spot for us is when we can find a film that either has an (ATO) artist in it or one of them contributing to the soundtrack,” Fennell says.

Music artists housed within the ATO family — encompassing ATO Records and Pictures, Star Hill Presents and Greenlight Media and Marketing — include Matthews, Tim McGraw, Patty Griffin and My Morning Jacket.

“Between our music and online entertainment experience, we can navigate the shifts and find the new models,” says Fennell, who cut his teeth working for online gameshow sites.

Beyond the music biz, the company has begun acquiring more mainstream fare. ATO joined with Samuel Goldwyn Films on the U.S. release of “Mao’s Last Dancer,” which has grossed $2.6 million domestically. ATO acquired the film out of Toronto last year after Matthews and co-founder Jonathan Dorfman became avid fans of the work. “Dancer” centers on an 11-year-old, impoverished Chinese ballet dancer who eventually joins both the Houston and Australian ballet companies.

ATO plans to go it alone with its next project, the Kevin Spacey starrer “Casino Jack,” about the Jack Abramoff financial scandal, planning for a mid- to late-December theatrical release and VOD launch date next year.

Those pics were acquisitions, but Fennell says the company also is developing original titles with ATO artists.

For indie filmmakers looking to get their pics out theatrically, or even visible on VOD or online, the distribs addition is no doubt welcome news. And while it may take some time before these upstarts prove themselves in the arena, they’re embracing the challenges.

“We’re not going to do theatrical and then try to make up for it in other areas if that doesn’t work,” says Cinequest’s Hussey. “I’m with a company where whatever we do, we’re at least going to make a dollar when we’re done with it.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more