Previously shy niche distribs counterprogram studio pics

Has the autumn indie season moved into summer?

The highbrow lineup includes such eagerly awaited offerings as Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Miranda July’s “The Future.” Acclaimed Sundance and Toronto titles like “Terri,” “Submarine,” “The Trip,” “Higher Ground,” “Another Earth,” “Beginners,” “Life in a Day,” “Project Nim,” “The Devil’s Double,” “Our Idiot Brother” and several others will be crowding summer cinemas in unusually high numbers. Not only do most of these titles seem like awards bait, but they are also perceived as having healthy arthouse box office potential.

“It does feel like some of the indie distributors are taking more chances,” says AMC Theateres/AMC Independent specialty and alternative content veep Nikkole Denson-Randolph, who has high hopes for Searchlight’s romance “The Art of Getting By” and Focus’ lit adaptation “One Day.” “Usually they kind of stay away from summer.”

This also marks the first summer releases for theatrical distribs ARC Entertainment, Wrekin Hill Entertainment, Indomina Releasing and Cohen Media Group, adding to the crowded marketplace.

“Last summer seemed almost devoid of specialty films. It seemed like the cupboard was bare, as if (indie distribs) weren’t even going to compete,” says Exhibitor Relations box office analyst Jeff Bock. “Every weekend this summer we’ve got huge films opening, and almost every weekend we also have independent films, and that doesn’t usually happen. There’s a chance for up to 10 of them to do well.”

Other companies flush with recent success are stepping up their game, like Music Box Films, which will roll out six or seven of its foreign-language films — about half its 2011 slate — during the summer, and the Weinstein Co.

“All are very entertaining summer fare,” says Music Box owner William Schopf of his lineup. “Summers have been good to us, and we see the fall as a little more competitive.”

The reasons for this unseasonably large flood of specialty titles are multifold, and when viewed as a whole, they reveal new approaches indie distribs are taking to summer programming.

None of 2010’s summer indies did anywhere near the $120 million gross of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” or even the $60 million earned by “Little Miss Sunshine.” Yet the few summer releases that popped were the top grossing 2010 films for their distribs, including Sony Pictures Classics’ “Get Low” ($9.2 million), Roadside Attractions’ “Winter’s Bone” ($6.5 million), Magnolia’s “I Am Love” ($5 million), Samuel Goldwyn/ATO Pictures’ “Mao’s Last Dancer” ($4.8 million) and IFC Films’ “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” ($3 million).

Weinstein/Dimension’s “Piranha 3D” ($25 million) and Focus’ “The Kids Are All Right” ($21 million) were second-to-top draws for those distribs, respectively.

While all were modest hits next to studio fare, each offered a good return on their companies’ investments.

Another factor is the record number of Toronto 2010 and Sundance 2011 buys. More than ever, execs see the value in capitalizing on a film’s festival PR and accolades quickly, and look to avoid a year-end logjam.

“Movies don’t age like fine wine — you want to get them out while they’re still fresh,” says Roadside Attractions VP of acquisitions and business affairs Dustin Smith. “Since it takes five or six months to make materials, do long-lead press and get a couple months of trailer play, summer is just usually the soonest you can get Sundance pickups out there.”

Good old-fashioned counterprogramming is also at play, and perhaps never more needed: there are a record number of sequels, prequels and spinoffs, with 10 arriving in the next few months.

“Studio movies have gotten bigger and bigger, they’re much more homogenous and very lowest common denominator-driven,” says Paladin prexy Mark Urman, who rolls out romantic doc “Love Etc.” on July 1. “At a certain point, people really go running and screaming from 3D and CGI.”

One reason specialty outfits have sometimes forsaken the summer for fall is fear of missing out on awards attention, but that’s no longer seen as a necessary compromise.

“Because that Oscar date is (now) so early, less and less of these (award hopefuls) are opening at the very end of the year,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker. Films like “Junebug,” “Frozen River,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Winter’s Bone,” “Animal Kingdom” and “Little Miss Sunshine” show that “you can open a film in the summertime and it does have awards potential. They can gain the kind of attention they wouldn’t gain if they waited till after Toronto, when there are so many pictures then vying for that attention,” he says.

With release costs spiraling, expenses are a big factor.

“The fall season is full of studio Oscar contenders aimed at our smarter, adult audience, except they usually have movie stars and $25 million P&A campaigns,” says Roadside’s Smith.

Avoiding the theatrical logjam that has felled many fall/winter indies in recent years may come with a cost: a summer specialty film gridlock.

The big question is whether the breathing room that allowed select indies to add theaters, cities and holdover dates last summer will be there this year, and if not, whether strong marketing and word-of-mouth can still pull them through.

” ‘I Am Love’ played a lot longer than it probably would have if there were more of these specialty films,” says Exhibitor Relations analyst Bock. “There were a few films that played all summer, and that had a lot to do with product not being there. There are far fewer screens for specialty films this year, especially with blockbusters taking over the majority of them.”

Getting enough screen time is a prime concern for Sundance Selects/IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring, who expects his 3D doc “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” to play throughout the summer after a strong start.

“The major chains have been great in supporting ‘Cave,’ (but if) you’ve got ‘Thor’ in 3D, what’s your bet (on which) movie’s going to do huge business?” he says. “It’s competitive every weekend of the year.”

Yet Bock retains hope that, notwithstanding the potential impact of DirecTV’s short-window VOD program, quality will win out. “In the cinephile realm, you have to be excited about this summer,” says Bock. “The product is a lot more interesting, and I think it will have a lot more punch at the box office.”

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