Indie Labels Hoping to Heat Up Summer Blockbuster Season

Over the next four months, indie labels are invading popcorn-movie season, hoping to prove that summer isn’t just for blockbusters.

While multiplexes will be filled with rampaging dinosaurs and costumed Avengers, companies like Sony Pictures Classics, Roadside Attractions and Fox Searchlight are countering with challenging tales about teenage sexual awakening, troubled musical geniuses and a cancer-stricken high-schooler.

If the gamble pays off, then festival favorites such as “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “Love & Mercy” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” will act as shrewd counterprogramming. If it doesn’t, these films and others of their ilk will be steamrollered by the likes of “Jurassic World” and “Minions.”

“We like the summer for independent film, because you’re usually against one or two films for the adult audience as opposed to seven at Oscar time,” said Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions.

In past summers, Cohen has had success releasing the Ozarks drama “Winter’s Bone” in June and the espionage thriller “A Most Wanted Man” in July to healthy box office returns. He’s not the only one. Woody Allen has scored some of the biggest hits of his career with “Midnight in Paris” (late May) and “Blue Jasmine” (late August). And pictures such as “Boyhood” and “Moonrise Kingdom” have mined critical acclaim that led to commercial success while debuting in tentpole season.

Michael Barker, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, has seen summer as a prime release period dating back to 1993, when he pitted the gender-bending historical epic “Orlando” against “Jurassic Park.” This year he’s at it again, debuting eight films from May through August, including “Infinitely Polar Bear” (June 19), a look at a bipolar family man, starring Mark Ruffalo; and “Grandma” (Aug. 21), with Lily Tomlin as a woman trying to raise money for her granddaughter’s abortion. He sees a marketing opportunity in standing up to the comicbook and science-fiction superheroes.

“Other companies are afraid of these movies, so they stay away,” he said. “But you end up getting more publicity than you might otherwise have gotten, because the media has had it up to here with the major studio pictures, and they’re looking to give their readers stories about something different.”

But the secret is out, and the fight for indie audiences is growing more pitched, studio executives say.

“This year, a lot of people are competing against each other,” said Jack Foley, distribution chief at indie distrib Bleecker Street. “Competition always makes things more difficult. You’re not just strategizing about how you’re going to play against the big pictures. Now you’re competing for screens with all these other art films.”

The reason for the glut is twofold: There are a number of new indie labels, such as Broad Green Pictures, the Orchard and Bleecker Street, which have entered the space in the past 12 months or so, becoming active buyers at Sundance and other festivals. Armed with their acquisitions, they’re now eager to make a splash. Broad Green will release “Eden” on June 19 and the romantic comedy “Learning to Drive” on Aug. 21, Bleecker Street just opened drama “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and the Orchard will unveil sex comedy “The Overnight” on June 19, documentary “Cartel Land” on July 3, and the ensemble comedy “Digging for Fire” on Aug. 21.

Then there’s the fact that major studios have more or less ceded an entire section of the movie business to indie films and television companies — namely mid- to lower-budget pictures aimed at people of drinking age.

“The only times a major studio makes a drama is if it’s an Oscar movie,” Cohen said. “If it’s not, they don’t make it. Ten years ago, that was not the case.”

The upside is that indie labels report they’ve seen greater interest from top exhibition chains in screening their movies. These cinemas have invested heavily in more leather seating and other higher-end amenities, and need films that cater to affluent moviegoers.

“They have 18 screens to fill,” said Frank Rodriguez, senior vice president of distribution at Fox Searchlight. “They’re drawing in a clientele that wants to see ‘Birdman’ and ‘Wild’ and ‘Theory of Everything.’ There’s only so long you can survive just doing blockbusters. You need to have a large cross-section.”

While summer may seem more open than Oscar season, making money in the indie business remains difficult. Blockbusters can string together a commercial that leans on a barrage of special-effects shots, or rely on residual goodwill for a comicbook or tween novel, and then sit back and count the money rolling in. Arthouse films need word of mouth to be electric if they’re going to burn brightly enough to attract attention.

“It’s review driven,” said Tom Quinn, co-president of Radius-TWC, which will release “A Lego Brickumentary” this summer. “For an indie release to cross over, and build and sustain success through summer in a competitive marketplace, quality needs to be there.”

Many of the films that will make their pitches to audiences in the coming months arrive with impressive pedigrees. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” was an audience favorite at Sundance, and played like “The Fault in Our Stars” for lovers of Jean-Luc Godard. “Dope” also took the Park City festival by storm, with its energetic editing, catchy soundtrack, and witty look at life in South Central Los Angeles. And films like “Love & Mercy,” a dark biopic about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and “Grandma” with Tomlin, have awards-watchers already making Oscar predictions.

Inevitably, some of these titles will falter. Films like “Love Is Strange” and “I Origins” received raves from festival crowds, only to be met with indifference by mainstream audiences, and though the number of indie summer releases may be growing, most executives acknowledge the average gross isn’t.

“The transition happened six or seven years ago, where all of a sudden you had double the number of films fighting for the same number of dollars,” Quinn said. “It’s become a brutal chicken coop.”

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