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With a Buzzy SXSW Pickup, Cinedigm Refocuses on Content

Distrib will open 'Short Term 12' in late summer with an eye on kudo season

When Cinedigm’s acquisitions VP Vincent Scordino and director of acquisitions Kristin Harris went to scout films at SXSW, Harris came back and told their boss, Chris McGurk, about “Short Term 12” (pictured above). “It’s the best movie I’ve seen in years,” she said. “It works on every level.” The drama drew enthusiastic reviews at the festival, with several critics buzzing about its awards potential.

(From the pages of the April 16 issue of Variety.)

The purchase is the latest example of Cinedigm’s commitment to focus on content. The publicly traded company built its business converting thousands of theaters around the country to digital. Now that the majority have transitioned, CEO McGurk is ramping up a slate that includes up to 20 titles a year targeted for theatrical bows combined with VOD and ultra-VOD releases.

Trolling festivals for the hottest films and docs is an important part of the picture, but unlike some other indies, it’s not the only part. McGurk says that independent distributors who aim to mimic the majors with ambitious wide releases have the wrong idea.

His plan is to make money by releasing a large number of indie titles across a wide array of platforms, without the cost of production or mainstream television advertising. It’s a much less risky strategy than the traditional studio development and production model, McGurk contends. Cinedigm instead relies on social media and word-of-mouth marketing along with highly targeted ad buys.

McGurk played in the big leagues at Disney, Universal and MGM before heading Overture Films, which tried (and ultimately failed) to make a go of wide releases of commercial films for parent Starz Entertainment. For the past two years, Cinedigm has been laying the groundwork for an entirely different breed of indie distribution company.

The company is moving into more ambitious territory with SXSW award winner “Short Term 12.” Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, the pic stars Brie Larson as a supervisor at a foster care facility for troubled teens, with its late summer release date positioned to put it ahead of the fall crush of prestige pics.

Cinedigm also acts as an intermediary to help filmmakers and small companies get films on iTunes, Netflix, Amazon et al, making the distrib the largest aggregator of independent digital content.

But will a company with its finger in so many pies be able to concentrate on finessing the kind of careful release a film like “Short Term 12” will require? It’s a reasonable question, when multiplatform pros IFC and Magnolia have already notched several years of successfully releasing specialty pics.

“We made the argument we wouldn’t treat it like other distributors that are like releasing machines,” says McGurk. “It would be a more meaningful release to us, if we could say ‘This movie defines a Cinedigm movie.’ ” Overture’s release “The Visitor” is a good example of the type of film Cinedigm is seeking, says McGurk.

“Short Term 12” is the company’s highest-profile acquisition so far, though Cinedigm’s push to become a significant indie distributor has already resulted in an Oscar nomination and a Spirit award for Kirby Dick’s military rape docu “The Invisible War,” the first film acquired after Cinedigm bought New Video last year.

Cinedigm also is opening “Arthur Newman,” with Colin Firth and Emily Blunt on April 26; and teaming with Tribeca Film to release the Julianne Moore starrer “The English Teacher” on Ultra VOD on April 16, with a May 17 theatrical release.

New Video’s 1,200-title library is also key to the plan to work digital platforms with select theatrical dates to grow the doc audience. “Docs are not being presented in the right way,” McGurk says.

Taking into account the buy of New Video and a refinancing of debt last month, Eric Wold, an analyst for B. Riley & Co., gives the company a “buy” rating. “The acquisition of New Video gives them an entire ecosystem,” Wold says.

McGurk also thinks there’s strong potential in the alternative exhibition business.

While companies like Fathom have had steady but limited success in booking theaters during off-hours with opera performances, lectures and rock concerts, McGurk has a different idea about how to grow alternative content. Starting with the Docurama label, which rolls out seven titles in theaters starting April 22, he envisions a number of “channels” — horror, urban, faith-based, action sports — that would attract filmgoers who enjoy seeing movies with like-minded people. The same strategy would carry over to digital platforms, offering the same titles for home viewing, likely at a later date.

Of course the distribution landscape is littered with the corpses of upstart distributors, including Overture, but McGurk insists the growth of digital revenue and flexibility of release plans gives Cinedigm a better shot at success.

McGurk explains that the company’s distribution business rests on “low upfront with high quantity and the ability to downstream.”

Wold says Cinedigm’s conservative approach, combined with the long tail of digital distribution, should put the company on the path to profitability in the content division in the very near future.

“We’re not chasing box office,” McGurk says.

Rebrand Time:

With more public-facing content than ever, Cinedigm felt it was time to rebrand, with the previous searchlight logo seen as too cinema-focused. Jon Hutson of Brand Culture, which helped come up with the image revamp, said the new look would help the company “be perceived as a smarter decision for the filmmaker.” The semicircle C of digital-looking dots is “agile and adaptive” and can change color and look, whether on VOD, theater trailers or one-sheets.

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