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AFM: New Distributors Energize Indie Market

With the seven major studios devoting increasing focus on tentpoles, the indie sector is seeing a welcome emergence of new distributors.

The biggest splash this year has come from 6-month-old Saban Films, which bought three films — John Travolta’s “The Forger,” Taylor Lautner’s “Tracers” and Hayden Christensen’s “American Heist” — at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. That’s been a tonic to the volatile world of independent producers.

The label is looking for mid-range commercial fare and the occasional prestige title — such as “The Homesman,” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank, which it acquired at Cannes. It’s the first release from Saban Films, opening Nov. 14 as awards season gains traction, and should send a message to the industry.

“Releasing ‘The Homesman’ shows that we’re in this seriously,” Saban Films president Bill Bromiley says.

Another upstart making waves is Broad Green Pictures, which picked up “99 Homes,” starring Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield; Gallic drama “Samba”; and Mia Hansen-Love’s “Eden” at Toronto. Hedge fund managers and brothers Gabriel and Daniel Hammond launched the company this summer.

“The response has been very gratifying,” Gabriel Hammond says. “People are kind of fascinated by our choices and taste. And we are hiring 40 people in the next three months.”

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Broad Green has not yet set a date for any of its titles. “We are still in the works on dates because we want to get Andrew to do promotion on ‘99 Homes,’” Gabriel Hammond says. “We’re pretty sure that ‘Eden’ will go in March.”

Broad Green will be on the prowl at AFM. “Acquisitions are a great way to find a filmmaker who can then make their next movie with you,” Hammond says. “We’re looking for everything — no stone left unturned. We’re really building a studio infrastructure and capability.”

They plan on releasing six titles next year. The goal is to produce three to five a year with budgets between $10 million and $50 million, along with three to five acquisitions and an occasional film in the $500,000 to $5 million range.

Specialty distributor Freestyle Releasing saw its top grosser ever this year with “God’s Not Dead,” which topped $60 million. President Mark Borde says the faith-based title is a milestone for the company.

“ ‘God’s Not Dead’ is our ‘Twilight,’ ” he says. “We’re going to AFM with very strong expectations.”

The reason is simple: The major studios aren’t as active in generating mid-budget fare. “We have very close relations with exhibitors,” Borde notes.

“They need product 365 days a year and the seven studios can’t do that on their own.”

Another source of guarded optimism is coming from the growth of streaming services. On Oct. 20, Lionsgate and Tribeca Enterprises announced a subscription video-on-demand service; HBO also recently announced plans for a standalone over-the-top service.

Cinedigm, which is launching over-the-top services Docurama, Comicon TV Comic Con Channel and the Dove Movie Channel, believes that filmmakers have begun adapting to the changing circumstances of distribution.

“The majority of filmmakers have to be interested in a new model for releasing indie films, and you could not say that two or three years ago,” Cinedigm CEO Chris McGurk says. “You’re already seeing it through Magnolia and Radius. People want to see content when and where they want so we’re very encouraged.”

The turning points in finding money in the post-theatrical release window came in 2011 and 2012 with a pair of financial thrillers — “Margin Call” and “Arbitrage.”

“Those were really the groundbreakers,” McGurk says. “We did very well on ‘The English Teacher’ and ‘Afternoon Delight.’ So any meeting that we have will probably include a discussion of day-and-date VOD. I think people kind of get that now and more is coming because you have all these platforms that need content.”

California-based Main Street Films has more than a dozen films including Mike Newell’s “Great Expectations,” Joe Manganiello’s doc “La Bare,” which it bought at Slamdance and released theatrically in June and on VOD in August; Christian Schwochow’s German spy thriller “West,” bought in Berlin for release on Nov. 7 to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; and “The Turning,” starring Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, bought at Cannes for an early 2015 release.

“We did very well on ‘La Bare’ by targeting women (and releasing on) at less than 20 screens,” says prexy Harrison Kordestani. “It did very well on home entertainment. Studios are looking to spend $20 million and release on 2,000; we’re looking to spend a maximum of $500,000.”

For “West,” Main Street will be looking at the education market — at people who have no idea about this being the 25th anniversary, he says. “You are always trying to find a niche. We are not trying to sell everything to everyone.”

Veteran film financier Robert Simonds is also aiming to take advantage of the changing dynamics of the sector at a still-unnamed studio with a roster that includes former Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson and former Disney and Fox exec Oren Aviv.

The 4-month-old studio is led by Simonds with backing from TPG Growth, China’s Hony Capital, Gig Pritzker and Beau Wrigley. Simondsproducing credits include “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “The Pink Panther” and “The Waterboy.” His new company is looking to produce and distribute as many as 10 films annually at budgets ranging $20 million to $60 million.

President Sophie Watts says that the shingle is not worried by rival indie-type distributors (CBS Films, Sony Classics, Searchlight, TWC, Focus and now Saban) that are trying to accomplish the same thing.

“Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive because we are stepping into an empty space and because of who we’ve brought on,” she notes. “Adam made these kind of movies at Universal — “Safe House,” “Bridesmaids” and “Contraband” — and they worked really well.”

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