Niche Film Distributors Explore Alternative Ways to Grab Audiences

Just before Cannes, and only a few weeks after news leaked of the day-and-date studio film distrib Screening Room, Turner announced that an SVOD service for TCM and Criterion Collection movies, FilmStruck, will debut this fall. Plans for streaming premieres will be explored.

It’s just the latest in a flurry of alternative distribution outlets that keep popping up, each promising to change the way films are seen and consumed. With so many new at-home alternatives, it all begs the question: What will theatrical distribution look like five years from now? Variety asked a number of film experts and distribution vets for their thoughts, and discovered a few examples of innovative approaches.

Mark Fishkin, who runs the Mill Valley Film Festival through his California Film Institute, has some intriguing thoughts on ways to use his org’s CFI Releasing shingle as a not-for-profit distributor.

“I see an opportunity for some festivals to serve as a distributor and/or exhibitor for films that are at the end of their festival life and not likely to obtain theatrical distribution,” he says. “Over a limited period, at a discreet time of the year, CFI Releasing proposes underwriting a screen (or screens) where five or six festivals will play a film 20-25 times, rather than the conventional two or three.” This “eventizing” of a film within a group of festivals would provide pics with limited runs, he says, “that would benefit VOD and ancillary markets, and could result in a new distribution model.”

Adding prestige to VOD fare is more important than ever. Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen, once a champion of day-and-date releasing with acclaimed indie hits like “Margin Call,” says his company is “definitely backing away from [day-and-date]. In the beginning, we were picking up an audience that wasn’t going to ever see [a film] at the movie theater. But quickly, VOD became code for a crappy movie.”

And like many in the industry, Cohen is similarly skeptical of Sean Parker and Prem Akkaraju’s Screening Room. The company is in talks with studios and exhibs on a plan to charge $150 for a set-top box and $50 per 48-hour viewing period on first-run features. “It’s a weird, schizophrenic construct, where you’re saying: ‘It’s worth $50 because it’s playing in the movie theater,’ but why is it worth $50 versus anything else you can watch on TV?” he asks.

“Festivals can serve as distributors for films ending their festival life.”
Mark Fishkin

“The success of theatrical spaces will be driven by the studios delivering on blockbusters, and in five years, I don’t think it’s going to look that different,” he adds. “Exhibitors will feel pressure to upgrade their theaters.”

“I think there’ll be consolidation and alliances,” says Josh Braun, co-president of sales outfit Submarine and its distribution arm Submarine Deluxe, citing Broad Green Pictures’ new multiyear output deal with Amazon Prime. “With companies like Radius-TWC being inactive and Alchemy going out, there are still newer companies like FilmRise and Gravitas [Ventures] and the Orchard that we’re doing a lot more business with, because we can fit the deals we’ve already done around new deals with them.”

Music Box Films president William Schopf partnered with the Chicago women’s clothing store Elle Val for a fashion show at his Music Box Theatre to promote the premiere of Magnolia’s Met Gala doc “The First Monday in May,” garnering local TV and newspaper attention. (Submarine’s Braun, an exec producer on the film, noted that screenings featuring Q&As with Vogue’s Andre Leon Talley led to some of the highest grosses at New York City’s Paris Theatre in years.) “Distributors will have to make these extra efforts to leverage audiences and maximize the advantage of theatrical distribution,” Schopf says.

And there’s another underexplored alternative: museums and event spaces. The 2016 Tribeca festival’s closing night film, “The Bomb,” an antiwar documentary, could have just been a single-screen compilation of news footage. Yet through the magic of a nine-screen projector, live music and colored lights, the filmmakers turned it into a multimedia presentation.

Producer/co-director Smriti Keshari says she is bypassing conventional distribs and contacting museums around the country to book the film. The filmmakers’ methods would be a natural way to turn conventional music docs or animated features into event releases that no streaming service could match.

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