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Indies Fight to Survive as Marketplace Undergoes Radical Changes

For CinemaCon’s annual gathering of theater owners in Las Vegas, the Motion Picture Assn. of America released a new report showing a 6% drop in theatrical attendance in the U.S. and Canada in 2017, representing a 22-year low.

Though the breakout success of “Black Panther” is likely to quiet some worries about superhero fatigue, distributors and exhibitors working the mid-range and low-budget end of the spectrum are facing some doubts about the viability of their product in the age of tentpoles and streaming media.

The situation isn’t dire. A largely tepid year for specialty releases was offset by a strong awards-season showing for a handful of films. The breakouts of 2017 included “The Shape of Water” ($63.5 million), “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” ($54.2 million), “Lady Bird” ($48.9 million), “The Big Sick” ($42.8 million) and “Wind River” ($33.8 million).

“It’s definitely a tough time,” says Jeff Bock, box office analyst for the tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. “But there’s an opportunity there as well. Distributors like STX and Roadside Attractions have shown that there is a place to put your foot in this business because a lot of the major studios really are concentrating more than ever on tentpoles and blockbusters. That mid-range film is almost nonexistent in a lot of their schedules.”

He points to such genre-focused upstart distributors as Entertainment Studios (“Hostiles,” “47 Meters Down”) and Aviron Pictures (“The Strangers: Prey at Night,” “Kidnap”) which have successfully marketed higher-profile films in the mid-range budget category.

Chris Charalambous, executive producer and head of acquisitions of Entertainment Studios, agrees that the tentpole era is creating an opportunity. “We’re meeting and collaborating with the most talented, seasoned producers in the business, because there’s only so many job slots available to work on franchises and tentpoles, and [creators] still want to tell original stories, and there’s still an audience that’s very much craving original storytelling. That’s a big part of what we’re up to.”

Unlike a typical indie distributor, Entertainment Studios doesn’t develop challenging material that requires chasing an audience. Instead, it focuses on original content in genres with a track record of marketplace success. (The political docudrama “Chappaquiddick,” released on April 6, is an outlier in this regard.)

The strategy also depends on giving audiences an experience that can’t be easily replicated at home. “We look at movies all the time and say, ‘That movie doesn’t have a theatrical panache,’” Charalambous says. “‘It doesn’t feel like something that could be event-ized.’”

“Distributors have shown that there is a place to put your foot in this business because a lot of the major studios really are concentrating more than ever on tentpoles and blockbusters.”
Michael Barstow

The method could prove contagious. Earlier this month, Fox Searchlight, in announcing a development deal with “The Shape of Water” Oscar-winning director Guillermo Del Toro, also introduced a genre label focusing on horror, sci-fi and fantasy projects.

But the films facing a bigger threat from the ubiquity of streaming media are character-driven dramas and foreign-language films.

“A wide release is almost like winning the lottery for an independent film these days,” he says. “You just hope to get into a handful of theaters, and set stuff up for a long streaming life.

“A film like ‘Strictly Ballroom,’ back in the day, by an unknown filmmaker — it kept going because it was in these small theaters all over the place, and got great word-of-mouth, and just kept steamrolling,” Bock says. “That just doesn’t happen anymore. Those films, even to get out of the gate these days, they’d have a streaming contract before they would even consider a theatrical release.”

Mark Fishkin, the founder and executive director of the California Film Institute, which now also has a distribution arm, says: “Certainly people have talked about the death of quality films for adults, back in the days when Picturehouse and other specialty divisions were closing, and we know that’s not the case. Just look at the last year,” referring to several Oscar-nominated features. But he admits that “for the smaller films, especially foreign-language, it’s been exceedingly difficult.”

He says that at CFI’s Smith Rafael Film Center, “We obviously are highly invested in the theatrical experience. We do a lot of special events, and also try to make the film a special event.” He mentioned a recent screening of the French winemaking drama “Back to Burgundy” that was followed by a wine-tasting with four different vineyards.

Still, the long-term survival of the arthouse is threatened by aging audiences and changing tastes. In an impassioned Twitter thread last month, Baltimore-based film programmer Eric Allen Hatch argued “how short-sighted it is for film distributors and exhibitors to engage with [or succumb to] a vision of ‘art house’ cinema that largely coddles old, white, affluent audiences with complacent, interchangeable fare.”

The Strangers: Prey at Night; $5.0m Est. budget; $24.1m Cume Worldwide Gross

He added: “The audience is changing, and the senior set that art houses have sought out as their core customer base — too often at the exclusion of so many others — won’t live forever. Young, diverse crowds aren’t checking in at ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotels’ in 2018.”

One potential savior is MoviePass, a subscription service that allows passholders access to an unlimited numbers of theatrical movies per month. The service recently signed an exhibitor agreement with the 255-screen Landmark Theatres chain, a longtime holdout. The company claims that the average age of a MoviePass holder is 26.

“MoviePass is at least attempting to change the model, and shake up the way that consumers view their product,” Bock says. “[It’s] something radical, and something that I think is necessary right now for the movie industry to stay on top for a little while longer.”

Fishkin also seems to welcome the disruption. Just as the advent of home video created “people who are more knowledgeable about film,” Fishkin says, “it’s possible that things like Filmstruck and MoviePass will create new generations of people who are interested in … independent film, foreign-language film and documentaries.”

Still, anyone paying attention to the film festival marketplace recognizes that theatrical sales are on the wane. “The number of distributors willing to take chances on independent fare is shrinking,” Bock says. “That’s not to say you can’t do it. It’s always been a gambler’s marketplace. Nobody knows anything from film to film, and people are willing to take chances. But those chances are being shaved back a little bit. There’s other avenues right now that make more sense.”

What: CinemaCon
When: April 23-26
Where: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas
Web: CinemaCon.com

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