×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.”

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

More Film

  • Ventana Sur: Latido Films Acquires Hari

    Ventana Sur: Latido Swoops on ‘This Is Not Berlin’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES — In the first deal to be announced on a title in Ventana Sur’s three live-action feature competitions, Madrid-based Latido Films, headed by Antonio Saura, has acquired world rights outside Mexico on Hari Sama’s Copia Final contender “This Is Not Berlin.” Latido’s buy, celebrated with a handshake at Ventana Sur, effectively re-calibrates the [...]

  • Storyboard Media Announce David Albala’s ‘Viento

    Storyboard Media Announce David Albala’s ‘Viento Blanco’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Chile’s Storyboard Media has announced an agreement to co-produce, along with Caliber 71, Javier Valdés and Benjamin Vicuña, director David Albala’s second feature, “Viento Blanco.” (“White Wind”) Albala’s debut, “Jailbreak Pact,” turned on a dramatic real-life prison-break which took place in Santiago, Chile in 1990. That film was also produced by Caliber 71, distributed by [...]

  • C International Sales, Pablo Solarz Ink

    C International Sales Inks Sales Representation Deal with Argentina’s Pablo Solarz

    Argentina’s Pablo Salarz, one of Latin America’s best-known film and TV writer-directors, has entered a non-exclusive financing relationship with C International Sales, the international arm of Cinestaan Film Company. Although non-exclusive, the deal is an early example of international companies moving to court or tie-down key talent in Latin America. The deal was negotiated by C International [...]

  • Director’s Feature Debut Paints Dark Comic

    Cuba’s Marcos Diaz Sosa Delivers ‘Shock’ to Ventana Sur

    A disenchanted young pregnant woman is afraid of getting stuck in the small Cuban town where she lives. But when a tornado whisks her away to a luxury resort – where her competitive shooting skills turn her into a celebrity amongst the island’s Communist elite – she comes to realize, like a Hollywood heroine of [...]

  • Alan Moore's 'The Show' to Star

    First Look: Alan Moore's 'The Show,' Starring Tom Burke

    The first look image has been released from British independent movie “The Show,” based on an original story by graphic novel creator Alan Moore, best known for “Watchmen,” “V for Vendetta,” “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “From Hell.” The cast is led by Tom Burke, whose credits include “War and Peace,” “The Souvenir” and [...]

  • Thierry Frémaux on Netflix, the Oscars,

    Ventana Sur: Thierry Fremaux on Netflix, the Oscars, Argentine Cinema, Educating Spectators

    BUENOS AIRES — “You can’t condition Cannes on an event which takes place in Hollywood the following March,” said Thierry Frémaux in a keynote speech at Ventana Sur, “Questions on the Present of Cinema,” which took in Netflix,  “Roma,” and the need to educate audiences for more complex cinema. Cannes Festival’s charter insisted that it [...]

  • Inseparables Venice

    Sony Pictures TV Clinches Expands Multi-Territory Deal on ‘Inseparable’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES — In another Hollywood studio deal unveiled at Ventana Sur, Sony Pictures Television has expanded its multi-territory deal on Marcos Carnevale’s “Inseparables” (Inseparable) to take in four new major territories: France, Germany, South Korea and Japan. Sony Pictures Television already holds all TV/VOD rights for Latin America and all rights for México, Chile and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content