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Indie Producers Embrace Streaming Services, Despite Some Downsides

Streaming services Netflix and Amazon have been crashing the awards and festival circuit for a few years now, but is there success an outright revolution, or just a robust new business model? Either way, the producing community gives it a thumb’s-up — with reservations.

To Anne Carey, who produced “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” which earned an Oscar nom for star Melissa McCarthy, “the obvious upside is opportunity: more movies getting made, more audiences reached, and less reliance on the somewhat broken foreign-sales-driven models, in terms of determining cast viability and budget for independently minded films.”

“[While] simultaneously finding an even larger audience,” says XYZ Films’ Nate Bolotin.

Each deal is different, but a streamer will typically offer “cost plus,” covering budget, producing fee and sometimes a “premium” subbing for backend participation on a wholly owned project.

“Backend profit is so elusive to independent producers and talent, that I think the streaming deals can offer valid upside,” Carey says.

Participants end up not just in the black, but often with higher fees than might be earned through an underperforming studio release — and movies are seen worldwide, although films can get lost or overlooked on a streamer interface.

That said, the hunger for a blockbuster outlier such as “Get Out” or “A Quiet Place” is ever-alluring. Bolotin notes producers will always weigh “whether to roll the dice [and go theatrical] when a project has the DNA to break out.”

Producers of original content see streamers as efficient, marketing-savvy and open to niche projects. XYZ decided only Netflix could drive the offbeat “Apostle” they all wanted to make while outbidding competitors by “several million dollars,” Bolotin says.

Similarly, Netflix was “the best of all possible worlds” for “Amateur,” says producer Chip Hourihan, because “they’re not looking to check off all the boxes each time around.” Their desire for “a very rounded slate” reassured the producer of the intimate drama about inner-city basketball, as did the distributor’s willingness to tie release to the Final Four and NBA playoffs.

Acquisitions of completed product, though declining, also reap unexpected rewards. “Dumplin’” producer Michael Costigan says, Netflix “created a viewing ‘experience.’ Friends, families, mothers and daughters were watching the movie together on Netflix and then went on social media to talk about it,” the equivalent of “a water-cooler conversation, and really connecting with a major audience.”

When Cassian Elwes sold “Mudbound” to Netflix for $12.5 million at Sundance 2017, the deal required complex renegotiations with on-board financers, but he insists it was worth it. “Going with Netflix, there’s no failure whatsoever. It’s a success before you’ve even shot it, because the judgment of failure or success is totally different from the box office.”

The majors “have basically ceded the adult-oriented marketplace,” Elwes says, so director Dee Rees’ next pic, “The Last Thing He Wanted,” was a perfect Netflix fit. “Streamers are releasing incredible movies that the studios don’t want to make, but that the talent do. And they’re reaping the rewards creatively.”

The footprints of the streamers extends around the globe. Left Bank Pictures CEO Andy Harries has provided series for Netflix (“The Crown”), YouTube (“Origin”) and an Amazon pilot (“Oasis”). He credits them all with the “fantastic boom time” in scripted dramas.

“It’s been a fantastic opening up, blowing off the cobwebs of existing broadcasters. … The streamers brought scale, and size. And obviously the talent from movies has crossed over into television. … And the ability to make great shows is better, too, because the budgets have increased enormously. ‘The Crown’ is an expensive show. I’ve never been fully convinced we would’ve been able to make it had Netflix not offered on it.”

Tempering enthusiasm is concern about a dearth of transparency. Rebecca Green (“It Follows”; now developing an Amazon TV project) lauds the excitement of a film’s launching on one day, globally, with a targeted marketing effort. But because streamers, particularly Netflix, possess deep, undisclosed data on content preferences, “they can track what people are consuming, which is the most valuable tool” in producers’ endless quest to predict what audiences want. Detailed data on work by or about women of color, for instance, might help get other such films made.

“It’s unsettling … they have the capacity to put everybody else out of business.”

Green’s new website Dearproducer.com offers a forum for candid conversation among the producing community.

The big screen/small screen distinction is another source of stress. HBO’s “The Tale” didn’t enjoy a “Dumplin’”-like ripple effect, possibly because it couldn’t participate in any kind of Oscar rollup that would keep it up front in the conversation. In a Facebook post, producer Mynette Louie inquired into the fairness of a Netflix’s having “one foot in the film world and one in the TV world…while HBO stays in its TV lane.”

Meanwhile, a streamer’s giving little or no shrift to theatrical exhibition “diminishes” the awards process, according to past PGA co-president and Academy head Hawk Koch. Just because something is streamed “doesn’t mean it’s a theatrical motion picture,” and bypassing the traditional 75- to 90-day window affords an unfair advantage, he says. “Why should one organization get to put their content out at an earlier time than anyone else?” When a service decides a particular film is awards-worthy, it can simply postpone its streaming in accordance with the rules; problem solved.

Conceding he’s on the AMC Entertainment board of directors, Koch says he was making these arguments long before he took that appointment.

But Elwes scoffs at the notion that “Mudbound” lost awards cachet. “We were really struggling to find distribution, and the fact that it was nominated for four Academy Awards was a huge, huge success for a small independent movie.” Carey notes that streamers “are willing to spend the resources to run deep and significant awards campaigns.”

The morning of Jan. 22 delivered the goods for Netflix, which saw 15 Oscar nominations— up from eight the previous year. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” was the juggernaut Netflix needed. In 2017, Amazon became the first streaming service to score a best picture Oscar nom, for ‘Manchester by the Sea.” The film scored six nominations altogether, winning two, for lead actor Casey Affleck and original screenplay for Kenneth Lonergan.

As to what the future holds, most agree the current “glut of content out there,” in Green’s words, needs to be carefully monitored.

Carey wonders about “the saturation and fatigue of too many options,” expecting streamers’ curation to “become more finely tuned.”

Green fears the well-funded streamers could swallow up smaller players to the tune of near-monopoly. “If Netflix doesn’t want to make your movie, what do you do?”

By contrast, a more optimistic Elwes predicts the new streaming services from Warner and Disney will mean that “everyone from Facebook to Apple will see themselves as distribution platforms.” Indeed, he hopes “eventually some of these streaming services will buy movie theaters and make that part of their monthly fee. When they release a movie, you can also go see it in a theater if you want.”

Theaters? Aren’t they old school? Producers staunchly proclaim that traditional exhibition isn’t going anywhere. “A theatrical run is a glorious thing!,” Carey says.

By the same token, multiple opportunities to exhibit one’s work are prized. “I think a lot of producers agree with me, there are a lot of options,” Bolotin says.

Which in the end is streaming services’ ace in the hole: ready access to a diverse content pipeline. Costigan sums it up: “What we all want as producers, is that people will see our films.”

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