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How Roadside Attractions Fights to Give Indies a Theatrical Path to Success

In January, work and life partners Howard Cohen and Eric d’Arbeloff went to war.

Their 15-year-old film distribution and production company, Roadside Attractions, engaged in heated rounds of bidding for four titles playing at the Sundance Film Festival — the Cinderella story “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” the Mindy Kaling comedy “Late Night,” the political documentary “Knock Down the House” and the Ted Bundy biopic “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.”

They lost. They were outbid by what Cohen and d’Arbeloff estimate was as much as six times what they offered sales agents for the chance to roll out the movies to American audiences. Amazon Studios snapped up “Brittany” and “Late Night” for a combined $27 million. Netflix acquired “Extremely Wicked” and “Knock Down the House” for nearly $20 million.

“All four of those movies went to streamers, and arguably all four might have been better served by us,” says Cohen, reflecting on the festival over a recent breakfast in Beverly Hills, a few miles from their West Hollywood headquarters.

Amazon’s shopping spree served as yet another cautionary tale about the tendency of traditional distributors and streamers getting caught up in a film festival bidding frenzy and overspending for movies with questionable commercial prospects. Both “Brittany” and “Late Night,” backed by pricey marketing campaigns, failed to earn back their acquisition costs, and the Netflix titles disappeared into the ether of its vast original movies library.

Roadside, like other small indie distributors such as Sony Pictures Classics, has managed to succeed in a highly competitive market despite being fiscally conservative.

The company, which is partially owned by Lionsgate, stands as an increasingly endangered species in a Hollywood landscape rife with digital disruption and mega-mergers. Cohen calls Roadside’s creative approach “bespoke,” but there’s a surprising uniformity to the annual slate, which almost always yields an Oscar darling, a commercial-facing sleeper hit or both.

Right now Roadside is sitting pretty with a serious awards contender in Renée Zellweger’s “Judy” and one of the most profitable indie movies of the year with “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” starring Shia LaBeouf.

Zellweger is considered the front-runner in the best actress Oscar race, receiving heavy praise for her turn as ill-fated superstar Judy Garland. Roadside, which is co-releasing “Judy” in the U.S. with Mickey Liddell’s LD Entertainment, first had designs on the project when the initial promo image of Zellweger as Garland went viral at the Berlin Film Festival in 2018. 

“We correctly predicted there would be a lot of audience love for the subject matter and the performance, and that aspect of it could burn really brightly. We could really seize that moment,” d’Arbeloff says.

Later that year, in Cannes, a five-minute sizzle reel and a quick read of the script sent them into overdrive. They came in as the first bidders on the project with Liddell, and won it in a low- to mid-seven-figure deal.

After playing at both the Telluride and Toronto fall festivals, “Judy” opened in late September to a rousing $3 million on only 461 screens. To date, the film has earned $19.5 million, and Zellweger continues to generate strong awards buzz.

“It has its own set of challenges to be an early front-runner in anything,” Cohen says, acknowledging that he and d’Arbeloff wrestled with dating the film so early in the conversation. It was a “hotly, hotly debated decision, but it’s always good to shake things up.”  

The Roadside partners have enjoyed a good track record for return on investment going back to their earliest days, when they released Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 Oscar-nominated doc “Super Size Me,” which gobbled up more than $20 million worldwide on a $65,000 budget. This year, in addition to “Judy,” Roadside is having box office success with its other current release, “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” which is approaching $20 million domestically on a $6 million budget. The film, which will seek awards attention for LaBeouf and his differently abled co-star, Zack Gottsagen, recently overtook A24’s Awkwafina vehicle “The Farewell” as the highest-earning indie film of 2019.

“From the very beginning, we really wanted the company to be the antidote to elitist, New York-based entertainment. We wanted to be more populist, to make movies that have what we call a willingness to entertain.”
Eric d’Arbeloff

“From the very beginning, we really wanted the company to be the antidote to elitist, New York-based entertainment,” says d’Arbeloff. “We wanted to be more populist, to make movies that have what we call a willingness to entertain.”

That’s been evident with “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” which has played to diverse audiences across the country thanks to its Mark Twain-style odyssey down the Outer Banks of North Carolina and the star power of LaBeouf and co-lead Dakota Johnson. 

“It has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. It won a top award at SXSW. It took the country embracing it to make it successful, and it wasn’t as obvious as a movie for cinephiles,” Cohen says.  

It’s a model the pair have leaned on for years, as they did with one of their definitive hits, “Winter’s Bone.” The 2010 drama launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence and brought a spotlight to the underappreciated director Debra Granik. It earned four Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actress for newcomer Lawrence.

Along with being a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, it was a “butts-in-seats movie that we could open in Missouri on our second weekend,” d’Arbeloff says, adding, “You could look at it and think it’s an extreme art film, or see a thriller with a compelling heroine. It’s great to get accolades, but our job is to sort of translate what a movie is into something that audiences can understand.”   

The ability to straddle the line between popcorn and prestige has served Roadside well, especially in attracting partnerships that help the company bring in revenue while retaining independence. In 2007, Lionsgate bought a 42.9% minority stake in the company and has leveraged it to great success. 

 Last year, the companies jointly released the faith-based “I Can Only Imagine,” which closed 2018 as the highest-grossing indie of the year, with $83 million in ticket sales on a $7 million budget. Lionsgate rolls out all of Roadside’s films for home entertainment, and has partnered on notable releases like “Margin Call,” J.C. Chandor and Robert Redford’s “All Is Lost” and Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq.” 

Lionsgate vice chairman Michael Burns has high praise for what Cohen and d’Arbeloff have achieved. 

“Those two guys remind me of something my father said, that ‘It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t have to take the credit,’” says Burns. “Eric and Howard are those guys. They’re not flashy, they’re straight shooters and they work their tails off for movies they believe in. And I believe there’s still a niche in the market for all kinds of filmmakers who want their work in theaters.” 

Though in some spaces Roadside directly competes with the streamers, its long-standing entrenchment in the legacy theatrical business has made it an ideal partner for tech giants wanting to crack the content business.

The company has released half a dozen films for Amazon Studios, including the acclaimed 2016 releases “Love & Friendship,” directed by Whit Stillman, and “Manchester by the Sea,” which won an original screenplay Oscar for director Kenneth Lonergan and a best actor award for star Casey Affleck. The combined domestic gross of the two films was more than $60 million.

Roadside’s partnership with Amazon ended when the streamer struck out on its own with wide releases for “Late Night,” in June, and with “Brittany” two months later.

“We correctly predicted there would be a lot of audience love for the subject matter and the performance” of Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in “Judy,” Eric d’Arbeloff says.
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

“The relationship with Amazon was fantastic,” Cohen says. “It was shorthand, and it worked really well for both sides. But they made a corporate decision at the end of it to go it alone. … It didn’t work that well, and part of it was … it wasn’t as nimble.”

Cohen and d’Arbeloff say that one advantage of being a boutique distributor is an ability to make decisions that serve the films, not a larger corporate mandate or strategy. Lionsgate has encouraged Roadside to remain “very independent,” the executives say, and they give credit to their competitors in the indie space that have survived under conglomerate ownership.

“We don’t rely on Lionsgate for our annual budget; we self-finance, so that’s created a certain amount of discipline in the way that we run our company that’s very different from Fox Searchlight or a Focus Features,” D’Arbeloff says.  

Cohen says those divisions, as well as Sony Pictures Classics, have thrived where “many, many, many” have not. 

“Sony partly works because they’re in [New York], and Focus has found a groove, but obviously they’ve had three or four different heads. Searchlight has had a remarkable, consistent creative mandate. They’re very specific,” he says.   

With Disney tentpoles dominating the release calendar, and awards season starting earlier every year, d’Arbeloff says he and Cohen always come back to a mantra that reminds them of the role they hope to play in the larger Hollywood ecosystem.  

“One of our favorite movies we ever released was a documentary called ‘The September Issue,’ about putting out the biggest annual issue of Vogue. The whole theme of that is about curation,” d’Arbeloff says.

“The magazine’s creative director, Grace Coddington, is the ultimate creator, and Anna Wintour is the ultimate curator. You can do all of this work, but then she’ll walk right up and throw it all out with a no. It inspires us to bring that level of attention to the choices we make.” 

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