All the signs of impending major disruptions to the wobbly business model of the theatrical specialty film industry have been blasting at us like a neon marquee in Times Square for nearly two decades. ¶
Among the premonitory events that signaled loud warnings of big-time arthouse heartaches: The 2004 pic “Crash” was regarded at the time as a solidly commercial indie hit, some good news for the indie film sector which was already deep in decline from its mid-90s market share high of roughly 15% of U.S. box office.
Its bigger impact, however, was its left-field Oscar best picture win, widely acknowledged at the time as watershed moment for the impact of small-screen viewings on Academy voters. Flooding the voting bodies with tens of thousands of video screeners was viewed as innovative and bold, but in retrospect it can be seen as the beginning of the modern Oscar era, increasingly dominated by non-theatrical distribution and home viewings of contending films.
Adding to the indie sector’s travails, the funny money that funded billions of dollars in indie film productions without yielding virtually any returns burst as a supporting role bubble to the real estate and Wall Street speculation mainstage crashes of 2008.
As the share of U.S. box office receipts for indie pictures shrank, their impact on the awards season races went in the opposite direction. Essentially, the theatrical film industry, dominated by comic books, reboots, animation, action and fantasy franchises and assorted pictures that were heavier on popcorn than plaudits, handed the Oscars over to the indies.
As I lamented in these pages at the time, “in 2017, the nine best picture nominees’ cumulative gross of approximately $530 million represents less than 5% of the annual theatrical tally.” In other words, as the Oscar-contending movies generally became smaller in scale, their financial relevance to the theatrical film business was also dramatically diminished.
That year, with a production budget of $4 million and a cast of largely unknown actors, Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” took the best picture Oscar, again signaling the dominance of small indie dramas in the major Oscar categories.
Everyone knew three years ago when French film industry objections to the intrusion of streaming platforms prevailed and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” was kept out of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival that the battle lines were being laid down for the great upcoming windows wars. The French three-year window between theatrical and streaming releases in place at that time can now be seen in retrospect as a quaint relic of a theatrical film world long gone.
Also swept away in the mists of time was the idea that Netflix may have “gotten lucky” with “Roma.” While their one primary shot at Oscar glory fell short in 2019, in 2020 Netflix flooded the Oscar zone with contending films, racking up two-dozen nominations for “The Irishman,” “The Two Popes,” “Marriage Story” and others, including a documentary Oscar win for “American Factory.”
The final harbinger of shocks to the indie theatrical system was the first-ever foreign-language Oscar best picture win last year for Neon’s “Parasite,” a sure sign that the rise of international storytelling both in awards races and on the home screens of millions of Americans courtesy of the streamers, is a tide not to be turned back. When you consider that foreign language cinema’s share of U.S. theatrical box office has declined to a fraction of 1%, their rise at the Oscars and increasing share of American eyeballs glued to exciting new foreign series, documentaries and films on home screens is incredibly good news for everyone except American arthouse owners.
Which brings us to the Plague Year, which has decimated movie theaters of every kind, from Imax venues to hole-in-the-wall purveyors of esoterica. And it is not done yet.
A nation that is housebound, along with most of the rest of the world, would be devastating enough to the theatrical business by itself, but when coupled with the change in non-COVID-related moviegoing habits, the relegation of virtually all dramas to small-screen releases, the vitality of foreign and American indie productions created exclusively for home viewing, there’s a point of no return vibe in the air.
It doesn’t mean there’s no hope for big-screen specialty cinema, but it means that post-COVID indie film exhibition won’t resemble the stumbling, struggling enterprise of only a few years ago. The need for dynamic, innovative approaches to marketing awards-worthy fare is greater than ever and the brightest sign of hope for the future ironically lies in the pages of this current Ultimate Awards Guide. The filmmakers have again dug deep and brought us a new batch of engaging, provocative, emotionally charged tales that serve as the antidote to all the escapist fare and bleak health reports. They’re making films that are doing nothing less than saving our souls and helping us survive a crisis unlike any the world has seen.
There’s no shortage of great new films and the ranks of head-turning new filmmakers have again been replenished. Can the movies remain a big thing if they’re only seen on the small screen? Can some clever indie film operator find the formula that saves the large screen experience for the little films?
Time will tell.