Indie-film distribution is changing

It's a 'post- studio, pre-Internet era'

by Carrie Rickey

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

27 June 2008

Young @ Heart 

The Hulk, Iron Man, and a quartet of cosmo-sipping urbanites are casting a giant multiplex shadow on art houses across the country. On a recent weekday evening, the Ritz Five theater here was so empty that, according to one e-mail correspondent, she and her 12-year-old enjoyed “what amounted to a private screening of ‘Son of Rambow.’”

What gives?

Many factors contribute to why art theaters resemble evacuation zones. Among them: a seasonal releasing pattern, an oversupply of movies, and what Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, calls “a periodic market adjustment.”

Studios are killing off their specialty-film divisions, as Warner has with New Line (“Sex and the City,” “The Lord of the Rings”), Picturehouse (“La Vie en Rose,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”), and Warner Independent Pictures (“Good Night, and Good Luck,” “In the Valley of Elah”). And indie movies are premiering on On Demand the same day as in theaters.

So does this spell the beginning of the end for the art films commonly called Indiewood?

The landscape for both mainstream and offbeat films is being reconfigured so dramatically that Ira Deutchman, chief executive officer of Emerging Pictures, a New York-based digital production company, describes distribution as being in the “post-studio, pre-Internet era.”

Summer is high season for Hollywood entertainment “tent-pole pictures” such as “Indiana Jones” that draw crowds to the multiplex. Winter is high season for Indiewood “forehead films,” as insiders call art-house fare such as Juno that make viewers think.

The seasonal moviegoing paradigm accounts, in part, for why multiplexes are jumping and art houses are relatively quiet.

But when a worthy art title such as “[email protected],” the crowd-pleaser about a senior citizen choir that sings punk-rock songs, fails to find an audience, it’s worrying. Even more so is that this year, there have been very few art-house hits - “Under the Same Moon” and “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” didn’t hit $13 million, and the even-smaller grosses for “In Bruges,” “The Visitor” and “The Counterfeiters” suggest that about 1 million Americans have seen each. (About 20 million saw “Juno.”)

The perception among Philadelphians is that if an art movie fails to connect on its first weekend, Landmark, the nation’s premier art-house chain - operator of 57 theaters from Berkeley to Boston - immediately replaces it with another title.

Rather than support films for a few weeks and enable audiences to find them, arthouse bookers throw movies at the screen like spaghetti, hoping one will stick.

“You’ve got to let audiences discover a movie, you have to nurture a title so that you have your biggest gross in the fourth week rather than the first,” Bernard says. “But most art houses are booking movies like commercial theaters: Move ‘em in, move ‘em out.”

“The pushback that we’re hearing from the public that we’re churning films isn’t true,” says Ted Mundorff, Landmark’s chief executive officer. “We’re trying to bring smaller films to the marketplace.”

“The biggest problem in Indiewood isn’t churn, but the production glut,” says Anne Thompson, columnist for the film-industry publication Variety. In 1986 the total number of Hollywood and Indiewood films playing Philadelphia numbered 172. In 2007 it was 510, a threefold jump.

The glut was precipitated by easy money, she says. Now that credit is tighter, Thompson predicts there will be fewer movies and potentially less churn at the art house.

But tight money means fewer resources to trumpet arthouse product: Publicity and advertising budgets are being cut to the quick. A film such as “[email protected],” with a five-figure marketing budget, gets swamped in the tsunami of “Iron Man’s” $40 million.

That’s why filmmakers and forecasters are experimenting with alternative ways of bringing art films to market, including bypassing theaters altogether.

Landmark has premiered films such as “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” and “Flawless” on pay cable the same day it premiered them in theaters. While Mundorff says there is no hard data proving movies are helped or hurt by making big-screen movies available on the small screen, “in the case of ‘Flawless,’ it helped the box office.”

“It may well be that the download-distribution scenario is the most cost-effective way for indie films to be seen by more people,” says Paul Dergarabedian of Media by Numbers, which tracks the movie box office.

Thompson reports that Verizon and AT&T are offering 60-day mobile-phone exclusives on Indiewood films. Netflix and Amazon are positioning themselves to distribute art films directly to subscribers. “Maxed Out,” a documentary about predatory lenders, proved a popular title for Netflix, earning 65,000 DVD rentals its first week.

“I don’t see Netflix and On Demand dominating,” Thompson says. “No one yet has figured out online marketing.” Indeed, playing movies in theaters historically is the best advertisement for a film on pay cable or Netflix.

Despite the current doldrums, the market for arthouse cinema seen in the art house remains vibrant. “It’s a cyclical business,” Mundorff says.

Observes Bernard, who has been in specialized distribution since 1981, “The obituary for art films appears every 17 years, like the locust.”

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