The Indie Film Dilemma – Hybrid Distribution for IFC?

by | August 3, 2009 | Uncategorized

This is a great article I found from the Santa Monica Reporter
Posted on August 3rd, 2009 by It talks briefly about the history of independent film and possible future for it via methods being tried out by IFC. Read On.

The Indie Film Dilemma

Most reports from show business media tell us that “independent” cinema is on life support, like the “zombie” banks that currently populate our financial system. Lately it seems that the few smaller, quirky films that arrive in theaters quickly disappear after a week or two. And outside the bigger cities, like Philadelphia where taste is more diverse, they don’t even get booked. This summer the classier chains, like Landmark, are playing mainstream titles like “The Proposal,” “The Hangover,” “Harry Potter 6,” and “Ice Age 2,” (or maybe it’s 3 — I’ve lost track of where we are in that franchise’s life cycle.) The audience for more challenging, smaller films seems to be waning.

A quick look at the summer’s grosses supports that conclusion. Box office is up. “Transformers 2” is closing in on 800 million worldwide, “Ice Age” nearly 600, “The Hangover” at 300 plus and finally, “Star Trek,” the laggard among the big winners because it means more in the US, than overseas, has brought in 380 million. “Night At the Museum,” considered a big disappointment has grossed 300 million, performing significantly better internationally than here. These are big numbers. And remember, this is before DVD release.

It’s important to note that these titles come with huge price tags, like “Transformers” at 200 million and “Star Trek” close to 150, mainly owing to visual effects. But at the other end of the scale, “The Hangover,” with a reported cost of 35 million, and Sandra Bullock’s “The Proposal,” at 40, are turning huge profits in this country alone.

There have also been expensive flops; “Land of the Lost,” “Terminator 4,” and “Taking of Pelham 123.” But when you consider the international take, some of these so called losers, both the critically reviled “Terminator,” and “Angels and Demons,” have brought in 356 and 480 million in world sales, respectively. These are far from losers. So the big studio “tentpoles,” (which include costly animated films like “Up,”) complemented by a series of mid budget comedies, are showering the studios with cash.

Where does the “independent” cinema fit in this picture? It doesn’t. It is a completely different animal, that’s currently enduring a near death experience. This year there have been no big indie winners on the level of “Juno,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” or “Napoleon Dynamite.”

In spite of the current drought I believe the segment will survive, and may even thrive. But in order to get a handle on the whys and hows, a little history may be in order.

Way back in the 50s and early 60s, independent American films were few and far between. As “product,” they were lumped together with imports from Europe and Asia, and relegated to a scrappy circuit of “art” houses. These theaters lived mostly in big cities and university towns. There was no such thing as video, and very little life in TV, because there were so few stations. So there was no revenue stream beyond theater receipts. A sad situation.

As a side note, I grew up in a suburb of New York city, where foreign films, with actual “subtitles,” were aired each Sunday night on WOR, channel 9, and, then in the early 60s, late night on channel 4, after NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies.” Until college this was my only exposure to Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, or Antonioni. And I never got a chance to see a true American independent film.

A large share of “indies” from this period were short or experimental films, shot in 16mm, and shown mainly in museums and film societies. Their distributors, like Janus Films, Films Inc., and New Line (before it was eaten by Warner Bros), made most of their revenues from university rentals. Needless to say, the flow of product was, at best, irregular. There was no pipeline for the financing of production either. Daring filmmakers like John Cassavettes and Stanley Kubrick, the most visible of American filmmakers raised money themselves.

But there was another, more profitable side to the industry. Roger Corman, Samuel Z Arkoff, (AIP films) and countless lesser known names, made movies for the grind houses and drive-ins, which played everything from horror to soft core sex films. At the time it was called the “exploitation” market. If you walked down 42nd street during the sixties and early seventies you’d see these fugitive titles on the marquees of old legitimate theaters which, in their dotage were demoted to showing movies on a 24 hour “grind.” Columbia, the small river town just beyond Lancaster, (where I went to college) boasted a notorious grind house that played Russ Meyer soft cores like “Mud Honey” and “Faster Pussycat,” alongside “Midnight Cowboy,” and “Alice’s Restaurant,” which were considered too racy for the mainstream theaters.

Until the birth of video and cable, the returns on the more serious indies was negligible, unless of course they were picked up by a major distributor, like MGM or United Artists. And once in a great while, they were.

The late 60s and early 70s, a period of great upheaval for all segments of society, saw the rise of distinctive directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, Arthur Penn and Hal Ashby. But it was the studios, responding to changing taste and competition from television that brought these young lions into the system. They gave us “Raging Bull,” “THX 1138,” “American Graffiti,” “The Conversation,” “The Last Detail,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Shampoo,” and “Five Easy Pieces,” just to name a few. For awhile film culture thrived. (If you haven’t seen any of these go forth and rent them, without delay!)

Then, in the mid 70s the pendulum began to swing in another direction. A blockbuster mentality, fueled to some extent by Spielberg’s “Jaws,” showed that wide releases of “event” movies could bring the studios massive returns very quickly. ‘Star Wars” followed two years later.

As the studios chased bigger and bigger box office returns, Miramax, a small New York distributor—which up to that point had mainly released concert films—was hugely successful with the independently made “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” Run by the canny Weinstein brothers, the company went on to release other festival darlings like “The Crying Game,” and “Scandal.” Miramax, along with United Artists Classics, which mainly distributed accessible imports, cultivated a smart, discriminating audience that the studios overlooked. Other small distributors, like Atlantic Releasing, (“Valley Girl,” “Night of the Comet,”) Live, Vestron and Island Pictures, found similar niche product and succeeded.

Once the studios saw that quality films could gross big numbers they organized “classics” divisions of their own. But unlike the small distributors they could pay a lot more for product. So began the race to either find (usually at festivals like Sundance or Cannes,) or produce, “indie” features that could recruit a mass audience.

But few of these movies were capable of big box office. Audiences are fickle, and the studios quickly saw that there was no easy formula for marketing quality specialty films. They could turn out high end genre items, like “The Godfather,” which might have been the greatest gangster film ever made. They could hire Roman Polanski and get “Rosemary’s Baby,” one of the greatest horror films ever made, but they couldn’t come up with the next “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” and not for a budget of less than a million.

For a while video and cable sales absorbed the losses from a parade of failed theatrical releases, thus keeping the specialty divisions afloat. At the same time these better capitalized studio offspring buried a lot of the undercapitalized, smaller firms by sucking up or creating the most viable product. But the problem of high overheads persisted.

A no frills operation with a genuine feel for what audiences might see, can live off the modest grosses of idiosyncratic art films. Strand Releasing, now in its 20th year, has proved that. But the studios freighted their art house divisions with large staffs and high priced office space. Their subsequent expectations were way out of line with the real world. They overpaid for festival darlings, like “Spitfire Grill,” “Happy Texas,” and “Tadpole,” which like so many others, went on to tepid reviews and indifferent reception in theaters. John Sayles, the storied writer/director of “Return of the Secaucus 7,” “Matewan,” and many others used to say that if an indy grossed 2 million it was a hit. But for the studios that number is utter failure.

As the market constricted, Miramax and New Line set their sights on directors and writers with the sort of visions that were too risky for the more corporate run studios. Tarantino was one of the stand-outs. They romanced bigger actors, dangling interesting parts in front of them for lower pay. For a while their daring paid off. During the 90s Miramax made or distributed seven films that grossed in excess of 100 million. New Line Cinema, which made its reputation releasing a mixture of low budget sci-fi, racy comedy and the scandalous output of John Waters (the Sasha Baron Cohen of his time), ultimately ended up producing the “Lord of the Rings” series. This company, which has been remade time and again by various parent organizations, went from distributing midnight movies to one of the biggest PG-13 franchises in film history. Do you get the sense that this business is constantly remaking itself?

So for the American indie, there was been no stability, and no easy formula. It is a game constantly being recreated. At this particular moment we’re coming off a glut of unloved and underperforming independent movies, with fewer distributors to show them. Hedge fund money, that for a while financed scads of low budget dramas and comedies, way more than anybody wanted to see, has all but dried up. Worse, most of this output, has proved, at best, second rate. Few of this year’s releases have been much better or more appealing than the mediocre studio output. But unlike the studio films, they lack star power and marketing muscle.

The studios, having financed and then closed their small film divisions, have driven much of their competition out of business. Some say that was the reason they were formed in the first place. In any case, we now have a dearth of specialty distributors. Miramax, having been bought by Disney, makes mid-budget adult films, mainly with ‘A’ list actors. The few others still standing include Sony Pictures Classics, mainly a venue for foreign language festival winners, The Weinstein Company, formed by the original Miramax team, and Lionsgate, which has had most of its success marketing R rated horror like the “Saw” and “Hostel” series.

IFC pictures, one of the very few supporters of true American indies, seems to be trying to work out a form of hybrid distribution that combines limited theatrical exposure with on demand downloads. So a movie that’s playing in Manhattan can be downloaded in Tulsa. This may be the way of the future.