Dr. Media says,

Dr. Media says, Dargis is on the money. Anyone interested in the Indie films should mediate on what he says, AND remember that this has been true for 25 years in various forms. The BIG difference is he alludes to, that those indie flicks that are never likely to get a theatrical , which are most, have a better shot at getting seen on the web, BUT, that means that the budgets better be very low, cause the cost of acquisition has gone down just like the cost of production–if it’s digi that is.
Of course what filmmaker wants to think that their movie is going get seen only on the web, or cable, or DVD, or VOD, none.

January 21, 2007

Hollywood Shines on Sundance; Independent Film Gets Burned


The big news last January from the Sundance Film Festival was the $10.5 million that Fox Searchlight, a specialty division of 20th Century Fox and part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, paid for the independently produced charmer “Little Miss Sunshine.” One year, numerous 10 Best lists and many millions of dollars later, the Little Independent That Could has become Fox’s best hope for a major Oscar.

As this year’s festival gets under way, the success of “Little Miss Sunshine” marks an impressive victory for Fox, but feels like a Pyrrhic one when it comes to authentically independent cinema. Once upon a time not very long ago, it seemed as if the studios’ specialty divisions might take independent film to another level, like the rich uncle who plucks you out of the weeds and makes you a star. One day you’re working in a video store; the next day you’re Quentin Tarantino.

Much as the Republicans shifted the political center to the right during the 1990s, the sale of Miramax Films to Disney in the mid-’90s shifted public perception of what constitutes an independent film. It’s old news that once Miramax hit the $100 million mark with “Pulp Fiction,” the company changed focus, growing bigger and bigger until it sized itself out of the Magic Kingdom. Still, it proved that a studio division could make money, win awards, attract talent and excite the audience, which is why Miramax and all it helped wrought is one of the best things to happen to Hollywood since the end of the old studio system.

In the last decade the divisions have released some of the finest movies being put out by the studios. Specialty division films tend to be well-made and directed at thinking adults; they’re prestige pictures and star Helen Mirren. Some are bad, some are brilliant. Few rock the world or the art, and fewer and fewer speak in foreign tongues. But in a studio context of franchises and repurposed television shows, these films are often the designated Saturday night alternatives. Alternatives that are sold, it is worth noting, on television and in big-city newspaper ads costing $100,000 apiece. To put it another way, an ad rate that is about half the take for another Sundance favorite, Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy.”

The two films had their premiere the same day, within a half-hour of each other: “Old Joy” played in a 150-seat house, and “Little Miss Sunshine,” in a packed 1,270-seat theater. People who actually saw “Old Joy,” a low-fi story about two friends on a weekend trip in the Oregon woods, seemed to love it, but, like many Sundance films, it left the festival without a buyer. Four months later it was picked up by the small New York distributor Kino International for what Gary Palmucci, the head of its theatrical sales, called the “low five figures.”

“Old Joy” first opened in Portland, Ore., before moving to Film Forum in New York on Sept. 20. Mr. Palmucci was leery about opening on that date because September marks the start of the most competitive season, when studios and independents alike roll out many of their prestige titles. But this was the time frame Film Forum offered, so Kino bit. “Old Joy” did spectacularly well at Film Forum, bringing in more than $29,000 the first week. It earned more than $21,000 the second week, but by then was competing with new studio-division arrivals, including Miramax’s film “The Queen.”

Mr. Palmucci estimated that by the end of its nearly six-month theatrical run “Old Joy” will have played in almost every major market in the country. Kino can’t afford to buy full-page ads in big-city newspapers but did run a few small ones. It also spent about $40,000 to blow the film up from 16 millimeter to 35 millimeter; $24,000 on 22 prints; $6,500 on 200 trailers; $4,000 on 50,000 postcards and about $3,000 on Web advertisements. Kino also bought posters and radio spots, and hired outside publicists. It has been a heroic effort, but the postcards, the trailers and all the glowing reviews have not been enough to make the film a hit for the distributor. As I write, “Old Joy” has pulled in less than $200,000.

OUR choices now in entertainment are “staggering,” said Eamonn Bowles, the president of Magnolia Pictures, adding “something needs to be extremely compelling to get people motivated to leave the house.”

Magnolia’s parent company, 2929 Entertainment, has decided that if people won’t leave the house, then it will start knocking on their doors. The company has begun releasing films simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and on cable, a strategy called day-and-date. It tested the waters in 2005 with “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” but its splashiest day-and-date release was Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble” last January.

A story about murder in a small town, “Bubble” was shot in high definition, the first of six such features Mr. Soderbergh plans to make for 2929. Its release was widely deemed a failure (it earned about $150,000 the three weeks it was in theaters), but Mr. Bowles maintains that the film racked up more revenue through day-and-date than it would have with a traditional release.

“Bubble” didn’t rock the world; it didn’t have to. Paradigm shifts happen slowly and the day-and-date model is just one promising survival strategy being tried out by independents. This year Kino will introduce downloads on its Web site. Other distributors meanwhile are joining with Netflix — and its more than 5.7 million subscribers — to widen their reach.

Last year Netflix and the distributor Roadside Attractions combined forces on a tiny film called “The Puffy Chair” (Class of Sundance 2005). Netflix sent E-mail alerts to its subscribers when “The Puffy Chair” was in theaters, where it earned $200,000 after two months. And when the film hit DVD, 100,000 subscribers put it in their Netflix queue. “If those people were buying tickets, it would have made a million dollars,” said Howard Cohen, a co-president of Roadside Attractions.

Last March IFC Films, which is owned by the Cablevision Systems Corporation, inaugurated a day-and-date series called First Take. The idea was blissfully simple: Each month two films would open in theaters, including the IFC’s destination art house in Greenwich Village, and be made simultaneously available as video on demand available to subscribers of major cable companies like Comcast. Among the films released through First Take were such critically well-received titles as Patrice Chéreau’s “Gabrielle” and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Three Times,” voted the best undistributed film in The Village Voice’s 2005 critics poll. Cable subscribers in cities like Fresno, Calif.; Pensacola, Fla.; and Birmingham, Ala., could watch a film by the internationally revered Mr. Hou, whose work has been largely unavailable in this country.

“Every month our number of buys has increased,” said Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment. “Right now I think there are 24 million homes out there that are digital-cable homes, and we’re probably, on a monthly basis, 1 percent of them, sometimes more, sometimes as high as 2 percent, sometimes as low as six-tenths of a percent. But that’s anywhere from 60,000 to 150,000 people buying a month. It’s fantastic.” All those cable viewers are watching six to eight IFC movies a month. But, as Mr. Sehring explained, “if you extrapolated it, a lot of movies would be doing a million or two million at the box office.”

Those numbers sound puny, but they are startlingly good in a climate in which even an American independent like “Half Nelson,” another 2006 Sundance favorite and one with a recognizable name (Ryan Gosling), earned only $2.7 million in theaters last year. For filmgoers a series like First Take means they no longer have to wait months for “Gabrielle” to come to their local art house — if they even have one — or wait even longer for the DVD. Instead they can read about “Gabrielle” or a documentary like “Drawing Restraint 9” on the day the film opens in New York and then watch it at home that night. “Gabrielle” certainly looks better on the big screen, but for many Americans this is a moot point because it will never show up at the local multiplex.

“I believe in the idea of the big tail,” Mr. Sehring said, invoking the title of Chris Anderson’s best seller “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.” In a nutshell Mr. Anderson argues that the Internet has allowed companies like Amazon to thrive from selling a little bit of lots of different things. Mr. Anderson cites Netflix as another example, but what works for a DVD rental company with 70,000 titles won’t necessarily work for a distributor like Zeitgeist Films, which releases five to six features a year. Much like the studio divisions, distributors like IFC and Magnolia are owned by companies with diverse holdings and are thus part of two “long tails.” That gives them a strategic advantage over small distributors like Kino and Zeitgeist.

Film critics wax nostalgic about the golden age of art-house cinema, back when Jean-Luc Godard was making news not specialty films. But releasing independent fare has always been a tough racket, and distributors were talking about getting out of the art-house business as far back as the 1960s when there was a perceived glut. To survive, companies are being forced to think outside the theatrical box with downloading and day-and-date, and that isn’t a bad thing. These days, intrepid cinephiles know that some of the best films are playing in one of the hundreds of festivals that have sprung up around the country; they also know some of those same films can be bought online.

In March IFC will release Ken Loach’s origin story about the Irish troubles, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes last year, through First Take. I could buy that same film online from British Amazon or a video store that sells imported DVDs, but it will be cheaper to watch it at home through my local cable company, and my soda won’t be watery. For right now IFC has found a way to get interesting films to audiences that have long been radically underserved. Video on demand may not be the great savior of independent film, but it bodes well for those who will never go Hollywood and wouldn’t want to even if Harvey Weinstein himself signed the check.