The press release came across the inbox today… The Freebie has sold to Phase 4 Films.
It turns out that Phase Four is the new-ish parent of Peace Arch Entertainment and other DVD businesses and they are looking, seriously, for a way to break into the theatrical marketplace.
It’s hard to say this without it sounding like an insult, because it really isn’t, but theatrical has now come down to the home entertainment level and so, the door for an ambitious company like Phase 4 is wide open. After all, if in 2009, Truly Indie can get help Matt Tynauer get Valentino: The Last Emperor to $1.8 million (Phase Four did the DVD) and IFC only had one movie do better in theatrical (In The Loop… $2.4m) and Magnolia only had two (Food, Inc‘s $.5m and Two Lovers‘ $3.2m) and Roadside only has two (Good Hair‘s $4.2m and The September Issue‘s $3.9m), there is no reason why Phase Four cannot get into that level of the business.
On the other hand, it is worth noting that amongst this group, only IFC and In The Loop managed to cross that $1.8m barrier without cracking 100 screens. And for IFC, that was a wide release. None of their other 2009 releases got past 50 screens.
A young distributor like Oscilloscope can be beloved for how seriously they take their films and the theatrical experience. But The Messenger, their most commercial film last year, hasn’t cracked 50 screens and no other 2009 Oscilloscope release has been on as many as 10 screens this year.
Looking at Sony Classics is somewhat instructive. They released twenty films last year. Six were more than 200 screen wide each. Eight were on between 39 and 75 screens. And six never got to 40 screens, though one, The White Ribbon, could still expand. And the box office follows. Four of the five $5m grossers were amongst the 200-screen releases. The fifth is The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, which has done $6.4m on 48 screens and, some weeks, less. Also strong on fewer screens is Broken Embraces, the Almodovar movie starring Penelope Cruz, which has done $4.1m on 71 screens and less.
But that is what is going on out there. You need to go wide to make the bigger money, but you need to prove you are worthy of going wide before you get the chance. It helps to have the Almodovar franchise or stars like Cruz and Ledger and Depp. They know the Almodovar business inside and out at SPC. But Imaginarium was a late pick-up and you wonder whether the opportunity could be bigger… but will not be because risk/reward isn’t clear.
In any case…
The business has changed. And a Theatrical-On-The-Way-To-The-DVD-Store is not the same thing as A Theatrical.
There is nothing wrong movies being pushed out with a lean towards DVD and VOD. But these are not really Theatrical buys. Sorry. And I do understand that when these deals are made, the details of the theatrical are unknown. On a film like The Freebie, for instance, there will be other festivals to go to, perhaps the theatrical release of Cyrus, and the potential television break-out of Dax Shepard on NBC’s Parenthood. Things like this and many other possibilities help determine what the release strategy will be when it finally comes down to distribution in theaters.
In the end, Kristin Stewart in The Cake Eaters got a big DVD push last year because of Twilight after sitting around for a while, having played out its festival life… but not a real theatrical. And when The Runaways was prepping for Sundance, someone made the decision to have Apparition, which has the same Big Daddy, Bill Pohlad, release the film domestically. Only the people directly involved with that call know how much it was an offensive play, how much a defensive play, and how much traction they think they can get with Kristin Stewart and Dakota Fanning with the Twilighters and at what price.
So far, the distributor has gone wider with pictures than Sony Classics, but not as wide as Focus or Lionsgate, Summit, or The Weinsteins. Will they break out for The Runaways? Will they continue to mine this unique bit of turf? And if they had decided to try to find another distributor, how would that have gone? If Fox Searchlight, which had Juno, but stumbled with Whip It, had passed, who would have taken it on? Anyone bigger than them? Would Summit have been the natural home for it? Would IFC have been, with its NY downtown feel, the best financial opportunity to roll a film about a retro girl band?
Theatrical, at a festival like Sundance, is the tail that wags the dog these days. And it’s time we show this reality some respect and come up with the language that stops ghettoizing DVD-with-Theatrical, cause both publicists and media to either overhype these sales or to beat them down as “not enough.”