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David Poland

By David Poland

Defining Indie 2010: The Indie World Needs New Language

The press release came across the inbox today… The Freebie has sold to Phase 4 Films.
Phase Who?
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?
We’ll see.
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.”

16 Responses to “Defining Indie 2010: The Indie World Needs New Language”

  1. LexG says:

    Runaways = 31 MIL OPENING WEEKEND.

  2. mutinyco says:

    Well… this all depends on who you’re reading. Maybe this is a MSM issue. But if you go into the indie world, the only thing anybody talks about is VOD and self-distribution models — to the point of boredom.

  3. David Poland says:

    And yet, Mutiny… they are all still looking for a theatrical deal… because they know that the economy of scale is a major issue. We need to get it out of the ghetto, but not to overhype it… to offer honest context.

  4. Joe Leydon says:

    Again: If there were as many MSM outlets now as there were as litle as 15 years ago – would these movies and others be getting enough coverage to attract more customers? I know I risk sounding like a cranky old man complaining about the good old days, but, again, I can’t help thinking that, when the history of early 21st century indies is written, there will be a direct correlation discerned between the decrease in daily newsapers, and the reduction in the theatrical audience for indie movies.

  5. mutinyco says:

    Unrelated. But I thought I’d pass along a portrait I painted of David Brown as part of a series I’ve worked on for a few years.

  6. David Poland says:

    Joe – I think you’ll be much more likely to see the problem starting VHS and DVD, not because of the competition with theatrical, but because they changed the way films were distributed. The biggest single element, to my eye, is the massive increase in ad budgets for theatrical. It devalued criticism in the way criticism more directly led to ticket sales, and it took away the incentive to exhibitors show patience, which art house takes, given that older viewers take longer to show up than kids.

  7. marychan says:

    “The Runaways” will actually opens in wide release on 3/19/2010. (not limited release)
    I think it is likely that Bill Pohlad had never offer “The Runaways” to other distributors; he may had decided to release “The Runaways” through Apparition from early on, just like what he does to “The Tree of Life”.

  8. marychan says:

    On the other hand, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” was actually acquired by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group (which asked SPC to handle this film’s theatrical release).
    So it may be another example of Theatrical-On-The-Way-To-The-DVD-Store?

  9. David Poland says:

    1. A schedule listing of “wide” doesn’t always mean wide. That’s pretty constant. I would never assume to know the distribution plans based on that.
    2. Tree of Life was not ever intended to go out via Apparition. Another distributor backed out because of financial issues. They waiting an awfully long time before deciding on Apparition for The Runaways.
    3. SPWAG acquires movies for DVD and in some cases, makes deals that include distribution guarantees. They cannot decide for any of Sony’s other divisions that those divisions will output anything. If they pass – which they did on Moon until Sundance last year and did with Black Dynamite – SPWAG finds another output deal, Apparition being first in line these days. Used to be Roadside and Sam Goldwyn.
    SPC made the decision to get involved in Parnassus. But SPWAG only got to it because there were no bidders out there and they desperately needed a DVD deal months after it was in play and not being bought.

  10. marychan says:

    Thank you very much, Dave! Your infos are always very valuable.
    But for Rentrak’s release schedule, Rentrak only accepts the informations directly from distributors. So I think it is Apparition which states to Rentrak that “The Runaways” will open wide 3/19/2010.
    (BTW, Variety’s review for “The Runaways” also states that the film will open in wide release on 3/19/2010.)
    Release plans can be changed in anytime; but based on Bob Berney’s track record, her is not the Weinsteins (who change release plan frequently). :p
    But you are right that there was an awfully long time before Apparition announced that it would release “The Runaways”.
    However, Apparition announced that it would release “The Tree of Life” when Malick was still editing the film. If Bill Pohlad stil really hopeed that “The Tree of Life” could go out via other distributor, he wouldn’t allow Apparition to release “The Tree of Life” when the film was still in post. (unless Bill Pohlad thought that the film had no hope to find bigger distributor after watching early footage)

  11. Rob says:

    David, where are you getting your screen count info on Imaginarium and Broken Embraces?
    Imaginarium expanded to more than 600 sites on 1/8 and Broken got to 200 a week or two ago.

  12. marychan says:

    Just an additional note: Sony Pictures Classics only expands “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” to less than 565 theaters at the peak. (It is because Sony isn’t releasing “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” in Canada, where this film is actually distributed by E1 Entertainment.)

  13. David Poland says:

    marychan – Tree of Life was, indeed, slated to go out via another distributor that had also invested in the film. But as the post schedule expanded and the budget grey, they sought to be bought out… and were. And soon thereafter, Apparition announced.

  14. mutinyco says:


  15. marychan says:

    Thank you again, Dave. Hadn’t heard about that story before.

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