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First Person: IFC’s Jonathan Sehring on Dramatic Change in the Specialty Film Business

First Person: IFC's Jonathan Sehring on Dramatic Change in the Specialty Film Business

EDITORS NOTE: Struck by IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring‘s remarks while accepting his award at IFP‘s Gotham Awards in New York last week, indieWIRE invited Sehring to share his written remarks with our readers as a First Person piece. At one point for emphasis, while praising the pictures coming from the studio’s specialty divisions, Sehring singled out Miramax president Daniel Battsek, nothing that however good the films coming from companies like Miramax are, they not independent films. He also encouraged the industry to embrace changes in film distribution, such as IFC’s First Take day-and-date initiation. After the speech, an informal poll showed that attendees were supportive of Sehring’s remarks, even as a few groused that the comments were merely to trumpet his own company.

Included below are Jonathan Sehrings remark’s, as written, for 2007 the Gotham Awards:

“The specialized film business, the true specialized film business, not the studio specialty business, is undergoing a dramatic change. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with studios making high end specialty films — many are great — but it has in turn made traditional theatrical distribution for movies without stars, movies shot digitally, movies in a foreign language, documentaries and too many other movies going without the means to reach an audience.

Many of my colleagues in the film community complain that there are too many movies — the music business doesn’t complain that there are too many songs, the publishing business doesn’t complain that there are too many books, the television business doesn’t complain that there are too many shows, artists don’t complain that there are too many paintings — yet our business complains that there are too many movies. I can assure everyone that independent filmmakers are not going to stop making movies — they all have stories to tell — it is up to the distribution community to be creative and help filmmakers find a way to reach their audiences. The model for film distribution hasn’t changed dramatically since the business launched almost a century ago, seemingly everything else in the movie business has.

When IFC launched its Day and Date distribution strategy we did so because we saw so many great movies going without distribution. World class filmmakers were not reaching an audience in this country. When works from masters like Wim Wenders, Hou Hsiao hsien, Ken Loach, Alain Resnais, Lars von Trier and Gus van Sant are going without distribution and great new works from current and emerging filmmakers like Larry Fessenden, Julia Loktev and Christian Mungiu, just to name a few, are available through our Day and Date model, it becomes readily apparent that what was the staple of the independent film business 2-3 years ago is no longer the independent film business today.

I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact it is a good thing. Through our Day and Date theatrical/VOD initiative these filmmakers are reaching a wider audience in a much more economic fashion. Ultimately, their movies will be seen by more people and [their film’s] make more money than ever before. Isn’t that what everyone wants?

Additionally, film lovers around the country are now being given the opportunity to see specialized movies the same day as audiences in New York and Los Angeles, and contrary to the fears of some it hasn’t hurt the box office for these films. Rather it has helped. Our partners in the cable industry heavily cross promote the fact that these movies are in theatrical release, both creating awareness for the films as well as reaching new audiences. Ken Loach and Shane Meadows have both enjoyed their most successful theatrical releases through our Day and Date program. Traditional theatrical distribution isn’t dead, but film distributors large and small are competing with more and more entertainment options on a daily basis. The digital revolution is now. More efficient economic models for distribution are working. The true independent film business should embrace these changes and figure out how to improve upon them. Sticking to old models and traditional theatrical distribution is like using a Sony Walkman instead of an iPod –

I don’t think it is coincidence that Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner were honored here last year touting their Day and Date strategy, or that IFC Entertainment is being honored this year. Our business is changing and it is changing for the better. The New York independent film [community] has always been ahead of the curve, not just in innovative filmmaking but also innovation in exhibition and distribution. I assure you, everyone at IFC is still focused on the mission we set out when we launched our network a decade ago, growing and expanding the audience for independent film. I would like to thank the IFP again for this recognition and I am proud and lucky to be part of this community. Thank you.

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I believe that there is no better time in the world to be an independent filmmaker. We have the ability to make films with great equipment, we can distribute our films and get seen.

Keep your budget under control, know your audience and make it your point to reach them.

There are many different ways to get your films out there and this is one of them. Hats off!

Adam – The film I’m self promoting about a guy who goes into the woods for 30 days without food or shelter on a water only fast. – my blog highlighting my journey of self distribution.

m w

Sehring is right. The IFC model is, right now, the only model out there that makes sense. Part of what makes his strategy work is that IFC has its own theater in NY so they can get a review the Times, which wouldn’t give a line to a direct to DVD title, no matter how good it is. This is part of the problem, which IFC cleverly gets around. Part of the antiquity of the system is built in to the way people find out about films. The Times still has the view that straight to video means crap. The internet made it possible to generate word of mouth for good DVD releases to get out there, but as long as there’s a feeling that theatrical release=quality, there’s a lot of good films that disappear.


Another viable model of distribution is the service deal where the filmmaker pays a distributor a fee but holds onto all of their other rights. Balcony, Artistic License and Emerging Pictures are all doing good work there, but Truly Indie has the most innovative model: a sliding fee per city which includes 2 newspaper ads and a publicist, and the producers keep 100% of the net box office.

It may not work for all films, but it proved a great way to launch 51 BIRCH STREET. The lesson learned is that it’s becoming increasingly unfeasible for indie filmmakers to go with smaller distribs who can’t give you much (or any) advance, can’t get your film out widely theatrically and want all rights in all markets for years to come in return. Talk about broken models!


At the last IFP Market and Conference, there was a panel with representatives from Samuel Goldwyn, Magnolia, and Picturehouse (pardon me if the names escape me) and this very topic (of the “saturation” of the market) was brought up. And without exception, when asked what depressed them about the current state of distribution, the answer was the cost of a theatrical opening, even in limited release. At this time, about 95% of the small/specialty/arthouse releases will be done at a loss. However, when asked what made them optimistic, all of them said the new avenues for distribution: VOD, specialty cable channels (not just IFC or Sundance, but Animal Planet, Discovery, etc.), and that they were hopeful that these would prove to be a whole new market.

It’s important for most “filmmakers” to realize this, and not try to ape the old theatrical model, where a documentary such as ROGER & ME becomes a theatrical box office success. As filmmakers, we must look for a “format” (in terms of production, distribution, exhibition) which suits our project, and not assume that every project must have the same possibility of theatrical success.

Hey, if Chris Marker can understand that his installations aren’t going to have the same “exposure” as his theatrical works such as SANS SOLEIL, or if Jean-Luc Godard doesn’t try to release his HISTOIRE DU CINEMA project in the same way as a theatrical feature like IN PRAISE OF LOVE, why are we thinking that we have to follow the same old models? So Sehring’s comments are actually right on target with what others in the business have been saying, and we should all be listening.

m w

There’s one more aspect of the Day and Date model that makes it a good model: it keeps costs low enough that a movie might make its money back.


In response to mw’s post… another factor at play how much people trust the Times and other papers as their primary source of information about movies. The more people discover great films outside of the “mainstream”, and the more they turn to blogs, social networks, Netflix recommendations, etc.. the more the “theatrical=quality” stranglehold will loosen. We’re still at the very beginning of a long-term decentralization (and specialization) of all media.


I agree – Sehring is right, but I think what’s more important is not whether IFC’s model works or not, but that they are at least trying to do something new. No other distribution models seem to be working anymore, so at least someone is trying something new. I don’t think he’s tooting his own horn too much either – that’s what people do when they get an award. What he was saying is “hey people – get with the program and come up with better ideas.” I’m glad he put this where it belongs – on the heads of the distribution community to get creative and come up with new models. Not every filmmaker wants to take on the colossal feat of distributing their own film (those that do, more power to you, and its great). He’s correct that its insane that the only thing that hasn’t changed in this industry is the distribution system, and its time for change. I rarely say this, but kudos to him and IFC.



My question, and don’t take this the wrong way, but are you making money with these newer models?

I was part of the dot com bubble in the late 90s. People buzzed (others might call hyped) digital entertainment, and I remember the fatastic burn outs. I remember one company going through 75 million in a couple of years with nothing to show for it but a fire sale.

I know this isn’t exactly the same thing. But the question remains, do these newer models make money by themselves OR are they making money as additional streams like what is at issue with the writer’s strike?

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