With the word “change” reverberating in the emerging U.S. presidential election, the concept is also permeating new year discussions within the film industry. Surveyed over the past week as indieWIRE examined the annual box office grosses and considered the challenges facing documentaries theatrically, a handful of film executives and insiders bemoaned the past and considered the future. Insiders were asked simply to share their observations on the business of film, festivals and/or distribution. What are the biggest issues facing independent and specialty film at this moment and what are their hopes and/or resolutions for the new year?
“The biggest issue facing specialty film remains the two-fold problem of how to best connect filmmakers to audiences and help audiences see great films as the ground continues to shift underneath our collective feet,” offered Brian Newman of Renew Media.
“The bigggest challenge for independent films will continue to be a ‘glut’ of product in the marketplace making it very tough and expensive to break through in a meaningful way,” noted Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse, “I think this will force all of us to be very strategic and selective in making acquisition and production decisions, making sure we feel the films are unique and marketable enough to warrant the increasing risk.”
“The glut of film in distribution in ’07 was very bad for everyone,” agreed Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen, “When Searchlight distrib head Steve Gilula told me that ‘Waitress‘ was forced off screen before its time in the summer, I knew we were in trouble, if that was what was happening to THEM. And then I saw it with our own films in the fall. We were forced to leave a lot of money on the table with ‘Bella,’ which was a surprise success on [October 26th], but then 4 weeks later we hit a wall of film on Thanksgiving that forced us offscreen. We otherwise could have widened and played through the end of the year.” “Bella” did earn $7.6 million in theaters for Roadside and the company had a strong year, seeing nearly $21.5 million from Michael Apted‘s “Amazing Grace,” which it released with Samuel Goldwyn Films. “But all the same, the glut, the strike, and the uncertainty of how, when and whether new media will replace DVD give me a sense of an industry somehow teetering on the brink,” Cohen cautioned.
“Film festival proliferation is rampant but perhaps a good thing is that it’s a whole distribution method for many films that won’t otherwise get seen at all,” noted Howard Cohen, “Film festivals may outlive theatrical because people like a party after all.”
“One issue is that festivals have become a business,” offered Jonathan Miller, president of First Run/Icarus Films, “Another issue is that there are too many of them, and they are not selective enough, partially a function of their being too many of them of course.” He explained that the events are creating unrealistic expectations that are, “driven by all the festivals telling all the filmmakers how great they are, and by the few breakthrough films that make it, and by the celebrity nature of our culture, and by the seeming ease of being heard (blogs etc) and saying — ‘look at me.'”
And now, with another year of Sundance approaching, some took a moment to step back and analyze the situtation. Citing the poor box office performance of high-profile Sundance ’07 acquisitions, such as “Joshua,” “Clubland,” “Grace is Gone,” and “In The Shadow of the Moon,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix‘s Chief Content Officer noted, “As an industry we continue to do things in the exact same manner hoping for a different result. That is not much of a strategy.”
Citing a recent article by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times in which she wrote, “These days too many cool movies are just passing through on the way to your Netflix queue,” Sarandos from Netflix responded, “My reaction to that is ‘There are too many cool movies that will never see a profit because our industry spends real money chasing an audience that is increasingly watching movies at home.'”
“Theatrical releasing and marketing barely works for mass appeal movies and hardly works at all for specialty film,” asserted Sarandos, who criticized the fact that specialty films are still being released the same way they were ten years ago. “The trade radius of any individual theater is simply too small to attract a big enough audience for a specialized film to pay for the cost of booking it…The intense competition for screens and the limited efficacy of print advertising for independent films is making it more difficult than ever for small great films to ever get to an audience.”
“Going forward we are forced to be more cautious than ever in what we choose to release into the shark tank of theatrical,” observed Roadside’s Howard Cohen. “Films have to almost have a perfect storm – marketability, good reviews, a defined audience and a quiet weekend to release. Good luck, right?”
“Digital technology has changed everything, but no one has adjusted to it in the way that will be needed as we move forward in 2008,” warned Brian Newman of Renew Media, “As a business, we are repeating the exact same mistakes that the music industry made before us – our business models were a temporary solution to the core problem of getting quality content to audiences that want to see it, and better solutions are now being invented, so we need new models.”
“The best ideas are coming from the filmmakers themselves right now, which is a good thing, as their ideas have been more relevant than most of what the ‘business of film’ has come up with thus far,” noted Newman. “There have now been plenty of good experiments in using the web to reach audiences, but we need repeatable, sustainable models for connecting films to their audiences while allowing filmmakers to earn a decent living. I hope 2008 is the year where those of us who care about filmmakers and their audiences step back, take a deep breath and come up with some better ideas. My resolution is to try to do this every week.”
“My deepest desire for 2008 is that filmmakers and distributors will begin to understand that the Netflix queue, or more generally, movies at home, is not the final resting place for their films, but the primary destination,” offered Sarandos from Netflix, “The battle for precious too few screens has distributors spending more real dollars while the audience is just not going out for our films.”
“Traditional windows and holdbacks are keeping real innovation from happening in our industry. It is time to blow-up those traditional models and give audiences what they want, how and wherever they want it…it is my hope that 2008 will be the start of a new era of ground-breaking and rule-busting distribution for specialty film.”