Corporate players have been showing a lot of love for initiatives aimed at cultivating indie film talent. There's Amazon's (controversial) Amazon Studios project; Paramount and Lionsgate are working on new low-budget production initiatives; and the just-announced Open Road Films is a joint venture of the AMC-Regal theater chains designed to acquire and release mid-sized specialty movies.
However, all this activity begs an impolitic question: How many new independent movies and undiscovered talents have yet to be tapped? Is this latest rush to capitalize on indie cinema misguided, leading to another round of unworthy movies produced and promoted in search of the one big crossover success? Or are these actually worthy endeavors that help to champion emerging, quality filmmakers in a marketplace that still remains largely dismissive of their craft?
One new enterprise, "The Big Break Movie Contest," which is backed by Relativity Media's Rogue distribution arm and AMC Theaters, speaks to the risks and benefits of such initiatives. Announced last August, the contest offers the winning filmmaker — to be announced March 10 — the opportunity to obtain theatrical distribution across the country in 50 AMC theaters for at least one week as part of AMC's independent program, AMCi.
After months of review, the six judges (who included actress Kate Bosworth and Relativity CEO Ryan Kavanaugh, among others) selected two finalists, Sean Kirkpatrick's "Cost of a Soul," an earnest melodrama about returning Iraqi soldiers, and Ricky Fosheim's "That Side of a Shadow," a drug-fueled drama about two antagonistic friends who become involved in a Las Vegas robbery. Public voting between the two finalists ended on Tuesday with "That Side of a Shadow" the hands-down favorite, though ultimately the winning film will be chosen by the jury.
Originally, the contest was supposed to have five finalists. These included such indie favorites as the Spirit Award's recent Someone to Watch winner "LiTTLEROCK," Berlin Film Festival youth award recipient "My Suicide," Methodfest winner "16 to Life" and Austin Film Festival audience favorite "Herpes Boy."
But after further review, these hopefuls were disqualified because submissions needed to have all worldwide rights available.
For hundreds of independent films produced each year, that criterion might not seem excessive. Plenty of films that screen at festivals are looking to sell off all worldwide rights — rights that Rogue will own for the winning film.
But veteran distributor and Emerging Pictures president Ira Deutchman, who is not affiliated in any way with the program, says, "To find something that's had no rights sold around the world is a difficult proposition to begin with —- anything of any value, anyway." Even for films that Deutchman says are pejoratively called "broken theatricals," films that have done the festival circuit without getting a good U.S. deal, "there's still the likelihood that there's going to be some sort of pre-sale around the world that would support it," he says.
From 2005-2008, for example, Deutchman's Emerging Pictures partnered with indieWIRE on a series called Undiscovered Gems, which similarly awarded a theatrical run to a film without U.S. distribution, albeit on a smaller scale than the Rogue/AMC program. But the majority of the selected films had already sold over the world, just not in the U.S. "From the sound of it," Deutchman adds, "the rules they're creating [for Big Break] are going to create a small pool of movies."
Submitting filmmakers, initially excited about the opportunity for a theatrical release, were also later put off when they read the fine print in the contest's exclusive licensing agreement.
According to one filmmaker, the contract included a clause that suggested Rogue reserved the right to cut the movie however they wished. "As soon as I read that," says the director, "it was end of discussion." The filmmakers were also concerned that any changes to their film would be considered "distribution costs" and therefore would be deducted from their cut of the sales. They also believed the financial terms of the deal "seemed off balance to us."
Even with such issues, the contest still serves an important purpose, particularly for filmmakers who still covet a domestic theatrical release and don't want to engage in the labor-intensive process of D.I.Y. distribution and world sales.
Still, there's a tradeoff. The contest's winning filmmaker, for example, might ultimately see more money in their pockets if they sold foreign, video and VOD rights separately themselves; then again, maybe not. And Rogue and AMC will give the film a footprint in the marketplace that they might not have had otherwise.
Indeed, Ricky Fosheim, who co-wrote and produced "That Side of a Shadow," admits, "Chances are we're probably not going to receive much money on the backend, but that's something we were willing to take in exchange for the amount of exposure we can get."
And exposure in a crowded market for a "first-time director's independent film," as Fosheim notes, is usually hard to get.
Rogue plans to commit "an integrated PR and digital marketing strategy" for the film's release, according to their materials. Additionally, the AMCi program promotes the fact that they're bringing indie films into their some 60 AMCi theaters with one-sheets and pre-trailer mini-programs, according to AMC's VP of Specialty and Alternative Content Nikkole Denson-Randolph, who also served as a contest judge.
She cites one modest AMCi success, "Mooz-lum," starring Nia Long, which had impressive first-weekend per-screen averages of $12,700 (and eventually, total grosses over $300,000). "It's not a huge business," she admits, "but we have a very diverse guest base — African-Americans, Hispanics and Hindu audiences — so we're compelled to diversify the content. We have the screens," she adds, "so why not leverage them to do that."
Fosheim, for one, relishes the opportunity. After working on his movie for three years, he's glad to finally let go of the film and hand it over to some established companies, so that he can focus on his next film. "It'll save me a lot of time," he says.