Are aggressive film distributors like Relativity, FilmDistrict, Fox Searchlight and others doing a disservice to independent films, making them seem bigger than they are in promotional materials, or are they indie filmmakers' most valuable supporters, helping small films compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace?
That's the central question at issue in my latest Indiewire article, "The Delicate Art of Wrapping Indie Movies in Mainstream Marketing."
The practice is nothing new, of course. When the independent film business was just getting its legs, Harvey Weinstein was famous for using sex and scandal to promote his films to as wide an audience as possible. Notoriously, Miramax sold Billie August's bleak Danish drama "Pelle the Conqueror" with the image of a sexy girl in the ads, and in some markets, as an action adventure film. Those looking for foreign titillation or genre thrills may have been disappointed, but "Pelle" got widespread recognition, a decent $2 million box-office, and the 1989 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
When the studios left the indie sector in 2008-2009, these companies quicky swooped in to fill the gap. But as I wrote in the article, "the race to commercialize indie titles has always remained — and will continue to remain — risky." Based on costly acquisition fees and marketing campaigns, a movie like "Like Crazy," for instance, may need to gross over $10 million.
The producers of films like "Drive," "Martha Marcy May Marlene," and "Another Earth" certainly aren't complaining. Distributors gave these films big pushes, with major marketing dollars, bringing awareness and attention to the filmmakers, and in the case of "Drive," a wide release. But is this the best way to handle artistic auteur-driven movies?
"Another Earth" producer Hunter Gray told me he had doubts about Fox Searchlight's marketing campaign of the film. But ultimately, he concluded, "Throwing a bunch of money at a small film is just about the best thing we can ask for in the current model."