When nascent distributor FilmDistrict recently announced it would shutter its New York office, with more than half of its staff either relocating to Los Angeles or getting pinkslips, exiting distribution chief Bob Berney said he believed in the company's fundamental strategy: Aggressively marketing and releasing independent films to a wide audience.
He's not alone in that faith, of course. In addition to studio stalwarts Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, among the companies embracing the buy-low/open-big ethos are upstarts Open Road, Relativity, Summit and CBS Films.
However, at this point it's fair to raise questions around big marketing spends in search of a breakout: What's the best way to bring artier films to the marketplace — not only for the financial health of the industry, but also for the filmmakers?
After all, it wasn't long ago when the specialty bubble collapsed in the face of overspending, overreaching distributors. Among the dearly departed are Picturehouse (another Berney stomping ground), Warner Bros. Independent, Paramount Vantage and the original Miramax.
One aspect of these distributors' strategy is forcing indie movies inside trojan-horse marketing campaigns. By making them look bigger than they are, sometimes they emerge to conquer audiences – and sometimes the audience turns on them.
Of course, that's the nature of the film business. But since indie distributors don't have the same resilience as the studios, the result can be crippled companies and a damaged industry.
Take FilmDistrict's release of "Drive" from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who had earned an international reputation — if not the commensurate audience — with his ultraviolent oeuvre. In search of as wide an audience as possible for "Drive," the company advertised the film like a Hollywood genre film. The trailer emphasized the movie's action sequences, highlighting brief violent sequences over its more lyrical passages and cinematic longeurs.
Of course, that's what FilmDistrict had to do to justify opening a movie on 2,886 screens. But some viewers responded as if the approach was an injustice. Chief among them was Michigan resident Sarah Deming, who filed a lawsuit against the "Drive" distributor.
Among her claims: It promoted the drama "as a chase, race, or high speed action driving film, similar to 'The Fast and Furious,' 'Fast Five' or similar movies," when, in fact, according to the claim, it "bore very little similarity" to such a film, citing its "many segments of slow paced interpersonal drama, including the friendship between Driver and Irene and her family."
On its face, the lawsuit's ludicrous — but given the film's C-minus CinemaScore, she may not be alone in her views.
"Drive" producer Marc Platt acknowledges that misleading marketing risks alienating audiences, but says that wasn't intentional with his film.
"There's always a danger in sending a marketing message that doesn't satisfy expectations when you go into the theater," he says. "But what's so unique and challenging about the movie is that it is mixed genre. In the hands of Nicholas Refn, it's a crime thriller that becomes the existential struggle of a character who happens to drive fast and go in car races.
"From a purely marketing perspective, it's really hard, in a 30-second trailer, to communicate that," he says. "And because there are people who will want thriller aspects and people who want existential aspects, you don't want to sell something that's neither."
Ultimately, Platt says FilmDistrict's strategy worked. Total receipts topped out near $34 million for a film with an estimated $15 million budget — but it should be noted that the figure doesn't account for the film's massive marketing spend.
To a lesser extent, Fox Searchlight's marketing for its Sundance acquisitions "Another Earth" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" also played up the films' genre elements to seduce wider audiences.
In the case of "Another Earth," initially it seemed to work: The film opened with a solid $19,435-per-venue average on four screens, driven presumably by positive word-of-mouth and a strong sci-fi emphasis. And the trailer focuses on the film's more otherworldly aspects rather than its more conventional dramatic elements.
But the film lost its momentum after about a month in theaters with a $1.3 million gross, making it likely one of the more unprofitable pickups for the studio.
You can't fault Fox Searchlight for trying to make an indie event out of "Another Earth" and catapulting the careers of Brit Marling and director Mike Cahill. But could this tiny film withstand a studio campaign that suggested it contained a sci-fi drama? Fox Searchlight did not respond to emails for comment.
"Another Earth" producer Hunter Gray calls the film a "huge success." But he acknowledges, "Relying on the hype of undiscovered talent is going to be a losing bet most of the time."
"I have always had doubts about the marketing campaign itself," he continues, "but throwing a bunch of money at a small film is just about the best thing we can ask for in the current model."
Searchlight's release of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" also emphasized the film's genre elements, using suspenseful music, horror-film shock-cuts, and high-stakes drama in the film's trailer, despite the movie's more delicate art-house pacing.
Here as well, the strategy worked for the first few weeks, but as "Martha" expanded from 98 to 183 screens last weekend after four weeks in release, the resulting per-theater-average — $2,678 — may be an indication of the limits of the film to cross over to the mainstream.
But "Martha" executive producer Ted Hope argues, "If the film is of quality, the audience who gets there and has a good experience forgets how they got there in the first place.
"Whether they get more character than they bargained for, get a little more intellectual stimulation than they expected or get a little more emotion than they get adrenaline, I don¹t think they're going to think about suing anybody."
"But if you have a film that doesn't work fully," he adds, "and you go in there expecting a comedy and you get a drama, then it doesn't benefit anyone."
However, the question still remains whether expensive TV spots and skyscraper-wrap advertising are justifiable expenses for indie movies. Gray, for one, wonders if Searchlight will continue to make such buys on next year's festival circuit and continue the strategy? He certainly hopes so.
Another factor in this continuing shift is, for the most part, indies don't look like indies anymore thanks to the RED HD camera, ace low-budget cinematographers like "Martha's" Jody Lee Lipes and other technological innovations. This gives distributors license to believe in the possibilities in more aggressive and expensive releases.
"It does open up certain opportunities for looking at a movie in a commercial context," says Roadside Attractions' Eric d'Arbeloff. "So at least we don't have that strike against
Of Roadside's recent release of the Wall Street drama "Margin Call," he admits, "Of course, we wanted to make it look like a viable commercial product." Hence, the trailer emphasizes the film's slick look and starry cast.
"But we weren't trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes," d'Arbeloff says. "When you have Demi Moore, it starts looking like a commercial movie. But it's not like we pretended it doesn't take place inside one location."
Still, the race to commercialize indie titles has always remained — and will continue to remain — risky.
After three weeks and expanding to 70 screens this weekend, Paramount Vantage's "Like Crazy" has earned more than $1 million, with a $7,500 per-theater-average. Again, it's an impressive start. But the film reportedly cost $4 million to buy; and then, of course, there's the
marketing. The L.A. Times recently reported that the Sundance winner would have to gross more than $10 million to be profitable.
But perhaps these companies don't have another choice. With viewers facing endless choices not only in theaters but on VOD, iTunes and the web, trojan horses may be necessary for survival.
Says D'Arbeloff, "This is not a moment in time to be meek."