What The Success of ‘It Follows’ Means for Indie Film Distribution

What The Success of 'It Follows' Means for Indie Film Distribution

This Monday I read an article in Forbes calling last weekend’s expansion of “It Follows” from 32 to 1218 theaters a mighty flop. Badass Digest‘s own Devin Faraci tweeted his reaction to said article…

@devincf: “IT FOLLOWS is a very good movie that made an ambitious play and it didn’t work. The movie isn’t a hit.  It didn’t do well.”

I disagreed with Devin’s tweet (sorry Devin) and the article that inspired it, so I decided to counter with an argument as to why this release is not only a huge success, it is an important precedent for independent film distribution.

The Forbes article contextualizes “It Follows” as if it were a major studio film with an enormous marketing campaign. It bemoans the fact that it only made half of what [Adam Wingard’s] “You’re Next” grossed in its opening weekend and is therefore a failure.

“It Follows” was initially announced as a “compressed window” VOD release (theatrical March 13, VOD March 27) with a modest advertising budget. “You’re Next” had a $20 million dollar advertising campaign replete with billboards, bus shelters and a giant TV campaign. It went wide in week 1 on 2437 screens, more than twice that of the “It Follows” week 3 expansion. The fees to license Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” just for the “You’re Next” trailer are likely comparable to the initial marketing budget of “It Follows.” This just isn’t a fair comparative measure.

Despite that marketing budget handicap, “It Follows” was the fifth highest grossing film in the nation last weekend. #4 was freaking “Cinderella.” “It Follows” vastly outgrossed the giant, hugely-promoted Liam Neeson thriller “Run All Night,” also in its third week of release. The $3129 per screen average was the fifth highest of all the top 20 grossing movies of the weekend.

All of this was done by a movie from an unknown director, a cast with no name recognition and a very limited advertising budget. “It Follows” is on track to gross more than $12 million dollars, is already the highest grossing film in the history of Radius, boasts a 95% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and should be painted as the independent film success story of the year, not a “flop.”

I chatted with Tom Quinn (founder and CEO of Radius-TWC, the distributor of “It Follows”) yesterday to ask him if he thought the release was a success. Tom confirmed that they have been planning for the possibility of expanding this run for months and confided that they had an internal success criteria of grossing over $2 million dollars. Nearly doubling that threshold to hit $3.8 million  was a huge victory and he now projects “It Follows” to have double the profit margin than the original “compressed window” release would have.

The real story here is this nimble distribution strategy deployed by Radius. When “It Follows” shattered records and posted a massive $40,000 per screen average in its first week, Radius postponed the week 3 VOD launch and opened the floodgates to quickly confirm over 1000 theaters. Many of these theaters did not have the “It Follows” trailer in rotation and yet it still racked up a $3129 per screen average.

I release films under the Drafthouse Films banner. Sometimes we release films “traditionally,” meaning a long, exclusive theatrical run followed by VOD and iTunes. More often than not, however, we release films in this “compressed-window” strategy, with theatrical, VOD and iTunes happening virtually all at once. This allows us to save money on marketing and only promote the film once for all platforms. Whenever we choose the compressed-window strategy, we know that 80% of the cinemas in the country will refuse on principle to play the film, severely hobbling the theatrical box office.

What I would love to see in the wake of “It Follows”‘ success is increased flexibility by all the major players involved: VOD platforms, cinemas and iTunes alike. Strong indie films with a chance of breaking out would begin with a 2-4 week theatrical window. If they do extremely well, the VOD and iTunes windows would be pushed back to allow the theatrical revenues to be maximized and for awareness of the film to build. At the same time, expansion market cinemas would be willing to pick up the film, provided it crossed certain revenue thresholds in its first two weeks of release. If the theatrical grosses aren’t there, the film would stick to the compressed-window strategy or maybe play in those expansion markets with just a few showtimes. 

To date, the cinema industry is largely unwilling to discuss any flexibility in the way independent films are booked. I am in accord with the industry that new-release blockbusters need to have a long exclusive theatrical window. But for independent films, we need greater flexibility.

READ MORE: As ‘Snowpiercer’ Hits VOD, the Industry’s Divided on Distribution’s Future

Later this year, Amazon is proposing a slate of films developed by legendary indie producer Ted Hope. To the dismay of both cinemas and VOD providers alike, Amazon has floated a four-week theatrical model followed by a launch on Amazon Prime. I am in full support of trying out this model. I would further advocate, however, that the Amazon Prime launch date be flexible, such that if one of these titles opens as strongly as “Grand Budapest Hotel,” it can have the theatrical breathing room to crawl up to $60 million dollars in box office. We kept “Grand Budapest Hotel” on screen for six months at the Alamo Drafthouse, and it is now our 10th highest grossing film of all time. 

On the flip side, some films that perform well on VOD should never play in cinemas. Currently VOD platforms require films to have a 10-market theatrical release in order to get elevated placement. Not all films deserve this. Take “The Cobbler,” for example. It has a 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was called “ghastly,” “wildly ill-conceived” and “almost fascinatingly awful enough to recommend” by top critics. By no rational account is this a good movie. It is not a must-see theatrical experience. But it certainly deserves elevated placement on VOD channels. Adam Sandler’s diehard following will make it a success on VOD, and they aren’t going to be swayed by whatever the critics might say or how it performs in theaters (grosses were not reported for this title, if that tells you anything about its performance).

My hope is that “It Follows” will be remembered not just as a great new horror film but as the movie that paved the way to a new, flexible, nimble partnership between cinemas, VOD platforms and iTunes. I firmly believe that a new paradigm could benefit filmmakers and all parties involved. In the meantime, check out “It Follows” in a theater near you. It is a really fun movie and a great cinematic experience.

League is the founder of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, co-founder of Fantastic Fest and was named by the Austin American Statesman as “one of the most unusual CEOs in Texas history.” He likes to eat really good food, drink really good beer and sing really bad karaoke but is getting slightly better at it. This post originally appeared at BadAssDigest.com and we’re republishing it with League’s permission.

READ MORE: Tim League Reveals Mega-Awesome Distribution Strategies

This Article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit and tagged , , , , ,


Comments

John Guinn

Many, Many Thanks for the information 7-19-2015

Robert

Yes, agreed that it’s totally unfair (and lazy) to compare it to other films. This is a success by any stretch.

And JOE (above) you are wrong.

Justin Hamaker

The problem with your suggestion that theatres be flexible with the VOD window is that theatres are trying to protect their very existence. Over the last 10+ years, the studios have been increasingly chipping away at the amount of time between theatrical release and when a movie is available for home viewing. This continues to erode the theatre business.

While it may seem the theatres are being inflexible, the reality is they are trying to protect their ability to stay in business. And anyone who enjoys going to a movie theatre should appreciate this. If the studios succeed in narrowing the window beyond the current 3 months which has more or less held for the past few years, it will give consumers even more reason to skip going to the movie in a movie theatre. While big city theatres may be able to survive, many small town theatres already survive on very thin margins and would be hard pressed to survive any further erosion of their audience.

The end result would be that if you do not live in a major metro area, seeing a movie in a movie theatre may require a sojourn to a city, rather than a short drive to the local movie house.

A reasonable person might ask why theatres can’t accommodate a different model for independent films than they do for movies from the major studios. It’s not an unreasonable suggestion, except that doing so would embolden the major studios to follow suit. Furthermore, small town theatres are often left out of the initial wave of releases on smaller movies, so it can be difficult to plan for, and accommodate such titles.

Looking in from the outside, it may seem like theatres are just being greedy and inflexible. The reality is movie theatres are fighting for their very existence against studios who are constantly trying to marginalize them.

TC

As an independent theatre in Canada we had booked IT FOLLOWS when Cineplex wouldn’t for successive weekend late night engagements. The first weekend was a big success. On Monday the distributor called me to yank the film from our schedule and send it over to Cineplex. It was not a pleasant experience – and unfortunately we’re bound to have disappointed customers showing up at our doors at 10.30pm this weekend.

NotBroke

Theater owners should not leave themselves exposed to an empty slate three weeks out just because films don’t open well…it is wise for them to deal with distributors who have the balls to commit to 3 month vod window…there is nothing in the current model that would prevent a small indie from opening on 1 or 2 screens and breaking much wider if audiences wanted it…except greedy and impatient distributors who want vod money immediately.

Christen Kimbell

"Strong indie films with a chance of breaking out would begin with a 2-4 week theatrical window. If they do extremely well, the VOD and iTunes windows would be pushed back to allow the theatrical revenues to be maximized and for awareness of the film to build."

The maddening part of all of this is, isn’t this common sense? Why haven’t we been distributing indies this way up till now?

JoeS

First off, IT FOLLOWS is a good, not great, movie. I appreciated how it patterned itself on Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN with a dash of THE RING and an overlay of Cronenberg’s early ‘body horror’ films. And, it even winks at the audience about those homages with characters watching TUBE TV sets with rabbit ears etc.
Stylistically, it’s fine, but, as others have written, the last act of the film is unsatisfying. The themes, though potent, never really come together.
As to the release pattern. It’s VERY much a work in progress. By signalling that you plan on going VOD soon, it lessens the movie in audiences’ eyes no matter how the company spins it. In this age of social media the word gets out that it isn’t really a "big" release like PARANORMAL ACTIVY Part whatever, ANNABELLE etc.
There were FIVE people in the theater on Monday. In Los Angeles. Opening weekend at that multiplex.
You only have to look at how SNOWPIERCER is being spun by Weinstein as a "success" because it made $11 Million COMBINED theatrical and VOD to see how ridiculous these comparisons are. There is no reason in hell that SNOWPEIRCER shouldn’t have made double, triple or more of that amount in theaters alone if they hadn’t botched the release with early VOD.
IT FOLLOWS isn’t a "flop" and it will do ok overall, but, this way of releasing movies still has a lot of tweeking to go.

Armak

The Forbes article is the equivalent of a sports announcer dismissing a player for "only" hitting a single without looking at their batting average or RBIs. Films can’t be compared against each other like a horse race, but entertainment media has become fixated on rankings and lists. Thanx for this insightful examination of the relative measures of indie "success." Agree completely with the windowing proposal too.

Chris

First, a question: is there really that much booking flexibility? Can small and independent theaters really stake their booking to such an uncertain model? Surely there is some flexibility, but how much – can a theater really leave it’s schedule for just 2-3 weeks in the future up in the air? And if it does that, doesn’t it have to have backup movies? And who provides those backups? And what happens if a platform release hits and expands, and thus the backup distributor can’t get its movie out? Most importantly, if there’s this much flexibility in booking, then why the hell are filmgoers having to wait 6-12 months for the top films from Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, et al, after they first screen and are picked up and after critics have long since moved on to the next film festival’s films that most people won’t see for many months?

Second, while It Follows shouldn’t be considered a failure, we should try to avoid overly praising Radius-TWC, as I’m not sure they deserve any of the hype. Let’s remember that it was just last year that they and a few media outlets insisted that the release strategy for Snowpiercer – limited theatrical and quick VOD – had been such a huge success that it might change the release paradigm (which is also why we should be skeptical over the claims that It Follows is changing the paradigm). Their change on It Follows – particularly pulling the early VOD release – suggests that maybe TWC-Radius never believed what they were hyping about Snowpiercer themselves – maybe they really were just dumping Snowpiercer in the U.S., had some robust VOD numbers, and then decided to hype that to make themselves sound like geniuses. Plus, there needs to be some explanation from the company on how or why it didn’t see the potential in the movie for a wide release from the get-go. Lacking big stars or a no-name director is not a major issue for horror. Since the film had been screened at festivals, they also knew that they would have a strong critical response. Not sure why they didn’t pick up a wide release strategy in the first place.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *