This week, IndieWire’s deputy editor and chief critic Eric Kohn moderated a panel at the 8th annual GlobeScreen Conference (sponsored by Naficy Pictures, The Jaunties, Twisted Media NYC, BidSlate and 98 Productions), where he led a discussion with three of the biggest players in independent film distribution: Myles Bender (the President of Marketing and Creative Advertising at Bleecker Street Media), Matt Cowal (Senior Vice President of Marketing & Publicity at Magnolia Pictures) and Matt Landers (VP of Marketing at IFC Films).
All three companies generally operate with unique release strategies – Magnolia specializes in day and date theatrical and video-on-demand releases, while Bleecker Street, distributor of titles like “Eye in the Sky” and “Trumbo,” is exclusively focused theatrical. IFC Films (and its alternate labels Sundance Selects and IFC Midnight) experiment with both models, running some films theatrical and others day-and-date.
During the panel, the group used their own experiences to discuss the current state of film marketing and publicity and where they think it’s all headed. How do they decide the model for releasing a film? What are their biggest fears about working in an ever-changing theatrical landscape? Is Snapchat really competing with young viewers for money and attention? Read on and find out.
It’s more than about just competing with streaming.
The heads said that they’re competing with every form of entertainment imaginable for a viewer’s night in or night out.
“An interesting thing that struck me while talking about [VOD] is that in terms of VOD cannibalizing the theatrical market, the truth is that video games and Snapchat are cannibalizing theatrical releases right now. Episodic television is cannibalizing theatrical,” Bender said. “The truth is, I’m old enough to remember when a lot of films released before VOD that still wouldn’t make any money because people wouldn’t go out to a theater to see ‘Slacker’ or John Woo’s ‘The Killer.’ Those would’ve been perfect VOD movies had it existed back then, but they did not.”
The most successful release model will never last very long.
In an ever-changing marketplace, distributors like Magnolia have to adapt to survive.
“The industry’s changing all the time,” Cowal said. “It’s gotten more and more challenging for us. A couple years ago we kind of had to change our model – there was a time where everything you put on VOD that had a certain kind of cast or genre just worked and you made heaps of money. Then that dried up and we kind of had to refocus.”
He continued, “Our model’s been all about stuff on the low end of risk, in the efficient sense, so we’re kind of going back to what the company’s founded on in looking for hidden gems. The slate of our last few years just in terms of quality has been the strongest ever. There’s still an audience for these films – they may be a little smaller, but we’ve been able to make it work, so that is gratifying.”
Older audiences are still heading to the arthouse, but young audiences have largely ignored it.
All three companies have made sustainable models in advertising to older audiences, but Gen-Y has been an issue.
“I think what the industry in general is trying to figure out is if there’s still a younger theatrical audience for indie films. I’m not sure. I think the habit still exists – I think younger audiences have more expendable income than ever. They’re getting married later. They’re not owning homes or buying cars, and they’re increasingly living in cities,” Cowal said. “Those areas are easier to convert to a theatrical audience, and they go out as often as any generation ever did.”
“What’s happened is that the theatrical experience has become less of a good consumer proposition for them. You’re competing for someone’s night out, not their entertainment choice, because you’ve already lost the battle for their choice in entertainment – there’s better free entertainment or subscription entertainment in their home every night,” he continued. “You try to be the best for their spending a night out. The traditional ways of reaching them are no longer cost efficient.”
IFC takes film distribution on a case-by-case basis.
“I don’t know how much I can talk about the different ways we do things there, but we look at each movie on its own and talk about if it’s a traditional theatrical or if it’s a day and date,” Landers said. “If we make something day and date, it’s usually for one of two reasons. One is that we think people are more likely to take a chance on it if it’s available for $6.99 at home than having to make the decision to go out to a theater, find a sitter and drive out, and buy $15 a ticket or whatever. People might take more of a chance on an adventurous movie like that at home.”
He continued, “The second is something like ‘Weiner,’ where there’s not a cost-efficient model to make that film available nationwide, even though it’s getting a significant amount of national press. When it’s on ‘CBS Sunday Morning,’ we want people to be able to watch that immediately, wherever they are. So it’s been really successful with two distinct audiences that don’t really cannibalize each other.”
VOD is not intended to look like a garbage dump (and they’re working on that).
It’s easy for a VOD release to seem like something a distributor is trying to get rid of, but IFC is trying to fix that.
Landers said, “Overall, in terms of ‘does [VOD] cannibalize the theatrical window,’ I think it can if you’re doing it the wrong way. It can too if you’re doing it the right way. The main thing is that you’re not doing anybody any good if you’re just doing a VOD release on steroids, just trying to squeeze money out of a movie that maybe shouldn’t be in theaters and adding to the crowd that’s in the marketplace.”
“I think if a film works theatrically, the money you get from it on VOD after having given it a good theatrical profile is usually about taking the risk,” he said. “That’s what we try to do – we have movies like ‘The Babadook’ that go day and date that do very well theatrically, and we take the theatrical run seriously and market those on their own. But there was a whole separate VOD audience that could enjoy it at the same time where it wouldn’t have been cost effective to get it out to more theaters.”
Theaters have to do their part to attract audiences too.
The atmosphere of a night at the movies might be as important these days as the film itself.
“Speaking of these otherworldly creatures called millennials, generation Y or Z or whatever we’re up to at this point, with regard to them, I think there’s some work to be done on the exhibitor side, too,” Landers said. “I think you have to have something more than a 16-theater mega-plex to get people in, where not only will you be seeing the movie, but you’ll also be able to canoodle with hipsters just like yourself and have a macchiato.”
“I think exhibition has made some strives toward this, I think there’s a lot of work to be done, and they have their own challenges as well. But I think the idea of event-izing the movie experience…there’s no other way for a younger generation to get the same habit to see stuff,” he continued.
When in doubt, stick with your directors.
“One thing other forms haven’t been able to quite replicate a director or auteur’s medium. Every other form doesn’t have the ability for one vision to come together, a finite form that everyone can enjoy in the dark. It’s different from a TV series, put together through a writer’s room or development, it’s different from a novel. A lot of what IFC’s been successful with, for a younger and older audience, is the director’s we’ve had – we had four movies in competition at Cannes, all directors who have been working a long time, since before I was at IFC,” Landers said. “There were films we had bought off of those directors and off of scripts.
He continued, “The only way to get something for a reasonable market value is to bet that you know what it’s going to be before it is that thing, to bet that you the essence of what’s going to make a good movie marketable: The materials, the package, the producers, if that director can deliver, it’s real estate that you bet on that’s unique to movies.”