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Film Lives, Distributors Struggles and More: 4 Lessons From Independent Film in 2016

Despite several bright spots, it's turbulent times for indie film, with industry players scrambling to adapt to the new normal.

The independent film world has much to celebrate in 2016. Amid the backdrop of global events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump that have led to heightened levels of uncertainty, it’s been a fine year for cinema.

READ MORE: The Best of 2016: IndieWire’s Year in Review Bible

There’s also been significant upheaval in indie film, however, with industry players scrambling to adapt to the new normal. So what are some of the key takeaways from the the past 12 months in movies? Here are four lessons from independent film in 2016.

1. Distributors are taking a beating.

Expanded home entertainment options from deep-pocketed digital players like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon took a bite out of the theatrical market in 2016, making it even harder for independent distributors to acquire films that attract an audience. Former indie powerhouse The Weinstein Company has seen its 2016 films generate just under $15 million in combined U.S. box office grosses this year. Its total from 2016, including grosses from prior years, was $64 million. From 2010 to 2015, they topped $200 million every year at the domestic box office.

Interest in arthouse titles also declined, as evidenced by the bankruptcy of sales agent Fortissimo in August, an Asian and arthouse cinema pioneer that had been around for 25 years, representing narrative films like Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love” and documentaries such as Robert Kenner’s “Food Inc.” British independent distributor Metrodome also filed for bankruptcy protection the same day. The company was known for distributing foreign language and indie titles like the 2009 foreign-language Oscar-winner “The Secret in Their Eyes.” “Territories aren’t buying those kinds of movies anymore because they aren’t working,” Marcus Hu, co-founder of independent distributor Strand Releasing, told IndieWire in August. “Who are [sales agents] going to sell these movies to if there’s no one buying them?”

2. Slow progress for underrepresented filmmakers.

“Certain Women”

IFC Films

Of the roughly 500 projects that screened at this year’s American Film Market, known as “Hollywood’s global deal-making event,” only 12 percent had a female directors. While that’s up from 9 percent in 2015 and 7 percent in 2014, it represents a net change of zero compared to 1998. Indies directed by women this year include Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe,” Jodie Foster’s “Money Monster,” and Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women.”

There is reason to celebrate the fact that half of this year’s 20 acting nominees Oscars could be people of color — a welcome change over the past two Academy Awards — but there’s still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to independent storytelling from black filmmakers.

“Every now and again you’ll have a film like ‘Precious’ or ‘Moonlight,’” actor David Oyelowo told IndieWire at the Gotham Awards. “That’s the film of the season, and rightly so, but we need more consistency.” Some of the acclaimed films from African-American directors this year include Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” Roger Ross Williams’ “Life, Animated,” Denzel Washington’s “Fences” Avu DuVernay’s “The 13th,” and Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro.”

3. VOD keeps growing.

Video-on-demand now represents the largest revenue source for many films, thanks in part to the growth of U.S. consumer spending on subscription streaming, which rose from $2.33 billion in 2012 to $5.04 billion in 2015, according to data from The Digital Entertainment Group. Spending on streaming is on pace to hit $6 billion by the end of 2016, and companies looking to claim a piece of the subscription VOD market are launching nearly every week, creating ever more ways for film fans to find independent gems from the comfort of their own homes.

The amount of money that can realistically be made off indie titles is still something a mystery, however. Unlike box office grosses, companies don’t report VOD revenue, so the platform’s commercial potential is hard to gauge. We still have to rely on iTunes charts and anecdotal reports to get a sense of how individual titles perform. Indeed, with Netflix not disclosing any viewership data, there is no such thing as a hit or a flop for movies that premiere on the streaming giant.

4. Celluloid is still alive.

“Loving”

Focus Features

Though digital video technology replaced film as the preferred medium for making Hollywood movies back in 2012, reports of the death of celluloid are premature. The list of independent films released in 2016 that were shot on film includes “La La Land,” “Loving,” “Personal Shopper,” “Jackie,” “Fences,” “Silence,” “Nocturnal Animals,” ‘Things to Come,” and “The Love Witch,” among others. Even newcomers like Brady Corbet are finding ways to shoot on film, having shot his debut feature “The Childhood of a Leader” on 35mm.

READ MORE: President Donald Trump: How the Indie Film World Will Respond

During a press conference at the New York Film Festival, “The Lost City of Z” director James Gray explained why he insisted on shooting on film, which cost an additional $750,000. “It’s a very easy answer: 35mm is better,” Gray said, adding that he “hates” digital. “No picture ever said, ‘Shot on digital, but please excuse the fact that it looks a little crappy, because it was easier for the filmmaker.’”

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