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Attention, Ted Sarandos: Indie Distributors Have Something to Say To You

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire November 6, 2013 at 11:25AM

Eamoon Bowles, Tim League, Matt Grady, Richard Lorber, Dylan Marchetti, Emily Russo and Mark Urman talk Ted.
Ted Sarandos

Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos has recently riled the industry with talk of day-and-date releasing films on the streaming service and accusations that theater owners will "kill movies" if they continue to resist multi-platform distribution.

Yesterday, Ted Sarandos backtracked saying that he wasn't calling for day and date on Netflix, but was just "calling to move all the windows up to get closer to what the consumer wants."

Whatever it is that he is calling for, it's clear that day-and-date continues to be a hot-button issue for the industry.

Of course, we know what the consumer wants: to have as many options as possible and to see movies when and where they want to as soon as they become available. But does that make financial sense for distributors and theater owners?

John Fithian, president/CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners told Deadline that, in fact, Netflix was imperiling the future of movies. But where do independent distributors fit into the equation? Surely, they want their films to be seen by the greatest number of people, but they need to make sure that revenue is generated.

We asked independent film distributors for their response to Sarandos' keynote and his suggestion that theater owners are killing film by quashing day-and-date releases on Netflix and their thoughts on the future of movie theaters and how we watch movies. Below are their unedited responses:

Mark Urman, Paladin:

God save us from keynote addresses.  Full of absolutes that become obsolete before you know it. Nothing and no one can kill the movies, certainly not the theater owners, many of whom have already adapted quite successfully to the changing tides.  True, the large commercial chains have yet to, and treat digital like it's the Antichrist, but they have their reasons.

Ultimately, the audience decides what it wants to see -- when, where, and how.  Theaters must cater to audiences, as do digital distributors. For that matter, filmmakers must as well.  So, it's all up to them, or should I say us?

So much change, so much confusion, but a few good movies are all we need to make things right.  And, does it really matter how people see them as long as revenue is generated? 

Sorry, but I have no BIG IDEA; just a lot of small ones, every day, most of them about movies and how to get them out into the world.

Ultimately, the audience decides what it wants to see -- when, where, and how.

Emily Russo, Zeitgeist Films:

That's not a surprising perspective to have from Ted. From my point of view, if that's his position then Netflix will also have to change their model for how they acquire product and in general be a more reliable partner.

Because the theatrical model, for all its risks, is still where we generate potentially, the greatest rewards for our titles.  Lots of sea changes going in in our industry, we're also trying to figure out the next 25 years (to follow the 25 we've successfully navigated).

Dylan Marchetti, Variance:

I understand why Mr. Sarandos wants every film to be on Netflix day and date. I want every (good) film to be a Variance release.  But he knows that any resistance here isn’t to day-and-date releasing, it's to "day-and-date and also free for Netflix subscribers."  Windows are important, and they are a science, and Sarandos knows that too… if they weren't, we'd see House of Cards running on NBC at the same time it showed up on Netflix.  After all, everyone with a TV gets NBC, so aren't access to all those eyeballs what's best for the show?  Not necessarily -- because this isn't checkers, it's chess.

But since gauntlets are being thrown down, how about this one: If Netflix is serious about day and date movies on their platform, why don't they do what they did with television and put their money where their mouths are, go for original content?

If I were them, I'd give a million or so dollars to fifteen of the most exciting filmmakers out there (Manohla Dargis smartly suggested something similar to this last year).  No strings attached and no interference...make your dream project and it'll debut on Netflix, with an appropriate marketing push.

Give it to new school folks like Terence Nance, Eliza Hittman, Mike Ott, Ava DuVernay, Panos Cosmatos, Alex Ross Perry, Dee Rees. Give it to old pros like Lynn Ramsay, Sayles, Araki, Anders, Jarmusch, Linklater.  And don't forget foreign filmmakers like Sono, Lanthimos, To, Breillat, Cristian Mungiu… it's a global culture now, subtitles aren’t scary.  Don't get me started on the possibilities for docs.

Right there, for less than the price of half a season of House of Cards, they'll have instantly developed the most interesting slate a distributor could hope for, and the films are theirs to do with as they please.  That's something I could do a roadshow or traveling festival with, going out the same day it was on Netflix (or even after), and people would show up for it in droves.  It'd bring more film fans to Netflix, and would provide proof to the bigger distributors as to whether or not the Netflix-centric model works.  

" I'm open to any model that is beneficial to filmmakers."

Speaking for Variance, I'm open to any model that is beneficial to filmmakers -- both in terms of visibility and finance-- and there's certainly a model (for the right film) where Netflix at the same time as theaters is a workable, positive thing... but there’s going to have to be some creativity in the design of it.  When I talk to musicians about how putting everything on Spotify has worked out for them, almost without exception most of them are not happy campers... so I can see why people are leery about the "all the movies you can eat for $9" model.  It's up to Netflix to prove that it's viable.

Richard Lorber, Kino Lorber, Inc.:

(Ted Sarandos) certainly has earned the authority to make credible comments that may shake up our industry...but it's a distortion to apply his comments across the entire exhibition spectrum...those of us in the so called "specialty" film world live in a largely different universe than the studios ...our relationship with exhibition venues and theater owners is more collaborative, even collegial, and occasionally, happily, mutually opportunistic...for the most part "our" theater owners are a different breed than the studios' guys and have a very different set of gauntlets--no less challenging but maybe not as a board member of a leading non profit theater, i see the changes from a certain kind of exhibitor's perspective too...there's no doubt that it's not a pretty picture for exhibitors in my realm.

But we are encouraged by many creative initiatives and strategies that the small, smart and nimble art house guerrillas are pursuing, beyond lazy boy seats and a bar. Whether you see day and date as half empty or half full -- as cannibalization or cross-promotion -- It's going to take a lot more than protectionism against ancillary overlap to keep folks going to the movies. I'm rooting for our team, with distributors and exhibitors on the same side, to keep our mission alive--our company's tagline is "experience cinema."

Alamo Drafthouse

Matt Grady, Factory 25

There should be a separate conversation for Hollywood/big budget films and Indie micro-budget films concerning Netflix and Theaters. Out of all of the Digital/VOD outlets, I do believe that only Netflix could negatively effect Box office of Hollywood level films.

On the indie film level, releasing films Day/Date isn't such an issue as  people have developed habits on how they watch films and certain people will go to theaters and others will not, while some will watch on Cable VOD and others on iTunes or Fandor or Amazon or Netflix and the list goes on...I look at getting movies on Digital/VOD in a similar way as I look getting vinyl LPs into local record shops, try to make it available everywhere knowing that some shops/outlets will only sell a couple copies an others will sell many more with out much crossover in clientele. Also, since press outlets are only likely to cover a film once, having a multi-platform release is really best for films, allowing the film will be available while awareness is at a high.

Tim League, Drafthouse Films, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

First, let me preface my statement by saying that I respect Ted Sarandos greatly and am a fan of what Netflix has built.  That said, his comments feel a bit unfair.  He's asking theater owners to open up non-exclusive windows while at the same time making massive investments on exclusive window content for Netflix.  It's not really kosher to shame the theater industry for clinging to exclusive windows and then shift massive resources to develop exclusive window content for Netflix.

That said, I do wish more theaters would be open to supporting day and day releases for indie films. Alamo Drafthouse is one of the few exhibitors that supports the idea of day and date and even ultra-VOD windows.  I am a open to this for small movies by small distributors who don't have the budget for a massive national P&A spend.  We have proven that model can work for the right film.  For big movies with ample production and P&A budgets, however, Netflix doesn't have the customer base to offer a studio what they would need to sacrifice the revenue lost from theatrical exhibition.

I think Sarandos knows this isn't going to happen.  It might happen for smaller boutique movies, but not for THE HOBBIT or THOR. Ultimately the studios are going to make the decision that works for them and their investment.  With big budget movies being made for the worldwide market and that worldwide market being dominated by theatrical revenue (especially in Asia), I think the cinema industry is just fine.

If the studios ever develop a direct worldwide online subscription service for their content, then I think Netflix will be facing the same challenges as the cinema owners.  That is a scenario I could foresee sooner than Netflix doing a day and day release for the next AVENGERS movie.

People have been forecasting the demise of cinema since the advent of television.  It has been proven time and time again that cinema is not competing against home entertainment.  To paraphrase Ira Deutchman from his 2013 Arthouse Convergence Keynote address, a person make one critical decision on a Friday night: to stay in or to go out.  Cinema doesn't compete with the "stay in" options like Netflix, Redbox or even reading a good book.  It competes with dinner, bowling, rolling skating, going to a bar, etc, the "go out" options.  Provided the cinema industry can remain a fun and compelling option when compared to the "go out" options, we will remain a healthy industry.  Instead of worrying about what Netflix will do to our industry, I'd rather see NATO and all the big theater chains focus on our real challenge: make sure people have a fun time at the cinema.

Eamonn Bowles, Magnolia Pictures:

Theaters aren't going away and the economy for a large budget film premiering on Netflix isn’t really practical, so it's kind of a non-issue.

This article is related to: NetFlix-Studio, Netflix, Filmmaker Toolkit: Distribution, Filmmaker Toolkit: Exhibition, Ted Sarandos, News