INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: Film Movement's Meistrich Attempts to Reinvent Indie Distribution
by Matthew Ross
When independent film outfit The Shooting Gallery unexpectedly shut its doors in 2001, the U.S. independent film scene was already in a state of readjustment. The film economy had been slowing since the late '90s, and companies of all sizes were suddenly revisiting their business plans and preparing for leaner years to come. Yet the demise of TSG, one of the most active companies of the past decade, nonetheless came as a shock. Just a year earlier, TSG had begun expanding its services when it launched its pioneering and extremely well-received traveling film series, in addition to having several anticipated projects already in development.
Deservedly or not, many of those familiar with the company's troubles assigned much of the blame for the collapse to TSG founder Larry Meistrich. Now, after remaining below the radar for much of the past year, Meistrich has resurfaced with Film Movement, a new distribution service that publicly launched in August.
The Film Movement model could not be more different than TSG's Film Series. Rather than program a traveling group of films that played theatrical dates in both large and small markets, Meistrich has created a new model based around a DVD subscription service that will also include theatrical dates in major market cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. For $189 per year or $19.95 per month, subscribers will get one DVD (or VHS tape) each month, and subscribers will also get free tickets to all Film Movement theatrical releases. Film Movement's first title, Achero Manas's Goya Award-winning "El Bola," shipped to subscribers last week.
For indieWIRE's monthly industry spotlight column, senior editor Matthew Ross spoke with Meistrich about his new company, the evolution of art-house moviegoing, and what he's learned from his days at The Shooting Gallery.
indieWIRE: How did you come up with the idea for this company?
Larry Meistrich: When we did the film series at The Shooting Gallery, what we found was theatrically in very big cities, like New York, you did well at the box office with very high-caliber films. The second you moved out of New York, it got killed.
When you are out in suburban New Jersey, you have the same cost of media, same ad space, same print publications, but you are only reaching 500,000 people instead of 8 million. You need a significantly large number of people to go to do any business, that's why it doesn't work. As you go down the food chain, the smaller guys just don't have the money to compete for consumer awareness, therefore they don't put up a large sum of money initially. That's why other than your art houses, you can lose your screens very quickly.
"I'm not reliant on this three-day opening weekend where everything has to be driven to those three days, and if it doesn't work, you're done."
The one thing we did find was that when we did release a film, we would get hundreds of thousands of emails asking when we would come to Des Moines, Westchester, Buffalo, etc. In reality, we were never coming, certainly not theatrically. We were relying on the awareness in our five or 10 theatrical markets for video chains and pay cable networks to create awareness in their communities so that they would buy enough tapes and see it there. In New York, you do have a choice, because 50 films open here every weekend. I live in the suburbs, so I have no choice. There is one big multiplex and they have four screens, and they show the four biggest movies.
The idea came to me of to orchestrate a mechanism that can bring people in the suburbs, in the south and in the midwest, everywhere outside the top 10 markets, a way to access these films. The funny thing is that I'm in the Academy, and I get the screeners while they are still in the theater. Last year I got "Harry Potter," and the reaction I got from people who wanted to watch it was so strong. I got to thinking, what if we could give everybody the Academy experience, where we could show first-run films in the home while they're also out at the theater?
We are going to do a film series again, but we are going to do them in the top few cities: New York, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco, and then depending on subject matter and time of year, it will move around to Seattle, Boston, Dallas, and Miami kinds of cities. For instance, "El Bola" was our first film, we opened theatrically on December 13, and shipped to all of our consumers on December 10. That way, everybody else in the country gets it the same time it opens in New York. If you are a New York subscriber, you will get it at the same time as well, except, we buy your movie ticket, you don't have to pay twice. Theatrical is a marketing initiative to me, a way to honor our filmmakers.
Some films will be seen in theaters, some will be seen in living rooms, but by different consumers. What this does is elongate the windows, so I'm not reliant on this three-day opening weekend where everything has to be driven to those three days, and if it doesn't work, you're done. Because of the subscription model, you have all year long. I don't care about the revenue theatrically, which is just getting back marketing money.
iW: Would you say that an era for theatrical movie going for art films is over?
Meistrich: I totally agree. Our industry, including myself in the past, is very New York and LA centered. When I lived here, to go the movies I just walked down the block, no big deal. I don't live in a place like that now. Going to the movies requires planning, driving, parking, babysitting. There's a lot of shit I have to do now because I don't live in Manhattan, literally to go to any movie, independent or not.
iW: Do you think if you hadn't gotten married and moved to the suburbs and you stayed in New York would you have come up with the idea for this company?
Meistrich: Definitely not. In New York, there are 25 film festivals for any sort of niche that I could possibly be interested in. But in Bergen County there's not any. It would have been so evident to me that my kids are going to grow up differently than I did, because I grew up in the Bronx and I could come to the city whenever I wanted. And my kids don't have cultural choice.
I have no beef with the studio films. Some studio films are great, quality films, but those come few and far between. I'd like my daughter to be able to see a French film, a documentary and know about it and have access to it. If the way I have to do that in places like where I live is to go through your living room, then I'll go through your living room. I'm still offering you the theatrical choice. If you can't make it, I don't want you to miss it.
"Independent film doesn't drive this industry. My father in law is a 66-year-old heart surgeon who lives in Ridgepark, NJ. There is basically nothing you can do to compel him to drive into Manhattan to see anything."
iW: How have you gotten the existing subscribers so far, and what has been the reaction from your consumers?
Meistrich: Unbelievably good. I thought there would be a need for education, a big cultural shift. I'm not going to tell you how many people signed up, but it's a lot: 45 states, 400 cities.
iW: Is it going to be a challenge to approach filmmakers who still expect a more traditional distribution model? Have you had trouble convincing them that this is not minor league?
Meistrich: So far, no. But if someone is coming to you with a million-dollar offer, take it. In the long run, who knows what can happen, depending on how many subscribers we have. One of the things that we offer filmmakers is a formula, a payment schedule, a straight dollar sum deal. Any time a dollar comes in, they make money, whether it's a subscriber, a buyer, a sponsor, an advertising sale. No distribution fees, no bullshit, no creative accounting, you can check your producer statements every 10 minutes. I could tell you how much you're worth, up to the minute, literally.
If you signed up right now, I would get an e-mail instantly, showing where you're from, which plan you took, what movies you're renting, a lot of consumer information, which we share with our filmmakers. And in turn we let our consumer share in the filmmaker info as well. Part of what we're trying to do is create a community roundtable, so every film or filmmaker will have a key cast or key crew email, so you can contact them.
Independent film doesn't drive this industry. My father in law is a 66-year-old heart surgeon who lives in Ridgepark, NJ. There is basically nothing you can do to compel him to drive into Manhattan to see anything. He's busy, he's older, and he would buy movie tickets but won't come in because it's just too far. He's a consumer, but you're not giving him the content in a way he can consume it. You're not bringing it to him, and there are millions of people waiting for it to come to them. And so, we are giving them an easy convenient way to have it brought to them. I really want to reach the guys like my father-in-law.
iW: It seems that you're gearing your business towards upper-middle class people with substantial disposable income. Would that be an appropriate way to target your demographic?
Meistrich: If you look at who goes to the New York Film Festival, that audience is 18 to 80. What they have in common is that they are college educated, print-driven -- reviews matter to them. And they are usually middle class and up. There's not a great deal of dollars spent in independent film for people who have no money at any level. You look at the Angelika, its not people who are making $22,000 a year spending 30 bucks a night on movie tickets.
And it's disparate, meaning they're everywhere. People will travel from the boroughs, from Jersey, from Pennsylvania to go to Lincoln Center for the New York Film Festival. So there's the draw: that these are special, these are different, these aren't things they get to see everyday.