IFC Films is like the smart, upstanding, stable older brother whose younger siblings tend to get credit and praise for things he has long ago made a habit of. Or at least that’s how Sundance Selects/IFC Films president Jonathan Sehring is seeing things lately. With Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” opening to a record-setting $65,000 on two screens at the IFC Center in New York this past weekend — and the recent press attention received by Roadside Attractions’ “Margin Call” and RADiUS-TWC’s “Bachelorette” as VOD successes — Sehring is finally in a mood to beat the IFC drums.
It’s an auspicious time for the AMC Networks-owned specialty distributor. Birbiglia’s film is set to expand Friday to more than 20 markets (plus to the Ziegfeld, BAM and City Cinemas 86th St. in New York), with advance interest suggesting another strong weekend; the company’s ongoing day-and-date releases, such as the James Franco porn-industry drama “About Cherry,” continue to perform well; and IFC Films and its sister divisions Sundance Selects and IFC Midnight head to the Toronto International Film Festival next month with eight titles in the program — “Like Someone in Love,” “Sightseers,” “Antiviral,” “Beyond the Hills,” “Something in the Air,” “The Central Park Five,” “Room 237” and “On the Road,” a high-pedigreed adaptation with a lot riding on it for the company.
IFC Films and Sundance Selects are releasing “On the Road,” Walter Salles and Jose Rivera’s adaptation of the 1957 Beat Generation novel written by Jack Kerouac, in late December. But the film’s Cannes world premiere in May resulted in mixed reviews and a months-long effort by Salles to re-cut it. So Toronto audiences will see a distinctly new version of the film, which stars Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Sam Riley and Kirsten Dunst, that focuses more on the relationship between Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. Clearly, the hope is that the re-jiggered narrative will generate new buzz through the fall and potential awards notice for the filmmakers and cast.
Meanwhile, Sehring and IFC Films colleagues Arianna Bocco and Ryan Werner continue to acquire movies and look for the best ways to make them work on multiple platforms, a methodology, Sehring takes pains to point out, that IFC Films pioneered along with Magnolia Pictures years ago. In a wide-ranging (and amiably combative) discussion right after the impressive “Sleepwalk” numbers came in Monday (the film grossed another $6,000 that night), Sehring spoke to Indiewire about the keys to indie-film promotion in 2012, just how well “About Cherry” is doing and what’s different about “On the Road.”
So “Sleepwalk With Me” made a wonderful splash this weekend at IFC Center. For skeptics, can you really use that as a measure of how well it will do when it widens? Or do you have some other data that is suggesting success?
I don’t know what there would be to be skeptical about. It is by far and away the highest-grossing film ever at the IFC Center over a weekend, and that includes “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” with Herzog and our charging a premium for 3D. It really blew those numbers away. So, in terms of skepticism, the fact that the movie did about $70,000 on two screens at the Center on what was probably the most beautiful weekend weather-wise. I read someplace, somebody said, “Well, it was because Ira and Mike were there.” Nobody was there yesterday evening, and they were all sold-out shows! [Glass and Birbiglia are hosting a screening at the WGA Theater in L.A. Tuesday night with faux nemesis Joss Whedon.] But I could talk about pre-sales in other markets, which are fantastic.
That’s what I was getting at. It’s one thing to say it did great at this one location. But do you have some other indication that it will be successful as it widens?
The pre-sales in Chicago are fantastic. I’m not sure what I can speculate on in terms of going forward. But I can say that the pre-sales for the new markets that are opening are extremely strong, as are sales for this week. We’re getting calls from everybody. We’re going to be on 30-plus screens Labor Day weekend. I can say I’m cautiously optimistic.
What would constitute satisfying box office next weekend?
That’s what I don’t think I can speculate on. What would I like to see? I’d like to have people calling on Labor Day wanting double or triple the expansion that we’re doing Labor Day weekend. I’d like to see it on more screens. But we’re very confident in the film.
Did you do anything different with “Sleepwalk With Me” in terms of how you released and marketed it?
We didn’t do anything differently. What we are a huge proponent of — and this is the changing landscape of the independent film business — is that the filmmakers’ success is as much in their hands as it is in ours. We approach all of these movies like it’s a partnership. And the filmmakers that get it and the producers that get it work just as hard on the marketing and distribution. We’re very collaborative. For movies like “Sleepwalk,” movies like “Medicine for Melancholy” or “Tiny Furniture,” we’re as reliant on filmmakers to help market that movie. Somebody like Lena Dunham knows her audience and her voice, and Mike knows his audience, and Ira [Glass] knows his audience, and it’s really important to work in conjunction with filmmakers to get these movies out.
Can you tell me what you spent to acquire the movie?
No. No, I can’t.
Or no you won’t.
I think it might be both. [laughs] Suffice it to say, I know Ira and Mike are pleased and we’re very pleased. They’ve been great partners.
I understand you’re also pleased about some of your VOD successes.
Going into Toronto, there are a lot of things that we’re very pleased about. We’re always sort of amused when there’s a new entry into the day-and-date business, theatrical and VOD. A year ago it was “Margin Call” and the guys from Roadside suddenly becoming experts off of one movie, and the Radius guys as well with “Bachelorette.” You don’t see Eamonn at Magnolia, you don’t see us — the two pioneers in the changing of the windows — coming out and reporting our numbers on a weekly basis. We have a movie right now that went up about the same time as “Bachelorette,” but we went on all the platforms, not just iTunes, and on Rentrak, when they report their VOD numbers, we’re right there with “Bachelorette.” “About Cherry” is performing just as well. We weren’t the number one movie on iTunes, but we’re up there on all the cable operators’ VOD platforms. It’s a much different profile film, we’re not spending the kind of money they are, but we know how to market these movies. It’s not the first one for us like that. We’ve had a lot of movies, like “The Other Woman,” or, earlier this year, “ATM” — again, you don’t see Magnolia trumpeting all of their successes, you don’t see us doing it. It’s really interesting when a company does it once, and suddenly they’ve reinvented the wheel, when Magnolia and IFC Films invented the wheel five or six years ago.
OK — so why not? Why not, if you have a particular success in any medium, put it out?
I don’t think you guys would be writing about it six-to-eight times a year from us, and six-to-eight times a year from Magnolia. It stops becoming news when the same company’s doing the same thing over again. It’s news when a new entry does it.
True. And they have a right to try to point out that they’re moving into this space and did well with their first film.
We look at the success of a movie not just based on a theatrical gross, not just based on VOD, you have to look at all revenue streams and how a movie’s going to perform. We’re well above the industry standard by double — we send out participation checks to producers on somewhere between 70-80% of all the movies we’ve distributed. Believe me, that’s my greatest frustration. We’re primarily a film distribution company that’s part of a cable television network business, so our company’s core business is not theatrical film distribution, or film distribution in general. But the fact that we’re still here I think points towards how successful we are in the number of movies we distribute.
We went off on this whole tangent because we were talking about profitability, and you said, “We don’t crow about our successes,” and I think, Well, I asked you what you spent on it, you won’t tell me that, I’m sure you won’t tell me what you spent to market it, and you’re not going to tell me how many sales you had, so how would I know that you’re doing great?
OK, so, if I said something like, “About Cherry” did over a half a million dollars in this first week on VOD — that’s across all VOD platforms — which is what “Bachelorette” reported as well, that gives you an indication of how “About Cherry” is doing.
Well, that’s something. But I don’t know what you spent to get the movie.
Do you know what they spent to get “Bachelorette?”
I do, yes.
I can tell you we spent less than half of that.
So you spent under $1 million?
All I said is we spent less than half of what they spent to get “Bachelorette.”
The information I got from sources at the time was that they spent a little more than $2 million for it. So are you telling me that you spent “less than a million” or would you like to be more precise?
Yes, yes. I’ll tell you we spent less than that.
Obviously, its titillation factor aside, which is a huge selling point, what makes it a great fit for VOD? Is there something else that you think is driving it?
Cast and cast support. We’re fairly unique in the VOD landscape in that we have folders for all three of our labels — from Sundance Selects, IFC Films and our genre label IFC Midnight — on the cable VOD platform. That’s pretty unique, you don’t see most companies have that, so they’re destination places for us. That has really differentiated us. When people go to those folders, they know the type of movie they’re going to get. What works aside from the brand, as I said before, is support, be it directors, producers, cast support. We were the first people to bring cast in to promote a movie on the VOD platform. I read someplace that “Bachelorette” was doing it. We’ve been doing it for five years, and I think Magnolia’s been doing it for almost as long, as well. So that’s nothing new, but it’s really critical for independent movies and for specialized movies, cast support and producer-director support. All hands on deck. Probably the toughest thing for everybody to acknowledge is getting the talent managers to get their talent to support day-and-date and to support VOD. That’s changed a lot over the past five years. But there are still some talent managers that say, “What? You’re not doing a major theatrical release? I’m not going to let my talent support it.” And that’s crazy.
I imagine for them there is still a stigma attached to it, though that’s clearly changing, especially with films that come out of the festival environment.
Yeah, especially out of that. You look at a movie like “In the Loop.” [Co-writer-director] Armando [Iannucci] then went to work on “Veep” for HBO, and he got nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay. That was a day-and-date movie that got an Oscar nomination. Between that and Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” they both got huge series on HBO, so to have talent managers not embrace this, I don’t know what they’re managing. The whole industry keeps changing under our feet. We continually are evolving our model, and we’re continuingly enjoying successes because of that. There’s definitely not just one way to release a movie.
You don’t release “On the Road” until late December. What does a Toronto presence do for you? What do you hope to get from screening there?
We bought the movie before Cannes, and we loved the film. For us it’s a step up. We normally haven’t done a movie like this. We just never found the right movie or had the right opportunity. We’ve definitely bid on movies of this pedigree and not gotten them. The response at Cannes was that some people loved it and some people were respectful of it, like some people loved the book. And Walter took a lot of that to heart. He’s gone back, and we’re unveiling a new cut in Toronto, which is about 15 minutes shorter. It’s a little over two hours now. He’s added certain things that weren’t in the cut that was in Cannes. He has been in New York and Rio and L.A. working on it the past couple of months, and it’s going to be very wet when it gets to Toronto. We’re locked, but they’re finishing the mix up right now. We’re very, very excited about it.
Given the history of the project, the cultural weight of the source material and the prestige of the filmmakers and actors, you could argue that this is one of IFC Films’ biggest movies. What does its reception and success at theaters mean for IFC moving forward? Do you hope to do bigger movies?
We thought this was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. When we were afforded the opportunity to make the deal for it, we jumped at that opportunity. That’s just the type of company we are. Will we do big films? If they’re the right movies, if it was the right movie for us that we feel that we could do a great job on: Love the movie, big fans of the book, big fans of the cast, and they’re all great in it. Everybody here just wanted to work on it. We’re very much a team approach. That novel and that whole Beat thing, people take it so personally. Either they passionately love it or they passionately hate it, and that’s one of the things that really attracted us across the board, everyone in the company.