Back to IndieWire

Filmmaker Survey: Is Theatrical Distribution Still Essential?

Filmmaker Survey: Is Theatrical Distribution Still Essential?

Given reports that moviegoing in North America has dipped to its lowest level in two decades and specialty distributors are increasingly going day-and-date if not entirely VOD, we asked a selection of independent filmmakers whether getting a theatrical release still matters.

Specifically, participants were asked to respond to the following question: Given the various digital distribution and TV options now available for films to get exposure (and revenue), is theatrical distribution still essential — or even important for a film’s life?

We asked filmmakers to include any specific examples they’ve had with their own films and promised to feature their unedited responses, which we’ve done below. The filmmakers who responded are listed along with their most recent film.

READ MORE: Who Needs Theatrical Distribution? Here’s Why One Filmmaker is Skipping Theaters.

Kim Longinotto (“Dreamcatcher”)

I really don’t know whether it’s essential or not. But I love what happens when you see a film on a big screen with an audience. People cry and laugh and make a noise and it becomes an event. It’s a totally different experience from watching it on your own. Also I notice different things when I watch a film on the screen. It becomes an immersive experience from the moment the lights go down. I get a rush. I like going out to the cinema with a friend and we discuss the film afterwards. If we love the film, we feel elated and the evening becomes memorable. I remember when I went to see “The Lives of Others” with my flat-mate. I had to sit on a bench outside afterwards to recover, it was so overwhelming. I don’t know if it would have happened so powerfully if it had been on a DVD. I treasure the experience to this day.

Onur Tukel (“Summer of Blood”)

Come on. Theatrical distribution is the dream. It’s still the best way to watch a movie. In a crowded theater, everyone quiet and focused (if you’re lucky), everyone laughing at the jokes, screaming at the terror, gasping at the tragedy, then discussing the movie after. It’s the reason why film festivals are amazing. People who watch movies in the theater appreciate the art of cinema. I still applaud when the credits roll on a movie that I love, even if I’m the only one in the theater. Plus the cinema gets you out of the house and away from that goddamned solipsistic computer screen. It pulls you away from the billions of bits of information vying to distract you. Cinema says, “Hey, sit back. Relax. Focus on one story for a couple of hours. Contemplate what you’re watching.” It pulls you into another world. It rules! It’s too expensive though. You want to get people out of their homes and into the seats, charge $5 to see a movie. Attendance will increase 10 fold and theaters will be full again. People argue that television and streaming movies are destroying the business. Fuck that. Nothing compares to the cinema. I just can’t afford to go.

Louie Psihoyos (“Racing Extinction”)

There’s something visceral about seeing a film with an audience on a big screen. When you make a film you’ve seen it several hundred times with only slight variations over a several year period. By the time it gets to the screen I’m numb. I can only feel the film through the audience. In the case of “The Cove” and “Racing Extinction,” which are eco-thrillers, activist films, people are laughing, crying and cheering and there’s a community experience you feel of what it means to be human, to share the human experience with strangers. You’ll get the some similar feelings at home if you watch it with friends and family but with our films and an audience, you’ll feel you went to war with a tribe of your own and you might miss some of that community validation.

Not many people saw “The Cove” at a theater, a couple hundred thousand tops, but the tens of millions of people that saw it later on television saw it because they heard about it from people/reviewers who saw it at a theater or a festival. Those theatrical screenings and festivals I look at as our billboards, I feel they are still necessary to get the media credibility and the eyeballs on your film. “The Cove” has a million followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We could have done pretty well releasing our next film, “Racing Extinction” on our own and keeping most of the revenue. But “Racing Extinction” is about creating a cultural shift by reaching 16% of the population — that’s the magic number to create a tipping point and you can only do that with television. If you just want to make a profit, by all means, go it alone. The tools and resources are out there (if you kept expenses down) but if you want to change the world you’ll need every arrow in your quiver and theaters still represent a very big important target.

We mixed “Racing Extinction” in 7.1 surround at Skywalker with some of the guys who worked on “Avatar” and “The Lord of the Rings.” We screened it at The Skywalker’s Stagg Theater, one of the two best theaters in the world for sound and picture. We open with an epic scene of a blue whale, shot on an Alexa and recoded on DSD (Direct Stream Digital — arguably the best recoding format in the world) At The Stagg the whale was life-size, and with the sound the whale was in the room — the only thing that was missing for me was the spray. All screenings will be downhill after that — as a filmmaker you’re trying to get the audience to feel an authentic experience and most of that unfortunately will be lost on an iPad with earbuds.

Patrick Brice (“The Overnight”)

I’m way too much of an optimist when it comes to this. While I’m not scared of the giant floating plastic mass of “content” that exists nowadays (though I am disturbed by the amount of times the word “content” gets used when it comes to making stuff), I try to take in each change realistically and find ways to adapt. In order to stay relevant you’ve got to see each new outlet, framework and distribution model as a new opportunity for creative freedom. For me, theatrical distribution will always be a cherry on top. I’m not going to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen and it will be even more delicious when it does. I think the ability to manage expectations is a huge key to staying sane as an “independent filmmaker.”

Doug Block (“112 Weddings”)

It depends on your goals. If you’re looking to maximize revenues and get your film out widely, theatrical is costly and I don’t think it gives your film the boost it used to in the various ancillary markets. If you’re looking for a calling card, or prestige or an Oscar nomination, theatrical is still important, although not absolutely necessary. Of course we always dream our film will be a huge hit, so there’s that.

In my case with “112 Weddings,” for U.S. distribution we made a very strategic decision to go from a condensed but highly visible festival run (opening night at Full Frame, Hot Docs, Sheffield, Nantucket and others) straight to HBO, which allowed audiences to actually see it soon after they heard about it. It also allowed HBO to get behind it in a much bigger way than they would have otherwise, as they feel a theatrical release for documentaries dilutes their brand. A nice surprise is that the film has had a remarkable life even after showing on HBO — with many more festivals, semi-theatrical showings, and soon a digital/DVD release via Zeitgeist. I think social media helped a lot in that regard.

The main downside is that we couldn’t get reviews from many of the leading film critics (A.O. Scott, for one) that have championed my films in the past. They simply don’t review films that aren’t released theatrically, so that was a bit frustrating. As more and more films go straight to broadcast or Netflix or digital release, it would be great to get coverage from the more esteemed critics, but I’m not sure how that can happen. No doubt they’re swamped as it is.

Mike Ott (“Lake Los Angeles”)

I don’t know if anything is essential nowadays…but I’d say there seems to be something about doing a theatrical run that legitimizes your film in a way, whereas just doing festivals or going straight to VOD doesn’t as much. This isn’t always the case of course, but I do think it does somehow make some “indie”films have a notion of being taken a bit more seriously after the festival run is over. I remember when I did “Littlerock” and was figuring out whether or not to do a theatrical run, Dylan [Marchetti] from Variance [Releasing] really encouraged me to do one and talked about how it would elevate the film to being more than just a cool festival film and I think he was right. That was in 2011 and a lot has changed since then…but I think maybe some of this still holds true.

READ MORE: Here’s Why Making a Living as A Documentary Filmmaker Is Harder Than Ever

Joe Berlinger (“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger”)

For better or worse, despite the many new outlets and distribution platforms available to filmmakers, we still live in a world where the press (and audience perception) still favors the “theatrically-released” film. Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule — for example, a “House of Cards” or a “Game of Thrones” television season premiere is a major media event in its own right, but, generally speaking, the press still treats the theatrical release as a more important “cinematic” event than a digital or television premiere of a typical independent production.

Therefore, despite declining theatrical viewership for documentaries and many independent films, and despite the abundance of opportunities in other platforms, theatrical distribution is still a desired outcome for me for the right kind of film. Certainly, in this brave new world of digital distribution, I have become more selective and realistic about which of my projects deserve theatrical distribution, but it is still a priority for me for the right kind of film because it drives awareness, even if the numbers are weak, as it helps drive success in the other distribution windows.

Magnolia and I saw this with my 2014 theatrical and digital release of “WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” which I made for CNN Films, but was picked up for theatrical and digital distribution by Magnolia, who decided to do a day-and-date theatrical and VOD release…so, on the same weekend that the film did not perform well at the box office, it was the number one film on iTunes, scoring impressive VOD numbers on multiple digital and cable platforms prior to its CNN broadcast premiere — it was the theatrical press that drove the VOD numbers, despite the mediocre box office results. Theatrical press has always driven performance in ancillary markets…Ten years ago, “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” grossed only $1.2 million at the box office, but the very visible and positive press that accompanied the theatrical release helped lead Paramount to selling well over one million units of the film on DVD — the “in” distribution platform at that time. So, times have not changed in my mind as to how helpful a theatrical release press effort can be in assuring a successful release in other platforms, hence my desire to go theatrical whenever possible, not to mention my old-fashioned artistic impulse of wanting to make movies for a big group of people sitting in a dark room.

Also, because of current documentary award qualification rules, especially for the Oscar, a limited theatrical release is de rigueur for awards eligibility, something I have actually spoken out against because it limits certain films that tackle less “popular” subjects from being able to qualify for awards consideration (and hence my belief that a certain number of film festivals screenings should also allow a film to qualify for Oscar consideration instead of just the limited L.A. and NY theatrical run), but that is a topic for another day.

Robert Greene (“Actress”)

All I’m sure about is that I have always and will continue to make movies for the big screen. So for me, the theatrical life of a film is essential for reasons outside of economic concerns — this is simply where films “live” best to me. Beyond aesthetic concerns, I think potential audiences see a film differently when it’s had a legit theatrical run. Some like to say this kind of thing is unfair — movies shouldn’t continue to be required to live up to that old model as a standard – but I think it’s worth clawing and scraping and fighting to get your film on the biggest screens possible. So I proudly stand by movie theaters and people (like Cinema Guild, who put my film “Actress” in theaters or 4th Row Films, the production company I work with that continues to back theatrical releases) who want to help me get my work out in that way.

Aaron Katz (“Land Ho!”)

As an audience member, I want to watch a movie in a theater. All of the new platforms are great for watching movies that I missed in theatrical release or that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise, but I consider the experience far inferior to going to a movie theater. There are many persuasive arguments for the importance of digital distribution, but I am troubled when it comes at the expense of theatrical distribution. In that case, though I am cautious of being alarmist or discounting the value of something just because it is relatively new, I think it erodes some of the essential strengths of film as entertainment and as an art form. Specifically choosing to go someplace, sit down and be attentive for the duration of the movie, and have a shared experience is something that matters to me. I hope that future generations will have the opportunity to enjoy that experience as much as I have.

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (“Spring”)

At this exact moment, indie film theatrical distribution means roughly one of three things. One, it can be at the bare minimum amount of theaters that are required by, say, iTunes (around 3-10), to be placed at a higher price-point and get the exclusive “in theaters now” marketing push for its day-and-date opening. Two, it could be a slightly larger release that attempts to make some real money on the launch, and often still does a day-and-date. Third (and more rarely) a wider release for indie films that truly break out like “Whiplash,” and can be accompanied by a traditional windowed release where they REALLY try to drive people to the cinema before buying it in their homes.

The mindset behind these three is different every time. The first uses theatrical release purely as advertisement, and it often doesn’t matter if it’s a loss because the money is made back on VOD. The second is using day-and-date in theaters and VOD for money to be made in both avenues, and the third depends on theaters to make the movie some real money (and it’s a big gamble with big rewards if it works).

ALL of these have one major advantage: it legitimizes the film. As the amount of content out there goes up exponentially, there are fewer things to make your work stand out — having a theatrical run is certainly one of them. When we tell someone we have a theatrical run we often get raised eyebrows and an “Oh, nice!” That’s not to even mention the argument of cinema often being our intended place to view the film. If you don’t have a theatrical run, then your film was never viewed the way you meant it to be seen, and that’s a travesty too.

In short, theatrical distribution is not entirely necessary by definition, as the larger markets for indie films seems to be VOD/online anyway. But it really helps to take the effort for these little films to have the ability to punch above their weight.

Douglas Tirola (“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of The National Lampoon”)

I still believe theatrical distribution is essential. My first documentary, “An Omar Broadway Film,” premiered on HBO after screening at Tribeca, and my next two films premiered on Showtime after theatrical runs that each reached close to 100 markets, including “Hey Bartender,” which premiered at SXSW. All three films performed beyond my expectations on iTunes and other digital platforms. All three owe a large part of their financial success to our TV and digital partners. However, i still think theatrical is an important part of a films life. I have many reasons why I feel this is true. Here are a few.

The definition of a theatrical release can be different than the traditional opening in New York City and roll out from there that many of us who fell in love with indie films grew up experiencing. This means the amount of theaters a film plays might be less than it once was, a one-week booking might not include screenings every day, maybe in some markets a movie will screen only with a filmmaker being Skyped in for a Q&A afterwards and for some films, a film festival run might act as the theatrical release, but on some level having a film play in theaters in front an audience who can experience the film together is going to help the life of that film.

READ MORE: How ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’ Director Pulled Off a Film About The National Lampoon

Every time I read about the large amount of films that are submitted to a film festival I wonder if any distributor ever considers seeking out some of the movies that did not get accepted. I imagine the distributors probably don’t because they use the festivals as the curators to help them decide where they should spend their time when considering, seeing and possibly acquiring films. In this sense, the festivals are almost like an indie film version of the coverage studios have created to help them decide which screenplays they should consider reading for the possibility of being purchased. For many, the art house theater plays the same role for the audiences in their community. The audiences rely on that theater to tell them what they should be seeing. So even if a film is available digitally and ultimately, seen by audiences at home, they look for the stamp of approval that a film has played in a theater. Maybe they saw the movies name on the theaters marquee, the trailer before seeing another film or the poster in the lobby. Or maybe they saw none of this, but because the film is being theatrically released they have more likely run into the film’s existence through press and word of mouth and because the manner in which these films are often covered and talked about gives the impression that they are somehow more important.

Every filmmaker, whether they will admit it or not, wants their film to play in movie theaters in front of an audience. As a kid if you like sports you don’t just dream of playing basketball in your driveway — you dream of playing in your favorite stadium (Madison Square Garden) with every seat filled. As long as you dream of playing sports, you dream big. The same is true of making movies: There is no bigger collection of dreamers than filmmakers — it’s such a miracle any film gets made and often feels like another miracle if your film finds its audience. So when you finish a film and think about the end of that process, you just can’t avoid the idea of envisioning your movie playing in theaters. Going to the movies as a kid is where most people who become filmmakers begin their life-long love-affair with the movies, and as long as this experience is important to filmmakers, it will be an essential part of distribution.

Lotfy Nathan (“12 O’Clock Boys”)

For “12 O’Clock Boys,” we made a lot more [money] on digital and TV platforms (iTunes, Amazon, Showtime) and spent a lot less to get it there compared to our limited theatrical release (a release in about 30 cities, which didn’t make very much money).

I’m not necessarily the one to ask (not a distributor), BUT my guess is that the theatrical model really works best on a large scale – BIG releases, BIG marketing, advertisements, lots of screenings etc. whereas on the digital and TV platforms, the venue can showcase your work to millions of eyes at once by putting it on the front page — easy.

Keep in mind that “12 O’Clock Boys” is a documentary, which makes it doubly hard as an independent film.

Leah Warshawski (“Finding Hillywood”)

While theatrical distribution may not be essential to a film’s monetary gain, there is NO substitute for going to see a movie in a theater — on a giant screen — surrounded by people experiencing the film. And for most filmmakers I know, there is still huge validation and “feel good” rewards for screening a film you’ve worked on for years in a movie theater. It’s just not the same watching movies on your phone. The experience is gone.

Ryan White (“The Case Against 8”)

I don’t think theatrical distribution is essential to a successful distribution path. We see documentaries all year long that make money and reach the masses and have long lifespans and change the world without having a big theatrical release. But as a filmmaker who grew up watching films in theaters, I do think this is how many of us envision the end path for our films. No matter how many times you see your film climb the iTunes charts or see Twitter explode after a broadcast, I still think for me it will never top being in a movie theater, full of people, watching something you spent years making. It’s visceral. As documentary filmmakers we are lucky to have the film festival circuit, which provides a middle ground by giving us a theatrical experience with engaged in-person audiences. But there are the lucky handful each year that to get to do it all: the long festival run, the robust theatrical release, and all the enjoyment and revenues that come out of TV and ancillaries — who wouldn’t want to have it all?

Marta Cunningham (“Valentine Road”)

I’m not an authority on this issue since I have made only one film that was four-walled for the Academy Awards qualifying run before airing on HBO, but I do think, from what I have seen in
my 23 years of being in the business overall, that theatrical distribution is still very much a part of our
country’s DNA. In the narrative space, theatrical is central to how we gauge success and which
films we decide are worthy of our time (this includes our friends who devour every indie film that
is out there). I appreciate the different ways we are consuming our content on a whole but when
it comes to what is considered a hit, or what will dominate award season it is measured by the
box office. We may want to shift the paradigm but we haven’t so far.

For previous examples of these “Filmmaker Surveys,” check out this one we did on the issue of censorship and this one we did on whether film school is necessary.

Indiewire is striving to spur discussion in the indie film community about a variety of timely issues. If you’ve got a topic you’d like us to feature, please let us know in the comments section below.

READ MORE: Is Film School Necessary? Top Indie Filmmakers Respond

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Toolkit and tagged , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox