During the past four years, New York-based distributor IFC Films and its Sundance Selects label have released six films starring Stewart that together have redefined her post-“Twilight” career.
Stewart broke out at Cannes 2012 in Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” followed by 2014’s Sundance war drama “Camp X-Ray,” Olivier Assayas’ Cannes competition title “Clouds of Sils Maria,” for which she was the first American woman to win France’s Cesar award, and Kelly Reichardt’s upcoming “Certain Women,” which debuted at Sundance 2016. Stewart was back at Cannes headlining not only the Woody Allen opener “Cafe Society” (Amazon), but Assayas’s supernatural Paris mystery “Personal Shopper” (IFC), affirming her reputation for working with a diverse group of brainy directors in films that span genres, budgets and languages.
In other words, Stewart and IFC are both in the smart movie business. “I can’t think of another actress her age who has done such an amazing job of establishing herself after a franchise,” said Arianna Bocco, IFC Films Senior Vice President of Acquisitions, at a meeting at IFC’s New York office. “With the filmmakers that she’s working with, her choices and her consistency, she’s really in a class of her own.”
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In many ways, Stewart’s eclectic film choices mirror IFC’s own strategy of distributing a wide variety of independent films that can be released through any of its three distinct brands: IFC Films, Sundance Selects, and IFC Midnight. The company’s flagship division typically puts out cast-driven English-language indies (like current theatrical hit “The Man Who Knew Infinity”), with Sundance Selects distributing well-reviewed films (often foreign-language, like 2015 Palme d’Or-winner “Dheepan”) and documentaries (such as day-and-date title “Weiner,” which won the documentary grand jury prize at Sundance) and IFC Midnight handling genre titles (like “The Babadook”).
Judging from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, IFC’s approach to distribution seems to be a winning strategy. The company arrived at Cannes with the rights to one competition title under its flagship brand, “Personal Shopper,” and three under the Sundance Selects banner: Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation,” Jean-Pierre and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s “The Unknown Girl,” and Nicole Garcia’s sexy Marion Cotillard vehicle “From the Land of the Moon.” On closing night, Assayas and Mungiu shared the prize for Best Director, while the only film IFC purchased at the festival—Ken Loach’s four-hankie tearjerker “I, Daniel Blake”—took home the Palme d’Or. During the past 11 years, IFC has released five Palme d’Or winners. Not bad.
Collecting awards at Cannes doesn’t always translate to commercial success, though: “Dheepan,” for one, underperformed at the box office: The film has so far grossed $106,862 on 15 screens. But IFC Films/Sundance Selects President Jonathan Sehring cautions that ticket sales can be misleading. “We’re purposefully doing a very long, very slow roll out of ‘Dheepan,'” he said. “We’re pleased with the numbers.”
Last month, IFC released “Pele: Birth of a Legend,” a biographical drama about the Brazilian soccer star. “You’re going to look at the box office on ‘Pele’ and say, ‘That movie didn’t work,’ and we’re all going to be sitting here with huge grins on our faces saying ‘That movie has worked extremely well,'” Sehring said.
But they’re especially pleased with “Weiner,” the documentary portrait of the failed politician, which landed the year’s biggest documentary opening when it hit theaters last month as well as VOD.
While every IFC title gets at least a limited theatrical release, the company uses a custom-tailored approach to each film that focuses on achieving profitability in many cases through a combination of theatrical and Video-On-Demand distribution. “It’s about how wide they go [theatrically] and if they have scale if they go to On-Demand,” said Lisa Schwartz, Co-President of IFC Film and Sundance Selects, which is also a cable destination where film fans can count on a curated quality line-up. “Success is measured on: did the filmmaker get the recognition for the work, did the most people see it as possible, and did it have a return that was reasonable for the level of film that it was?”
It’s all about the filmmaker earning enough money to make their next film. IFC has learned over time how to maximize returns on theaters and in crossover ancillaries. This allows them to “acquire different kinds of films and look at a strategy for each film,” said Bocco. “We more than any other company have flexibility on how we distribute.”
Studio subsidiaries, for example, are locked into strict rules about release windows and output deals. And new competitors Amazon and Netflix are driving up acquisition costs for everyone. “In a competitive marketplace, you always have new distributors coming in and upsetting the apple cart,” said Bocco. “There’s always a shiny new thing like Broad Green buying films.”
Thus IFC relies on deep loyalty with filmmakers who are willing to make deals far ahead of festival play. Generating repeat business through long-lasting working relationships is a key to the company’s strategy. IFC has now released five films each with Assayas and Loach, four with Mungiu, and three with the Dardennes.
Today, as IFC is figuring out where to place all their films at the upcoming fall festivals, the company is also seeking to discover new talent that could translate into fruitful partnerships down the road. Turkish director Can Evrenol, whose debut feature film “Baskin” played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival after being acquired by IFC Midnight last September, is one example.
“He’s really talented, and we’ll hopefully continue to work with him as he transitions to English-language films,” Bocco said. “You want to find people from the beginning and be their home.”