When Annapurna Pictures moved into distribution, Hollywood viewed the move as bold but bizarre. In a market where indies struggle to survive, it was a strange time to reinvent a dying economic model. Now after several costly, high-profile failures, Annapurna and MGM will work together to distribute their films theatrically in the U.S.
Annapurna hired veteran talent — from ex-Weinstein distribution president Erik Lomis and studio marketing exec Marc Weinstock to Focus Features’ publicity chief Adrienne Bowles — but they inexplicably chose “Detroit” as its first release. From director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning team behind “The Hurt Locker” and Annapurna’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” this intense recreation of the 1967 race riot in Detroit is a tough sit and demanded special handling from the neophyte distributor.
The movie (Metascore: 78) opened well in 20 theaters in late July, but collapsed when it went wide to 2,800 screens the following weekend. (It topped out at $16.8 million domestic.) “Detroit” could have used a boost from fall film festivals if Annapurna wanted to make this work for the long awards haul. Now Ellison is rereleasing the drama at great expense for Oscar contention. But it’s hard to recover from such a loss.
Subsequent Annapurna titles also struggled: After its Toronto Film Festival debut, Mike White’s “Brad’s Status” (Metascore: 72) topped out at $2.1 million, while Angela Robinson’s “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women” (Metascore: 68) yielded just $1.5 million so far. (Late-year Annapurna productions, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” and Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” are being distributed by Focus Features and Paramount, respectively.)
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The lure of distribution is strong. When you pay a series of distributors to release costly and often well-reviewed movies from the likes of Anderson (“The Master”) and Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”) and see lackluster returns, it’s tempting to think that with the right people you could do better. But building a distribution mechanism is a costly venture, with a steep learning curve. More than ever, nobody really knows anything.
That includes which studio will release the 25th James Bond installment, which marks Daniel Craig’s final outing as Agent 007. Sony released the last four installments for MGM, but since their contract expired with 2015’s “Spectre,” multiple distributors have been bidding for the franchise. MGM/Annapurna has plenty of time to decide; the opening date is November 8, 2019.
The new distribution joint venture will be run by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer chairman and CEO Gary Barber and Megan Ellison, Annapurna founder and CEO. The move marks a return to U.S. theatrical distribution for MGM; the two companies will share funding for the joint venture’s operations while retaining creative control over their own projects. Annapurna’s new marketing and distribution team will facilitate campaigns for the MGM titles, which will be distributed under the MGM banner. Annapurna-produced films will continue to be distributed under the Annapurna label.
MGM and Annapurna also formed a releasing entity, Mirror, which will pursue theatrical releasing opportunities for third-party films “supported by thoughtful approaches to marketing, publicity, and distribution, while allowing creators and investors to maintain individuality and their brands,” according to the release announcing the venture.
Barber and Ellison recognize the benefit of scale. MGM boasts more commercial titles and sequels like “Creed,” while Annapurna tends to target the higher-end specialty circuit. Since 2012, Annapurna’s films have received 32 Academy Award nominations, including three Best Picture nods for “American Hustle,” “Her,” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Annapurna expects to release a slate of four to six films per year including Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of Maria Semple bestseller “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” Barry Jenkins’ James Baldwin adaptation “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers” based on Patrick deWitt’s novel, and Adam McKay’s “Untitled Dick Cheney Project,” which stars Christian Bale as vice president Dick Cheney.
MGM expects to release six to eight films per year beginning with Eli Roth’s re-imagining of the classic 1974 revenge thriller “Death Wish,” starring Bruce Willis, a musical adaptation of the 1983 romantic comedy “Valley Girl,” and “Fighting with My Family,” a comedy-drama written and directed by Stephen Merchant, based on the true story of WWE’s Superstar Paige starring Florence Pugh, Vince Vaughn and Dwayne Johnson.
Next year, MGM will also release “Nasty Women,” based on the original 1988 comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” starring Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway, as well as the thriller “Operation Finale,” directed by Chris Weitz and starring Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley.
MGM’s 2018 film slate also has titles that will be released through existing studio partners, including “Creed 2,” a continuation of the Rocky saga, starring Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan (Warner Bros., November 21, 2018), action adventure “Tomb Raider,” starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft (Warner Bros., March 16); the animated “Sherlock Gnomes,” voiced by Johnny Depp, James McAvoy and Emily Blunt (Paramount, March 23); and “Overboard” starring Mexican comedy star Eugenio Derbez and Anna Faris (Pantelion, April 20).
Last month, MGM relaunched Orion Pictures as a U.S. theatrical marketing and distribution company for low-budget films with president John Hegeman. It’s still staffing up and is slated to release its first title, young-adult romance “Every Day” based on David Levithan’s New York Times best-selling novel, on April 27.
As previously announced, MGM will be releasing Annapurna films in select territories from Pan Asia, Germany, Scandinavia, Central Europe, and the Middle East to Latin America. Other foreign territories will be handled on a case by case basis. Twentieth Century Fox releases both Annapurna and MGM U.S. homevideo titles.