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Looking Back at Specialty Distribution in 2017: 14 Hard Lessons

From Amazon to Lincoln Plaza, 2017 was a year of nothing but change for specialized distribution — and not all of it good.

“The Big Sick”

To judge by the holidays, specialized film is in a boom. In six weeks, seven films opened at over $40,000 per theater; one or two titles made the top 10 throughout Christmas; and the top contenders for best picture include nearly a dozen indie titles.

Unfortunately, this sampling doesn’t represent the year. There were some specialized successes throughout 2017: Amazon/Lionsgate’s “The Big Sick” and Weinstein’s “Wind River” both scored in the summer; Focus had modest successes with “The Zookeeper’s Daughter” and “The Beguiled.” But there were long stretches of minor openings, and the films that worked best gravitated quickly toward competing chain theaters. That helped make them successes, but didn’t do a lot to keep the art houses happy.

Meanwhile, the Weinstein Company is on life support; Open Road has been sold. Overall, 2017 saw about $500 million in gross, less than five percent of the domestic total box office take. About a quarter of that came from “La La Land,” which was released last year but found most of its play in 2017. It was also handled by Lionsgate, which functions as a studio these days.

Here’s a look at what 2017 taught us about specialized distribution, including some hard lessons.

“Wind River”

It’s feast or famine. The lineup of strong late-year films meant a quick push to maximize early grosses, elevating titles and getting them awards attention. But it also meant too many were pushed into the same time period. Wild swings between starvation and cannibalization work against developing a core audience — particularly younger fans, who regularly search out specialized films.

There’s a brain drain. Once indie directors break out, one of the first things they do is leave — studio projects want them, too, Six of the 10 biggest-grossing domestic films were directed by people who got their starts in specialty films, including “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Beauty and the Beast.” That ratio permeates the ranks of wide-release films, including genre directors who made minor splashes in midnight sections of festivals or otherwise received indie credibility.

The Weinstein Co. was doing OK, until it fell apart. TWC’s fate seems close to sealed, but it actually had a strong year compared to recent ones thanks to “Lion” and “Wind River.” This will be the first year since 1988 that Harvey Weinstein won’t be an Oscar presence.

Fox Searchlight is now owned by Disney. Nothing will likely change in the short term, and it’s been a good year: “Gifted” (borderline as specialized, though it did open limited) will soon give way to “Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri” as its biggest success, and “Shape of Water” has lots of life ahead. However, TWC, Focus, A24, and Fox Searchlight each have around one percent of total market share among all distributors. It’s unclear if the new owners have the appetite for a business that microscopic.


“Phantom Thread”

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

Focus Features fell. “Victoria & Abdul” is its biggest success; year-end “Darkest Hour” and “Phantom Thread” could reach its level. Their share fell because of going back specialized and not having wide release films like “London Has Fallen.”

A24 continues to fly high. It’s got “Moonlight” as Best Picture and its first $100 million year. More than any other distributor, they reach out to younger audiences with edgier films — a strategy similar to the original Miramax Films.

Roadside Attractions saw its biggest drop. Most of its gross came from “Manchester By the Sea,” a 2016 release; otherwise, nothing grossed over $8 million. Still, total revenues made it their second biggest year.

Sony Pictures Classics is showing signs of struggle. It fell slightly from last year, with its lowest total since at least 2002. Smartly, it is pushing most of the gross for “Call Me By Your Name” to next year, as well as other late year limited titles like “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.”

Open Road Changed. “Spotlight” was only two years ago, but Open Road was sold to foreign owners with and lost Tom Ortenberg as their head. There’s no clear sense of interest in specialized ahead.

Bleecker Street is looking wider. The distributor had success in its initial specialized releases but veered toward wider films this year, with only Amazon’s “The Lost City of Z” scoring good limited results.

Amazon lost momentum. In addition to seeing the exit of Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, it suffered a series of high-profile failures including “The Only Living Boy in New York” and “Wonderstruck” (Roadside), “Brad’s Status” (Annapurna), and “Last Flag Flying” (Lionsgate). Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” is Amazon’s first film under direct distribution. “The Big Sick,” through Lionsgate, fell just short of “Manchester By the Sea” (via Roadside) as its biggest success. It had stakes in “I Am Not Your Negro” (Magnolia) and “The Salesman” (Cohen) and a decent showing for “The Lost City of Z.”

Netflix is still a mystery. “Mudbound,” a major Sundance acquisition and their first serious major-category Oscar contender, received a very limited theatrical release, as is the Netflix way. Yet its Sundance U.S. Dramatic Jury top prize winner, “I Don’t Feel at Home in The World Anymore,” received almost no attention after Park City.

"The Salesman"

“The Salesman”

Subtitles continue to decline. The best gross in the arthouse foreign language market was “The Salesman,” an Iranian film that made $2.4 million in large part because of its Oscar nomination followed by its win. However, Asghar Farhadi’s 2012 “A Separation” made $7 million. Turkish street cat documentary “Kedi” (Oscilloscope), with limited subtitles, scored a bit more with $2.8 million, with no other foreign-language release doing even $2 million. It’s a grim market for what was once the core of specialized film.

Documentaries are plentiful, and many receive limited theatrical releases more for awards qualification. “I Am Not Your Negro” was a surprise success with over $7 million. Paramount again partnered with Participant Media for “An Inconvenient Sequel.” With a far wider release than most documentaries and above-average marketing budget, it managed $3.5 million — a fraction of “The Inconvenient Truth.” Abramorama’s “Jane” is nearing $1.5 million in much more limited release. Music Box, IFC, Magnolia, and Cohen, and SPC remain vital players, but all are finding it increasingly difficult to find more than minor grosses.


Lincoln Plaza Cinema closed. The most disturbing event of the year was the recent announcement thatLincoln Plaza venue will shut down, at least temporarily. If it reopens as a theater after a structural remodeling, it remains to be seen if future operators have the same interest in the kind of programming as longtime owner Dan Talbot had.

Most recently, it served as an essential springboard for the animated “Loving Vincent” and its distributor, Good Deed. At over $6 million, it is the sleeper success of the arthouse year, and more impressive coming from a previously unproven source. Its path to attention went through New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinema, which opened it exclusively last September before the fall post-festival rush of films.

Never has a segment of the business had its fate so tied into the bookings of a single theater, and it’s pressure a struggling industry doesn’t need. Bigger companies will barely notice.

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