At last week’s CinemaCon, bigger isn’t better; it’s almost all that matters. Cocks of the walk at the annual Las Vegas exhibitor convention were the three largest American theater chains: AMC (8,123 screens in 626 theaters), Regal (7,334 screens in 588 theaters) and Cinemark (4,457 screens in 334 theaters). And it’s the major studios that command their pick of screens and trailer placement.
So where does that leave the indies? It’s not pretty. Here’s how it really breaks down, according to a panel of top indie distribution execs moderated by marketing maven Gordon Paddison April 26.
Courtesy of NEON
1. Fight for trailers
“We don’t have the budgets to spend to pay for trailers to be up,” said Focus Features distribution president Lisa Bunnell. “A lot of the time we are at their mercy. We need to play trailers in theaters to support art movies, have them put up one sheets.” Indie chains Alamo and Landmark are more likely to work closely with distributors to market specialty fare in theaters via trailers, materials and word of mouth screenings.
And theaters need to get trailers up “in a timely fashion, not the week before we open,” protested Sony Pictures Classics senior VP sales Tom Prassis — or after a movie proves that it’s playing. “You have to stick with it through thick and thin, otherwise it’s not going to work. If you do, it will pay off.”
2. Fight for screens
Neon distribution head Elissa Federoff said that even after breakout hit “I, Tonya,” the distributor still can’t land all the theaters and trailers it wants. “We have so much good product to go into theaters,” she said. “Sometimes we can’t get our movie into theaters. There’s so much out there. We can’t play it where we want to play it. Sometimes indie films get overlooked.”
3. Partner with theaters
The panelists encouraged theater managers to get to know their customers, who rely on advice on which movies to see. “Everybody knows about ‘Avengers,’ but it’s hard to find our films when they get lost in the shuffle in the multiplex,” said Prassis. “With fewer classic art houses, we are at the mercy of people giving us screens. We have movies to offer young people other than superhero movies. But exhibition has to work with us in order get it done. Our older audience is dying off. We have to look at younger audiences and cultivate them for the kind of films we release. Social media is the way to get to them.”
And just as the strongest specialty distributors are pushing for more multiplex screens — some chains designate arthouse theaters in certain cities — many smaller mom-and-pop theaters wonder why they have to wait so long to get the most-trumpeted movies as they work their way around the country, if they get them at all. One exhibitor from Hilton Head Island said they also had a hard time getting trailers. (Distributors encouraged theater owners to reach out to their local sales reps.)
Sony Pictures Classics
With a movie like Chloe Zhao’s authentic cowboy drama “The Rider,” which has no stars, “we’re letting word of mouth build so it can remain in theaters,” said Prassis. “The hardest part is keeping it in theaters, allowing people to talk about it and go back and see it.”
4. Reach millennials via social media and diverse content
Neon and other younger indies like A24 are adept at social-media marketing. “We get granular with it, target specific areas around that movie theater, which is cost effective,” said Federoff. “We find data quickly, pivot, and quickly, stealthily change the marketing campaign, find other ways of reaching them within social media. Digital advertising opens the landscape.”
Neon likes to find “content that can reach a younger audience,” said Federoff. “We can skew millennial and have fun with marketing. ‘Ingrid Goes West’ went to Bonnaroo and Boston Calling music festivals with food trucks. We found millennials where they were and gave them experiential experiences. We did murals in Santa Monica, papered the Venice Beach area, partnered with Smorgasburg in LA. Experiential marketing brings content to them with recruited word-of-mouth screenings in Chicago, San Francisco, and Dallas to get them in right away and get started talking with friends.”
Even established distributors have figured out the virtues of digital. “Even though our films largely appeal to older audiences, social media is the place we are focusing on,” Prassis said. “We are still big on newspaper ads, but we’re cutting back.”
“The days of big New York and LA Times ads are over,” said Bunnell, who said her 16-year-old son had no idea there were showtimes in the New York Times. “A whole new generation of kids look to social media, be it on the IMDb site or gets their showtimes with a location search. It broadens your audience.”
Also on their way out are print film reviewers. “Critics are a dying breed,” said Prassis. “We rely on them; it’s sad to see them fall by the wayside as newspapers have no future.”
Diverse content is the key to building audiences, said Fox Searchlight sales head Frank Rodriguez, citing titles ranging from “Gifted” and “My Cousin Rachel,” to year-end Oscar-winners “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “The Shape of Water.” “These very different films broaden that audience,” he said. “We won’t be able to depend forever on the older, more mature audience. We do have to grab younger moviegoers.”
Skewing younger than usual was Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” which was 54 percent 18-34. Searchlight also sent “Super Troopers 2” out wide for the non-specialty crowd. “You reach out to social media on computers at home — but you have to get them to the theater.”
5. Create exclusive promos
For “Call Me By Your Name,” SPC provided exclusive video content with Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet for Regal and AMC theaters’ loyalty clubs. They had the duo do PSAs for Alamo as well. Federoff would like to do more Alamo-style sneak preview programs and specialized content that cultivate loyal customers. “I wish more circuits would do what Alamo does,” said Prassis.
For “Phantom Thread,” Focus put Paul Thomas Anderson on social media with Twitter and Facebook Q&As. “He introduced himself to a whole new generation with kids,” said Bunnell. “It’s a good way get people educated about great filmmakers. He did interviews on YouTube, and ‘Phantom Thread’ played to a younger audience.”
Federoff praised A24’s “brilliant” Twitter and Instagram feeds. “They have such a good voice, and a big following,” she said. “They put up funny, clever posts every day. People follow them who might not be into movies for their funny comedic voice.”
6. Support subscription services
MoviePass isn’t the only movie subscription program, said Bunnell. “They will bring people into movie theaters. Whether MoviePass will exist in a year is questionable. It does not make any sense, but it’s an opportunity for someone to come up with a quality subscription program.”
Prassis wishes subscription programs could be like Amazon and make recommendations to their customers. “If you bought ‘Call Me By Your Name,’ then you might like this,” he said. “Unless they start that, I don’t think it’s going to help us down the road.”
7. Embrace year-round programming
The year-end pile-up of Oscar contenders isn’t always a blessing. “Everyone thinks they have an Oscar film,” said Bunnell. [Filmmakers] should recognize we release films 52 weeks a year. If you release a movie in April it has more space, more screens and time than a release in October, November or December, when heavy hitters from the studios like ‘The Post’ with Hanks and Streep and Spielberg are hurting the art films. They can’t compete with that huge campaign.”
Spike Lee happily agreed to release “BlacKkKlansman” in August. Bunnell said he told her: “They don’t want to ever give me a nomination, anyway. “I don’t care, all of America should see it, I want it to go in summer.” A movie that plays well early and has the right stuff — like “Dunkirk,” “Get Out,” “Boyhood” or “Moonrise Kingdom” — can return to the Oscar conversation. “People remember great films,” said Bunnell.
Similarly, Prassis said SPC plans to open “The Wife” starring Glenn Close in August as counterprograming with a similar trajectory to Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” which scored an Oscar win for Cate Blanchett.
8. Fight Netflix
Netflix makes it harder. “They’re throwing a lot of money out there for product,” said Prassis. “It’s more difficult to compete. They’ve raised the bar.”
“It’s not a healthy level,” said Bunnell.
“It’s nonsensical,” said Prassis.
“We don’t know how many people see it,” said Bunnell.
“They won’t tell us,” said Prassis.
“Are you actually watching the movie?” asked Bunnell. “You can walk out of the room. It hasn’t helped the industry … Filmmakers want to be treated individually, have creative control and tell inspiring stories that move them.”