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Report: Over Half of Independent Films Get a Theatrical Release, but Few Make Money There

It's not as rare as you might think for an independent movie to be shown in theaters, but it's definitely hard to make money that way.

"The Chambermaid"

“The Chambermaid,” Mexico’s Oscar submission, grossed $82,000 domestically in its 13-week run.

Kino Lorber

New research on independent features made in 2017 offers encouraging news for aspiring filmmakers: Three in five independent films made that year got some sort of theatrical release. The not-so-good news? Very few made substantial money at the box office.

Those findings came from a deep dive into all narrative non-studio films distributed made in 2017 conducted by Bruce Nash, whose company operates The Numbers, and producer and analyst Stephen Follows. The American Film Market published their article ahead of its annual event in November.

The researchers offered three release outcomes that together accounted for 60.4% of all movies shot in 2017.

  • Nominal releases (35.3%): movies that have theatrical release dates, but reported no box office figures. This could happen when a filmmaker rents a theater to show their movie to a small audience, for example.
  • Small releases (8.1%): movies that reported grosses up to $100,000
  • Large releases (17%): movies that reported grosses over $100,000

The remaining 39.6% of films indexed by by Nash and Follows got no theatrical release, though may have premieired at a theater or played in film festivals. Others were released straight to streaming platforms.

The takeaway for filmmakers? “You should accept the fact that you can get there, but do not expect to make money on your theatrical release,” Nash told IndieWire.

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Of the 877 independent films they counted, about a quarter reported box office earnings.

Comscore media analyst Paul Dergarabedian said his company tracks box office results for about 90 films each week. The vast majority are independent films.

“The level of competition is incredibly high if you look at the number of independent films that are actually being shown in the marketplace with patrons paying to see them,” he said.

Take last weekend’s box office report, for example. Number-one performer “Downton Abbey” made $31.03 million in its opening weekend at 3,079 theaters. The 94th highest-grossing film was Lila Avilés’ Spanish-language “The Chambermaid,” which brought in $197 on two screens in its 13th week, bringing its total gross to almost $82,000.

“The Chambermaid,” would fall under Nash and Follows’ “small release” category, 8.1% of independent films made in 2017. The fact that it was one of the top 100 grossing films last weekend illustrates the enormous divide between big and small movies — the highest-grossing movie of all time, “Avengers: Endgame,” pulled in over 10 times as much money from US viewers after it was released this year.

But “The Chambermaid” is far from a failure — it’s found universal acclaim from critics, was nominated for eight of Mexico’s Ariel Awards, and won for best debut film, is Mexico’s Oscar submission, and will likely be available to an even wider audience on iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Vimeo, or Fandor, all of which are regular platforms for Kino Lorber and present another opportunity for the distributor and filmmaker to earn money.

Another recent AFM report from Follows and Nash that also used the 2017 data found that star power increased the likelihood of a movie getting a wider release, but it wasn’t the only factor for such an outcome.

A quarter of non-theatrical Indies featured a star, compared to just under 50% for small releases and 65% for large releases.

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