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Why Indie Distributors Are Having an Easier Time Than Studios Moving Theatrical Releases to VOD

It's no easy task for studios to cancel a theatrical release, but smaller distributors have found that they can be more flexible.

robert the bruce

“Robert the Bruce”

Screen Media

For the planned April 16 release of unofficial “Braveheart” follow-up “Robert the Bruce,” Screen Media had everything lined up perfectly. Angus Macfadyen, who plays the Scottish independence-crusader Robert I in both films, recorded a promo that would appear before a Fathom Events 25th anniversary screening of “Braveheart” in March, encouraging dedicated fans to head to one of 600 theaters for the Fathom screening of the new film. And it tapped the American-Scottish Foundation for a grassroots campaign to reach more of the film’s core constituency amid the 700th anniversary of Robert’s Declaration of Arbroath and the start of the Highland games season.

That finely tuned-day-and-date strategy all fell apart when the coronavirus pandemic led virtually all American theaters to close their doors. At first blush, the crisis could have spelled disaster for the film’s future, given the daunting prospect of trying to reassemble all of those pieces amid so much uncertainty.

But like its independent-distributor peers of all sizes, things aren’t looking disastrous for Screen Media and the success of “Robert the Bruce” as Americans, stuck inside, are looking to satiate their vast hunger for entertainment. Specialty distributors can be nimble in ways that studios cannot, since the smaller companies’ robust VOD infrastructure makes it easy to organize a digital release, and the new reality of America under lockdown makes that the only option. Still, pulling off the shift from theatrical to VOD takes plenty of enterprising thinking.

“This posed a really unique challenge for us,” Screen Media’s EVP of distribution Mike Messina told IndieWire. “For the home-entertainment release part of this movie, we were always going to target a broad audience. We were targeting that niche audience to go to the theaters and participate in a Fathom event. Once we made the decision to pivot to digital and on demand, we also made the decision to support that pivot with higher budgets for our VOD release” on April 24.

Similarly, Abramorama had planned a March 20 theatrical release for “Dosed,” Tyler Chandler’s look at using psychedelics to treat addiction, but after theaters closed swapped it for a VOD release.

“We refer to our films as tribal,” Abramorama founder Richard Abramowitz said. “What we have always done is gotten involved in films that have defined, committed audiences, and then activating them … we would have had a 7 p.m. show at the Village East. Now, we’re activating them in a different direction.”

Distributors say it’s too early to tell just how financially successful coronavirus-era releases will be. They cite various strategic and financial reasons for going VOD now, rather than waiting to release or re-release films theatrically at an undetermined time — the National Association of Theatre Owners is eyeing early June for an initial reopening. But the loss of theatrical means something much different for a specialty release like “Robert the Bruce,” where pay TV and SVOD revenues are often a larger revenue stream, than it does to a family tentpole like Universal’s “Trolls World Tour” — or even “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which Universal subsidiary Focus Features moved from theaters to VOD last weekend.

On one end of the spectrum, some films sell so few tickets through event screenings distributors don’t even report grosses. Others, like Screen Media’s recent Terry Gilliam film “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” brought in $392,000 domestically. The first “Trolls” movie grossed five times that in the U.S. and Canada alone. With many other titles somewhere in between, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

For smaller-grossing films, theatrical releases can build word-of-mouth awareness, engender support with filmmakers and casts on the publicity circuit, and crucially, land more reviews. Fortunately, major print publications like the New York Times have changed their policies around VOD titles while theaters are shuttered, a move celebrated by distributors of higher-profile films with greater theatrical potential who have pivoted some titles to VOD-only during this time.

“That was pretty big. It was a big relief for a lot of filmmakers who felt they’re caught in a worldwide pandemic because the theatrical was compromised,” said Arianna Bocco, IFC Films’ acquisitions EVP.

IFC, with its larger volume and multiple labels, has dealt in both day-and-date and traditional releases since 2006. On the niche end, theatrical grosses can look like the $51,500 earned in the US and Canada by the absurdist suburban vision of last year’s “Greener Grass,” while its 2014 Oscar-winner “Boyhood” from writer-director Richard Linklater brought in $25.38 million domestically.

IFC’s springtime day-and-date slate — Nazi-drama “Resistance,” Australian epic “True History of the Kelly Gang” and horror film “The Other Lamb” — are now all heading straight to VOD. “The one thing that we had in our favor as a uniqueness to IFC Films was our day-and-date infrastructure,” Bocco said. “It was already in place. We didn’t have to scramble.”

Meantime, IFC is weighing its options for the Catherine Deneuve and Ethan Hawke-starrer “The Truth,” which screened in competition at Venice and was planned for a March 20 theatrical release.

The Other Lamb

“The Other Lamb”

IFC Films

As IFC’s mixed strategy shows, distributors aren’t completely forgoing theatrical. Take, for instance, Sony Pictures Classics and its mystery-thriller “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” which opened March 13, days before theaters were shut down and the same day Focus opened “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” But unlike its big-studio indie label peer, SPC is planning on re-releasing “Heresy” in theaters at an undetermined date. Rather than accepting an abbreviated theatrical run and heading straight to VOD, the label known for its awards films is sticking to traditional windows as part of a philosophy SPC co-president Tom Bernard recently outlined for IndieWire’s Anne Thompson.

“If I took 10 movies that opened in theaters last year, and 10 that streamed on Netflix, and waited 10 years, see if anyone has heard of those movies,” Bernard said. “No one remembers what’s on TV. They’re not made for cinema; they’re programming, they’re not something special.”

For Magnolia Pictures, theater closures interrupted the planned expansion of movies that launched with platform releases earlier in the year: Romanian crime thriller “The Whistlers” and last year’s Toronto opening-night documentary “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.”

But rather than restart the theatrical window at a later, undetermined date, Magnolia worked with VOD platforms to rush process the films. It also launched a virtual cinema program that allows viewers to stream the titles in partnership with local theaters. 100% of the proceeds went straight to the ailing theaters through April 2; now the split is 50-50. Kino Lorber, Film Movement, Oscilloscope, Bleecker Street, and Music Box Films have created similar programs.

Up next, Magnolia is weighing its options for upcoming planned theatrical releases “John Lewis: Good Trouble”; “Collective,” the top-ranked documentary from IndieWire’s TIFF Critics Survey; and ACLU doc “The Fight.”

An initial release in Los Angeles and New York are usually key for platform releases, but those hard-hit cities have implemented some of the country’s strongest social-distancing restrictions — and could likely see their cinemas be among the last to reopen nationwide. That all makes for an additional layer of uncertainty for distributors trying desperately to make the best moves in an unprecedented and unpredictable time.

“We’re taking every measure to not abandon theatrical for any films,” said Neal Block, distribution and marketing head at Magnolia. “We want to keep the industry healthy and keep our relationships with exhibitors healthy and intact.”

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