IFC Films Faces the End of an Era and Makes the Case for Its Future

While senior executives have left the arthouse distributor and the industry wonders what's going on, AMC is messaging business as usual.
IFC Films "Boyhood" and "The Babadook"
Since 2000, IFC Films built its reputation with challenging hits like the 12-year production of Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" (L) and Jennifer Kent's "The Babadook" (R)
IFC Films/graphic by IndieWire

When the Gotham Awards paid tribute to then-IFC Films president Jonathan Sehring, his speech contained a passage that could have been written by Cassandra, the Trojan priestess fated to speak true prophecies that would not be believed.

“Traditional theatrical distribution isn’t dead, but film distributors large and small are competing with more and more entertainment options on a daily basis,” he said. “The digital revolution is now.”

It was easy to overlook the warning in 2008. That year saw the release of Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” which won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, and grossed $378 million worldwide. Barry Jenkins made his debut on the festival circuit with “Medicine for Melancholy,” which later would be distributed by IFC.

Sehring left the company in 2018. Five years later, IFC faces a turning point in the specialty film ecosystem it helped create. With the abrupt departure of president Arianna Bocco at the end of last month, the core team that navigated the company through its pioneering role in the birth of the VOD market — including the day-and-date release strategy that larger studios embraced during the pandemic — has moved on. Along with the two other film brands owned by AMC Networks, RLJE Entertainment and Shudder, IFC has been tasked with proving its viability under new leadership and the pressures of corporate synergy.

After 15 years of running IFC’s acquisitions team, Bocco was elevated to the top role in 2020. Following her departure, the company also lost theatrical distribution head Jasper Basch, who returned to his former employer at Variance Films, and PR head Laura Sok, who is rumored to have accepted a new position elsewhere. Senior publicist Kate McEdwards is also leaving the company. Meanwhile, the company’s homegrown New York movie theater, the IFC Center, lost 17-year head John Vanco in March as he departed for a new job overseeing Netflix’s Paris Theater. (Harris Dew was promoted to the role.)

Speculation about IFC’s future followed the string of departures and Bocco’s sudden exit. However, sources with knowledge of the company suggested to IndieWire that the changes stem from a pressure that IFC knows well: maintaining quality amid growing pressure to drive revenue with limited bandwidth. In recent months, IFC employees confronted the challenge of handling RLJE’s B-movie releases as well as Shudder’s growing genre library without additional resources.

Parent company AMC Networks cut its spending by 20 percent in February. “The current mechanisms for monetizing content are not working,” said executive chairman James Dolan on its fourth-quarter earnings call, not long after his wife, Kristin Dolan, was elevated to CEO. “The content industry needs to reorganize itself. We’re seeing this now with most media companies beginning to course-correct to better monetize content and improve the economics of their business.”

The limited economics of streaming and the narrow potential of theatrical exhibition forces many specialty distributors to reconsider their value.

IFC’s challenges echo similar ones faced across the industry. With the limited economics of streaming and the narrow potential of theatrical exhibition, many specialty distributors must reconsider their value. (While IFC is not currently for sale, competitors such as Magnolia and Neon have dangled their availability for some time.)

IFC itself, however, messages business as usual.

“IFC is a vital and thriving business within AMC Networks,” interim president Scott Shooman told IndieWire this week. “We’ll continue to be. That’s our plan.” Shooman reports into AMC Studios president Dan McDermott, who echoed that sentiment.

“What we’re experiencing right now is a personnel churn that is greater than we hoped at a particular point in time,” said McDermott. “But that doesn’t bear any relation to our commitment to all three brands. This is a super vibrant and robust division inside our company. It’s a meaningful part of AMC’s future.”

McDermott is the latest in a string of AMC executives charged with managing IFC. Prior to him, the role went to former AMC CEO Josh Sapan, who retired at the end of last year. Bocco declined to comment on her departure, and while AMC’s rushed announcement failed to note her longstanding history with the company, McDermott acknowledged it. “I hold Arianna in very high esteem,” McDermott said. “I think she has been an integral part of IFC Films. We will miss her.”

He added that AMC would seek future opportunities to combine the resources of the three film brands, as IFC and Shudder did for the January release of the no-budget horror effort “Skinamarink,” a Shudder acquisition that grossed $2 million in IFC’s limited release. “What we’re trying to do is to look for opportunities where we can cross-pollinate and come together,” McDermott said. He noted the additional end goal of streaming titles on Shudder and its larger streaming service, AMC+, but said the strategy was still in flux. “We want to craft a plan where we can see that our films will meet consumers wherever they are,” McDermott said. Other recent IFC releases have faced uphill battles, including “R.M.N.,” the latest drama from Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu, which grossed under $6,000 on two screens last week.

Shooman, a veteran acquisitions executive who previously worked at Endeavor and CBS Films, was hired by Bocco shortly after her promotion to president and positioned him as her deputy with a succession plan in mind. However, he inherits a role that has changed dramatically since Sehring left after almost 40 years with the company.

Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, 2001
“Y Tu Mama Tambien”©IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

Sehring, a longtime cable executive who helped launch the Independent Film Channel in 1994, laid the foundation for IFC in 1997 when he launched a new division, IFC Productions, and sold the projects it produced on the open market. The success of early hits such as “Boys Don’t Cry,” which was released by Fox Searchlight and won an Oscar for star Hilary Swank, led the company to realize the opportunity of distributing its own product.

IFC Films launched in 2000 with “Spring Forward” and found its footing as one of the key buyers of festival hits, amassing a library of celebrated independent work that included “Y tu mamá también,” “Me and You and Everyone We Know” and “Sherrybaby.” The company’s Sundance Channel (later rebranded Sundance TV) led to the additional asset of the Sundance Selects label.

In the mid-aughts, IFC became central to the so-called mumblecore movement, releasing lo-fi efforts such as Joe Swanberg’s early Greta Gerwig showcase “Hannah Takes the Stairs” as well as “Medicine for Melancholy.” These titles also were at the center of IFC’s early experiments with day-and-date distribution.

IFC also invested in finding VOD audiences for international cinema. Among the beneficiaries were Cannes-acclaimed auteurs such as Ken Loach and Hou Hsiao-Hsien; they also profited from the IFC Center, which Dolan initially envisioned as IFC’s own version of Radio City Music Hall. While studio divisions such as Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent, and Picturehouse closed in the wake of the 2008 recession, IFC found its footing with a nimble approach.

“When the market was crashing, we were the only company buying movies,” Bocco said on IndieWire’s Screen Talk podcast last fall. “We were giving filmmakers a platform to show their films, not only theatrically, but through VOD, and those were some of the best years.” At the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, IFC held U.S. rights to nearly half the main competition.

Its ambitions kept growing from there. After the surprise success of gross-out horror sensation “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” in 2009, the company built out genre label IFC Midnight, which later became home to other subversive genre hits like “The Babadook” and eventually yielded the birth of subscription streaming service Shudder in 2015. (Shudder has supplanted the role of IFC Midnight within the brand.)

At the same time, AMC exerted new demands on IFC to reduce its spending and meet new revenue goals. While marketing VP Ryan Werner left the company in 2013 after more than seven years, AMC brought in Lisa Schwartz to oversee operations and business development. IFC was forced to answer for costs ranging from the mundane (rental expenses at its 11 Penn Plaza headquarters) to long-term investments like Richard Linklater’s 12-year project “Boyhood,” which IFC financed for the duration of its production. Schwartz was elevated to co-president in 2016, and held the job on her own for two years after Sehring retired in 2018.

The early ambition of IFC continue to thrive outside the corporate sphere. Soon after Werner left IFC, he launched successful marketing and PR firm Cinetic Marketing; after Sehring’s retirement, the pair co-founded the theatrical distributor Sideshow in partnership with Janus Films. In short order, the company released recent Oscar winner “Drive My Car,” last year’s nominee “EO,” and pensive Italian buddy movie “The Eight Mountains,” which scored the highest per-screen average of any European release in the U.S. this year.

International, non-English-language critical darlings from revered filmmakers may have seemed more at home at IFC a few years ago. Similarly, A24’s role in the evolution of “elevated horror” movies have absorbed some of IFC’s DNA. However, Shooman said the company was still focused on the kind of movies on which it built its reputation. He and his team plan to attend Cannes with an interest in the festival’s foreign-language offerings.

“We are a filmmaker and auteur-forward company,” he said. “As we look to find those innovative voices, we aren’t defined by the boundaries of language. Insofar as I see international being a part of our slate, there’s no change right now.” He added that with three AMC brands scouring the lineup, “I can see the market for our needs being just as busy at the festival this year as it has been. We have a great team here that has great taste.”

Meanwhile the future of IFC, Shudder, and RLJE’s parent company remains an open question. On the February earnings call, Dolan did not rule out the possibility of M&A or an overall sale. “We’re very much open to all those ideas,” he said.

“In these choppy waters of the media business, we are no different than Warner Bros. Discovery, Disney, or Netflix,” said McDermott. “Everybody is dealing with this moment of reflection and correction in our business. We are smaller and more nimble, so we’ve been able to pivot really quickly. We are in a profit-making position. We’re having a very positive 2023 from a financial perspective, and feel we continue to do so.”

The ultimate fate of IFC and its associated AMC properties may rely on the changes yet to come. In 2008, Sehring’s Gothams speech hinted at the constant churn of the entertainment industry at every level. “The true independent film business should embrace these changes and figure out how to improve upon them,” he said. “Sticking to old models and traditional theatrical distribution is like using a Sony Walkman instead of an iPod.”

And when was the last time anyone used an iPod?

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.