The Changing Tide of Indie Film Distribution

Is this the end of everything we know?

Medicine for Melancholy

Text by Andrew Rogers

With a global economic meltdown afoot, wars involving American soldiers raging on two continents and a landmark presidential race entering the home stretch, it might seem trivial to spend much time thinking about the state of independent film. But then again, with so many headline-screaming, out-of-control, life-changing events filling the news these days, why not get a little preoccupied with the machinations of an industry that is, after all, inherently designed to entertain us?

Let’s start with the basics. While films have certainly been created independent of the established system since the advent of motion pictures, it’s only been the last two or three decades that the term “indie” has become a marketing moniker often used (sometimes disingenuously) to describe a particular perspective or aesthetic. Today, just as often as not, the typical indie film at the local multiplex has major talents attached, along with a massive budget provided by a Fortune 500 company or a global hedge fund. But the indie film community is a big tent and there’s more than enough room for those big budget baubles as well as for more modestly priced (if not critically favored) projects like Medicine for Melancholy, Chop Shop and Baghead, to name just a few.

The process of making and presenting an independent film to the world puts filmmakers in the awkward position of constantly pleading for attention: from investors, festivals, distributors, marketing executives, critics and obviously, audiences. Some filmmakers have built-in advantages in one or more of these areas and get to leapfrog the process a bit, while the rest struggle and slog their way through the terrain in pursuit of what has long been considered the Holy Grail of filmmaking—landing a distributor to release one’s film in theaters. But the sands have shifted under everyone’s feet, and what was once standard operating procedure has become quixotic and fraught with complications.

It’s safe to say that 2008 has been nothing short of a watershed year for indie distributors in the U.S. The list of companies that have either folded or been swallowed by their parent company is enough to induce shudders. To wit, Warner Brothers closed both Picturehouse and Warner Independent in May and completely absorbed New Line after laying off a majority of the staff; the long-suffering Tartan USA also shut its doors in May a month before its British parent, Tartan Films, closed and sold its library of 400-plus films to a financing company; Paramount Pictures laid off more than half the staff of Paramount Vantage in July and transitioned the rest into a redesigned corporate structure; Netflix closed its Red Envelope Entertainment division in July in order to focus more fully on online distribution and DVD rentals; and now, ThinkFilm seems to be on the brink of collapse in the wake of an ill-advised sale of the company, and with its reputation in tatters, executives have fled in droves and filmmakers are angry. (One of the hardy souls still remaining aboard that sinking ship recently told me that no plans or agreements were being made more than two weeks in advance—because they weren’t sure how much longer they’d even be in business.)

Certainly, mighty distribution companies have closed or been absorbed before (anyone remember Carolco or Orion Pictures?), but never so many in such a short period of time. Conventional wisdom suggests that one reason for the closures is the failure of companies to adhere to the classic business model for independent film. Practiced to perfection by the folks at Sony Pictures Classics, one of the historically best ways to succeed in the indie film exhibition arena is to keep acquisition spending in check, remove emotion and exuberance from the equation and focus with laser-like precision on the films, filmmakers, markets and release strategies that deliver modest yet consistent results. In other words, instead of putting all your eggs in a single basket and swinging for the fences every time (as Hollywood studios are wont to do), spread risk across a broad slate of films and routinely score singles and doubles. But when a company gets a surprise or massive hit, it can be difficult to stick to that strategy, so strong is the temptation to behave more like a traditional Hollywood studio (read: spend more money and take bigger risks). A good example of this deviation from principle is Miramax, which started off by releasing films with modest returns like The Secret Policeman’s Ball and Pelle the Conqueror before working itself up to wider releases and more prestigious titles that returned bigger profits. But after years of getting consistent results from films like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover and Enchanted April, Miramax got a bit drunk on box office grosses and tried to take the next step up the food chain. Eventually the company found itself heavily invested in do-or-die pictures like Cold Mountain and Gangs of New York, ultimately behaving exactly like a Hollywood studio. Not that releasing big budget films is a horrible thing in and of itself, but for companies that are capitalized to handle smaller budgeted films, the change can be disastrous.

Others have blamed this year’s indie distribution implosion on the faltering economy, the increasing costs to market films in an already crowded marketplace or even the changing tastes of audiences. The truth, depending on whom you talk to, could be all of these things or something else entirely. The simple fact is that we’re not likely to know the full story until someone writes an industry biography many years from now and has the advantage of hindsight.

At the same time as this year’s much publicized closures, however, even smaller independent niche distributors have popped up all over the place, subverting any claims that the end is nigh. Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys launched Oscilloscope Pictures to much fanfare in February, while the unassuming Chicago-based Music Box Films has turned into one of the year’s bright spots, releasing the French films Tell No One and OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies as well as the Mongolian feature Tuya’s Marriage.

For those fearing the collapse of all we know, the good news is that the simple act of watching movies in theaters is not likely to completely disappear anytime soon. Speaking at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, Mark Gill, the former president of both Miramax Films and Warner Independent weighed in on this very subject. “I believe that a fair number of people—call them what’s left of the theatrical audience if you like—will always need to get out of the house…in part because they enjoy the benefits of a communal experience,” he said.

What’s more likely is that the theatrical experience will be reduced dramatically and only the best films (what “best” means is yet to be determined, incidentally) will get one of the precious theatrical slots while all other films will be shuttled to other platforms such as home video, online downloads, mobile device downloads and that realm of hotel room porn, video-on-demand. Traditional distributors like IFC and Magnolia are already well into their experiments with day-and-date simultaneous releases of films across multiple platforms, and companies like Hulu, Jaman, Amazon and Netflix are leading the charge of digital downloads. The economic viability is tantalizing—no longer would distributors need to spend heavily on film prints, for instance, or split costs with local theaters. Indeed, a world in which filmmakers are able to bypass the middleman altogether and connect directly with their audiences—à la YouTube, but with profits—might actually become a reality someday soon.

Andrew Rodgers is a freelance journalist and the Executive Director of the RiverRun International Film Festival