Independents Day: Executives from the indie world reflect on specialty prospects


On Tuesday, Oct. 12, ShowEast will present its inaugural Independent Showcase, a full afternoon of activities devoted to the specialty arena, including screenings of upcoming features; product presentations from Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, Pantelion Films, Roadside Attractions and The Weinstein Company; a panel discussion on marketing techniques, and an indie “schmooze” and luncheon. In anticipation of this indie gathering, Film Journal International asked four leading executives, two from distribution and two from exhibition, to share their thoughts on the state of independent film in 2010. The participants are Nikkole Denson-Randolph, VP, specialty and alternative content, AMC Theatres; Jack Foley, president, theatrical distribution, Focus Features; Jeffrey Jacobs, film buyer and president, Jacobs Entertainment; and Mike Polydoros, executive VP, distribution operations, Lionsgate Films.

How would you describe the theatrical climate for independent films in 2010?
Foley: It’s tougher to do business in this market now more than ever.

Jacobs: It is surprisingly strong. Despite the economic forces that have challenged many production and distribution companies, there seem to be more interesting films than expected and an eager audience.

Polydoros: There is a lot of opportunity out there right now in independent film. With a lot of the major studios focusing more on the commercial audience, it really opens up the playing field in regards to independent film.

Denson-Randolph: It’s resilient. It’s optimistic. While many feel the current theatrical climate has stalled or is close to disappearing altogether, I disagree. It's simply a time for evolution.
With the market change/shift, a number of large studios have backed away from investing in art and independent content, but a number of smaller independent distributors have begun to pop up and have shown success on their own without the big machines behind them.

From examples like The Kids Are All Right, Cyrus and Get Low that come from the larger independent distributors to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Winter’s Bone and I Am Love that come from distributors with smaller budgets, the independent film circuit continues to have several successes annually.

The current climate just commands smart, deliberate and innovative planning. There's a great opportunity for filmmakers to differentiate themselves with a direct connection to their audiences that leads to a positive theatre run/performance. No longer does the audience have to wait for isolated opportunities to hear the thoughts and creative processes from filmmakers and talent.

With a growing social media presence within this area, and increased product "self-awareness," independent movies can and have become a movement. A prime example is with the film La Mission, which AMC carried under our “AMC independent” program. While we certainly advocated the film and supported it online and in theatres, the filmmakers and talent toured, interviewed and engaged with fans digitally. This "indie" film has nearly 35,000 Facebook fans/followers...more than many major releases.

How does the climate compare to 10 or 20 years ago?
Denson-Randolph: Ten to 20 years ago, the climate was more progressive and studios were willing to take risks as they learned that these films required smaller investments (than their commercial fare) and could generate healthy returns. Studios (i.e., Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Warner Independent Pictures) were also leveraging their resources to developing and dedicating divisions that would develop, acquire and distribute specialty film.

It is also important to note the fact that today there are any number of films that, by utilizing a medley of other web and digital-based platforms (i.e., video on demand, digital downloading, etc.), are seeing relative success amongst their respective core audiences.

Finally, a decade or two ago, actors were more defined by their niche roles—i.e., Parker Posey and/or Kevin Smith as the independent film darlings. Today, you see many recognizable faces crossing over from blockbuster studio releases—Michael Douglas, Wall Street 2; Will Ferrell, The Other Guys—to also leading or playing pivotal roles in independent films—Michael Douglas, Solitary Man; Will Ferrell, Everything Must Go.

Foley: Real art films and their audience are becoming extinct based on the declining grosses they have been producing over the last 10 and 20 years, regardless of the fact there are more independent films being released now.

Jacobs: Twenty years ago, Sundance, Miramax, the Angelika Film Center and other organizations came to define the resurgent specialized marketplace. It was a time when American independent film was reaching a new maturity prodded by several talented directors including Soderbergh and Tarantino, among others, who excited filmgoers and the marketplace. Even ten years ago, the world of independent film seemed much more robust then it does today.

Polydoros: I think 20 years ago independent filmgoing made up a very small part of the moviegoing audience, whereas today some of the most acclaimed films over the last few years have been independents. Look at films like Crash and The Hurt Locker, both of which won Best Picture Oscars and were produced as independent films.

What are the biggest challenges for the independent film community today?

Jacobs: Financing the production of marketable film seems to be a big problem right now. There are many small films, some of which might do well, but not enough marketable films to fill 52 weeks of exhibitors' needs.

Foley: The biggest challenge for high-end film is opening successfully and expanding into a more commercial marketplace, particularly if you don’t have a real marketing budget to work with.

What kinds of independent films have the best chance for success?

Polydoros: For me, it’s all comes down to a great film with a compelling story. Whether it is a drama, comedy or documentary, if the movie is compelling, people will come. Lionsgate just picked up a great independent film in Rabbit Hole, which is a true gem with stellar performances from Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart and Dianne Wiest. It is a slice-of-life drama that you really can’t see anywhere else. Those are the types of films that have a great chance for success.

Foley: Movies with stars and with stories that tend to resonate popularly and then attract the smart commercial moviegoer—those films might have the best chance for success, particularly if they have a meaningful marketing budget.

Denson-Randolph: Character development and a well-told story that result in an emotional connection seems to be the consistent formula for a successful art film, no matter what the genre. However, it’s my personal view that a well-balanced dramedy tends to have stronger (crossover) results than the dark dramas and action thrillers (many of which find their successes as well amongst this audience).

Of course, there are films that obtain all of these qualities and don’t succeed, but that’s often due to lack of marketing resources.

Any film that’s marketed well, whether it's within the confines of a smart, targeted media plan or through the passionate, connected efforts of an individual filmmaker, stands a better chance at succeeding.

Jacobs: Obviously, stars still help to sell films, but my main concern is content. Our audiences want uplifting films and romantic comedies, stories that seem in short supply among independents.

Who are the moviegoers who really support independent films?

Jacobs: They are still the well-educated, recent college graduates and older adults who look to independent cinema for a unique filmgoing experience.

Denson-Randolph: Traditionally, independent films are supported by mature audiences (i.e., 35+), but younger educated audiences (19+) appear to appreciate more thought-provoking and unique content as well, as demonstrated by successes like Paranormal Activity, (500) Days of Summer and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

As the traditional "independent/art" audience ages, distributors and filmmakers are realizing that they are losing what was a core part of their audience. An opportunity resides in focusing on more content that resonates with younger audiences, where a breakthrough can happen—i.e., Juno, Little Miss Sunshine or Napoleon Dynamite. A younger audience isn't necessarily a simpler audience. They want to be entertained and challenged as well.

Foley: Core art-film patrons are older females who are the first and most important
supporters of indie films. Young audiences rarely support indie films unless the films are edgy, for example, Paranormal Activity—the great hope for indie filmmakers.

Polydoros: In all honesty, just about all moviegoers support independent films. As I said earlier, I think moviegoers today are conditioned to see all types of movies.

How large is the audience for foreign-language films?

Foley: Probably about 200,000 or more people will support a successful foreign-language film, which typically generates about $2 to $3 million at the box office. More often, foreign-language films gross less than $1 million, which reduces the number of patrons to only tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands of patrons. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crouching Tiger and Pedro Almodóvar’s films are exceptions: They are popular cultural phenomena or brands or both.

Jacobs: The audience seems to be getting smaller and older with the occasional exception of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.

Polydoros: We think there is a big audience out there. At Lionsgate, we just launched Pantelion Films, which is a joint venture between Lionsgate and Televisa. We are targeting the Hispanic community with both English and Spanish-language films. You can see our first release, a wonderful romantic comedy, From Prada to Nada, at the Showeast Independent Showcase.

Denson-Randolph: The U.S. audience for foreign-language films is avid, but is not very robust. It is my understanding that over the last several years, attendance for foreign fare has fallen by as much as 40%. As with any entertainment option, regionality and demographics are a factor, especially as America has diversified over the past 20 years. We have, for instance, seen great successes in several pockets of the country with our Hindi/Bollywood fare. Hispanic-targeted titles have also performed above expectations, in the Southwest and in major East Coast markets.

It's not lost on me, however, that a sizeable segment of the American audience simply isn't attuned to "reading a movie" onscreen. Thrillers and crime dramas tend to excel amongst foreign content; simply put, action does not require much translation.

Also noteworthy is the growing trend of following successful foreign films with Americanized versions due to their prior visibility.

What can exhibitors do to increase the audience for independent films?
Denson-Randolph: What AMC has done, through our “AMC independent” program, is become a better partner to the distributors by facilitating our own marketing plans to help supplement and raise the visibility around these films. A structure for success is present to support this genre. We may not catch lightning in a bottle each time, but when it does strike, we are prepared to take action.

In addition, we provide independent films with similar opportunities as we would major studio releases. For example, in the same day on our Facebook page in front of 260,000 fans/followers, you can find a post about upcoming independent films adjacent to information on “Edward, Jacob and Bella.” It's growing the marketplace by expanding the genre to previously untapped areas. No longer does a movie fan have to make devoted plans to drive across town to seek out an independent film. As our AMC independent (AMCi) program's tagline states, it's "the stories of the world, brought to your neighborhood."

How do you feel about ShowEast’s first Independent Showcase?
Denson-Randolph: It’s a smart move because while they usually focus on commercial films, the growing interest in and access to specialty film (due to growing technology) demonstrates the increasing relevance of these films. I appreciate that they are giving recognition to this genre.

Jacobs: Anything that highlights independent films in an industry dominated by mass-market product is a welcome development.

Foley: Focus is very excited about the prospects of this new convention event.

Polydoros: I think it’s great. Our business is about movies of all shapes and sizes, and to be able to offer the opportunity for indie films to be showcased this way is fantastic.