Virtual Sun Dance. Is streaming the only hope for indie films? – After world

Film financier Jason Cloth has taken a number of risks throughout his Hollywood career. Initially, he endorsed Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation.

The film, which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, sold to Fox Searchlight for a then-record $17.5 million. It bombed the box office after a rape allegation against Parker resurfaced in 1999 (Parker was acquitted). Cloth made money from the sale, but Searchlight was a hit.

Years later producers, agents and distributors have met again, albeit virtually, for the latest Sundance. But Cloth, the Toronto-based executive director of Creative Wealth Media, which works closely with Canadian production company Bron Studios, is now convinced that making small indie dramas for cinemas is a sucker.

The right kind of feature can draw audiences to the multiplex, said Cloth, who has provided funding for House of Gucci, Licorice Pizza and Ghostbusters: Afterlife. That’s as long as it can be “eventized” by its intellectual property and cast, and a studio is willing to spend the money needed on marketing.

But for the small art-house films that dominate the scene at Sundance, the theatrical model is no longer practical.

“I don’t think producers can consider these films as a theatrical release,” Cloth said. “In the future, you need to think of these films as made for the streaming market. That is the only market for them.”

Independent cinema has always been a casino. Festivals like Sundance, which kicked off Thursday, are famous for hyping obscure films that sell for millions of dollars to distributors hoping they’ll become the next “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Brooklyn.” There is a flop for every hit, like “Patti Cake$” and “Hamlet 2”.

But the chances of success in the multiplex are now lower than ever.

“I need to understand what everyone is thinking about exiting before I’m comfortable investing any money,” Cloth said. “And now I’m not so comfortable when I’m offered an independent film with a theatrical release, and I tell people quite loudly, ‘I think you’re delusional.’ And then they pull out films from three, four years ago and say, ‘Look at how they did it.’ I think, ‘That was three, four years ago. This is a new world.’”

The unpredictable COVID-19 situation is only partly to blame for the fighting. Producers and studios anticipate long-term trends in audience behavior that have been supercharged by the pandemic. Moviegoers over 35 – the main demographic for festival selections – are the least likely to return to cinemas, particularly older women, according to industry data.

Viewers have grown accustomed to being able to watch a film at home as soon as it hits theaters, or shortly after as studios experiment with new distribution models. Many former moviegoers say they don’t think they’ll go back to the movies according to a poll published by the Quorum, a research company. Most living room TVs and sound systems don’t replicate the cinematic experience, but for many they’re good enough.

It doesn’t seem like the financial benefit really exists like it used to. And in many ways it’s almost better to go on Netflix and try to get it in the top 10.

Lowell Shapiro, co-founder of Black Box Management

These trends are disastrous for adult-oriented drama and comedy. Spider-Man: No Way Home and Scream dominated the box office, while critically acclaimed films like Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story came and went with hardly a blip.

“Adult dramas, especially indie dramas, are having a very hard time finding an audience in theaters right now, and that dynamic was already there before the pandemic,” said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at data firm Exhibitor Relations. “Horror, superheroes and sequels. That’s all that works.”

Meanwhile, companies like Apple and Netflix are willing to write big checks for hot festival titles in hopes they’ll attract subscribers and bring the season’s attention.

At last year’s Sundance Apple paid a record-breaking $25 million for CODA. a small and heartwarming drama about a young girl from a deaf family for his streaming service Apple TV+. Disney-owned Searchlight Pictures and Hulu have paid $12 million for Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s music documentary Summer of Soul. These trends are not going away anytime soon.

Streamers’ ability to spend money makes it difficult for traditional specialty distributors like Sony Pictures Classics, IFC Films and Neon to compete for the top titles. These companies have long used the promise of a big screen campaign as a bargaining chip with filmmakers.

Distribution chiefs say a film with a robust theatrical run can be more profitable and have a longer-term cultural resonation than a streaming launch. They make money not only in cinemas, but later through video-on-demand and through sales to pay-cable channels and streaming services.

Studio executives say older viewers will return to theaters when they think it’s safe. But there’s no denying that it’s harder than ever for smaller films to break through.

With increasing competition for people’s attention, a film’s financial prospects depend more than ever on Oscar hype. Sony’s Pedro Almodóvar film Parallel Mothers, starring Penélope Cruz, is banking on award recognition as it expands its theatrical base.

Milena Smit to Ana, Penelope Cruz to Janis, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon to Teresa in “Parallel Mothers”.

(Iglesias Mas / Sony Pictures Classics)

“You’re not taking as many risks now as you would have in the specialized market,” said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “And I’ll tell you what, the people who sell the films don’t take much of a risk either. You watch the streamers turn people into millionaires from nothing.”

This year’s Sundance has the hallmarks of a different seller’s market, given the scarcity of available films and the proliferation of deep-pocketed buyers raising the expectation of bidding wars and staggering price tags.

And that’s despite the lack of the standing ovations and boisterous socializing that typify the non-virtual Sundances, held in the high-altitude resort town of Park City, Utah. For the second year in a row, Sundance has canceled its ambitious in-person events plans due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

More than 80 feature films are screened during the Sundance program, 20 of which are world premieres. Almost 75% of the images shown at the festival had not been distributed by Thursday.

“We’re going to Sundance with an appetite,” said Jordan Fields, head of acquisitions at Los Angeles-based distributor Shout! Factory. “And I assume that’s the case with other distributors as well, precisely because the streamers are buying up the bigger titles. I think there will be a level of competition this year that we have never seen before.”

Among the high-profile films looking for deals are two starring Dakota Johnson of the Fifty Shades series: Writer-Director Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth and Am I OK? from Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne based on a screenplay by Lauren Pomerantz.

Also on the market is “892,” starring John Boyega and the late Michael K. Williams. Premieres include the satirical comedy Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul, written and directed by Adamma Ebo, and Emily the Criminal, a dark thriller starring Aubrey Plaza.

While directors love seeing their films in theaters, the biggest business opportunity is online, said talent manager Lowell Shapiro, whose firm Black Box Management represents Emily the Criminal director John Patton Ford. Black Box, co-founded by Mike Dill, also represents Shalini Kantayya, director of the documentary “TikTok, Boom,” which is showing at Sundance.

“[Theatrical] doesn’t feel like big business at all on the indie film side,” Shapiro said. “It seems that the financial advantage doesn’t exist as it used to. And in many ways it’s almost better to go on Netflix and try to get it in the top 10.”

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