Ajay’s Weekly Thoughts

Reimagining indie film and the theatrical business

Reimagining indie film and the theatrical business

Ajay Kishore

January 25, 2021

Reimagining indie film and the theatrical business

Last week THR ran a column by Ted Mundorff, the President of ArcLight Cinemas, about how streaming will negatively impact indie film and that film distributors need to reimagine the release window for smaller films. Mundorff argues that indie film requires word of mouth to be successful in theaters because they can't afford marketing budgets. But word of mouth is only one way to solve for discovery (the hardest problem in media). Curation can be just as effective. While we should definitely rethink the existing setup, the specific focus on release windows is myopic and grounded in the past.

Lots of big budget movies are bypassing US theatrical right now because, well, we can't go to the theaters. So Warner Media is taking a hit on Wonder Woman 1984 to use it as lead generation for HBO Max. Disney did the same with Mulan and now Soul. But eventually they'll be back in theaters because theatrical box office monetization dwarfs what you can earn from streaming releases. Which is why MGM is going to keep delaying Bond: No Time to Die until it can be released‚ no streamer can afford to pay them the $1B+ they expect to earn from it.

Indie film is different. Streamers want to buy indie films because a) they're cost-effective ($/minute of content) b) they're potential awards candidates (ie they want the earned media) and c) streamers can solve for discovery more effectively than traditional theatrical distribution can (case in point‚ Netflix has revitalized documentaries by making it seamless for fans to find them). This growing demand, with Netflix releasing 70 films in 2021, is good for indie filmmakers, not bad. If theaters want to compete, they should actually try to understand what audiences want, not artificially constrain availability.

MoviePass was a runaway success for audiences but fell apart because they couldn't afford to pay for tentpole features (Marvel, etc) under their all-you-can-eat model. But there's a niche version for indie films that one could imagine a variety of companies succeeding with. If Criterion had a higher-priced tier of their subscription service that allowed me to see a handful of movies each month at Film Forum and Metrograph in NYC, I'd consider signing up. Why? Because these are brands that I trust to help me discover high quality indie films. A24 released 21 films in 2019‚ if they were to offer a $10 monthly subscription and I could see their films at indie theaters around the country, I'd consider it. Neon is probably close behind. Their fan affinity is huge and untapped‚ at this point, I see an A24 film because I trust A24, not because I saw a piece of marketing or a glowing review. Discovery is launching their own subscription service and could easily add a premium tier that includes in-theater viewings for their documentaries. Searchlight or some of the other big indie distributors could absolutely do the same. And now, not only do theaters get guaranteed subscription revenue, they can focus on enhancing the experience. Once I'm in a seat, you can upsell me on IPAs, fancy popcorn, and artisanal jerky.

People like going to the movies. It's been the #1 date activity in America for decades. And anecdotally based on my Twitter feed, there's huge pent-up demand for movie theaters after quarantine ends. I'm excited about the future for indie filmmakers precisely for this reason. But the solution to the movie business isn't handwringing and hoping for the old way of doing things.

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