All images courtesy of Roadside Attractions
There’s a general feeling, sometimes propagated here, that box office market share doesn’t really matter to the distributors of the indie world, because the numbers just aren’t big enough to make a difference. Well, this is true and it’s not. In the grand scheme of things, few of these companies have major corporate overlords to whom they must report, thus they’re not dealing with the reaching of projections and achieving of unrealistic goals.
However, if a company has an exceptional year or two, and makes some major gains in the overall box office numbers, the sellers of the world, those making the kind of interesting movies that the studios aren’t making, will sit up and take notice. They will turn to said company and consider it a serious contender as a home for their film, which is really what it’s all about.
If you’re in a competitive buying situation, but don’t have the street cred, you’re not going to get that movie. As it happens, over the last few years, Roadside Attractions’ street cred has risen substantially, and after being a legitimate player in the indie world for years, it now has risen to a new level of heightened respectability. That will happen when you release a bunch of well received and financially successful films, but it also happens when you have the greatest single year in your company’s history, as Roadside did in 2016.
We’ve spoken before about indie companies having a certain identity in the films they release, and that is certainly true here. Roadside’s films don’t necessarily have anything thematically in common, but there is a certain through-line. Whereas many studio films (or most of them) have a desire to entertain, or even a pandering to do so, Roadside’s have more of a, shall we say, willingness to entertain.
That is, there’s something smarter about their movies, something thoughtful, that might take a little effort to comprehend or enjoy, but which are there to, in fact, entertain an audience. Theirs are not films that are exercises in filmmaking, meant to pass along a message or push an envelope for the sake of it, but rather to appeal to an adult audience who wants to leave the theater having been pushed to do more with its viewing time than just sit there like a lump and let the special effects wash over it.
There is also something decidedly feminine. While Doug Liman’s thriller, The Wall, was released in May, so was the romantic comedy, The Wedding Plan, followed last month by the Salma Hayek film, Beatriz at Dinner, and this weekend comes Lady Macbeth. They follow in the footsteps of films like Love & Friendship, Hello, My Name is Doris, Winter’s Bone, Bella, Southside With You, The Skeleton Twins, The September Issue, and plenty others.
Not everything the company does is aimed at adult women, of course, but the appeal there is undeniable. Throw in other intelligent titles like Dear White People, Love & Mercy, Mud, Mr. Holmes, and A Most Wanted Man, and the pattern is clear. This, without even mentioning Manchester by the Sea, which the company released as part of its output deal with Amazon Films. The deal isn’t exclusive (Amazon also releases its movies through Lionsgate and others), but there are several movies over the last few years that were either produced by Amazon or purchased there, and for which the company utilized Roadside’s distribution infrastructure — Love & Friendship being another prime example — and for which Roadside only receives a standard distribution fee, rather than participating in the box office grosses of those films.
And yet, as noted above, the box office numbers still count on Roadside’s yearly tally, which means that Manchester by the Sea was a very helpful film for the company, helping it to its best year ever. That kind of thing counts in the minds of those paying attention to such matters, and the fact that Roadside can put a film in theaters capable of grossing close to $50 million domestically is nothing to sneeze at since it’s not something every indie distributor can do.
The trick is to find these thoughtful films that appeal to the thinking filmgoer. Roadside, to this point, has only really been involved in producing a couple of movies, most recently the 2015 Ian McKellan film, Mr. Holmes, and it would appear that making a bigger splash in that area is not something to which it is opposed, but for now, it’s pretty much exclusively a buyer of finished projects. That means being a major presence at film festivals, but with, again, a very specific type of movie in mind.
Look back at the list of movies listed a couple paragraphs ago, and they all tend to fall into that category of the kinds of films that provoke an audience to think, and perhaps even discuss them after walking out of the theater. Five Roadside movies have hit theaters thus far this year, and aside from The Wedding Plan, The Wall, and Beatriz at Dinner, there were also two period dramas, the 1930s Soviet tragedy Bitter Harvest and the based-on-a-true-story about the family that founded the modern game of golf, Tommy’s Honour, and while neither collected as much as $600,000 at the domestic box office, both are of a piece with the others.
The same can be said for the four movies still to be released through the end of the year. This weekend has the aforementioned Lady Macbeth, a drama set in 19th century England about a young bride sold into marriage who starts an affair with a worker on her estate, director Marc Webb’s coming of age dramedy, The Only Living Boy in New York, the inspiring, real-life Boston bombing film, Stronger, with Jake Gyllenhaal, and Todd Haynes’ latest melodrama, Wonderstruck.
Take a look at that list, and it’s clear that there absolutely and totally is a “Roadside” type of picture, and the first movie set for 2018, January’s country music love story Forever My Girl, appears to fit into that mold, as well. Same goes for February’s The Party, from director Sally Porter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson), and starring Patricia Clarkson, Cherry Jones, and Bruno Ganz. As of now, there might be another one or two movies set for a 2018 release, but nothing has been made official, and remember, film festival season is primed to start in just another few weeks, and that will probably change everything (as it did last year, when Roadside beat out rival A24 for Lady Macbeth in a very competitive situation at the Toronto Film Festival). This year’s total of nine releases will actually be the lowest number in a few years, as the average tends to hover around 10 or 11 per.
None of these movies make an enormous amount of money, but when you’re dealing in smaller projects like this, the overhead is a heck of a lot lower, so the margins are different. For Roadside, the plan is to find these movies and put them out, ideally having them clear $5 million domestically, and occasionally seeing them head north of $10. Mud was the first of its movies — in its 13 years of existence — to clear $20 million, and Manchester by the Sea is the current champ at $47 million.
Movies that do that kind of business make up for others that might not do so well, but there’s another aspect to this that not every indie company has, which is a hefty piece of VOD dollars. That is a central tenet of Roadside’s financial plan, because while it is no longer doing Day and Date releases (as it did previously, with movies like Arbitrage and Margin Call), it is setting up its VOD appeal by putting the films in theaters first, thus raising the visibility of each project and maximizing the total earnings. Add it all up, and you’ve got a small, but successful and, seemingly, thriving operation that appears to be perfectly well satisfied with where it currently is.
A big part of success is finding the right plan, sticking with it to fruition, then adhering to it even after the initial phases have been completed and goals have been achieved. If we judge Roadside by that measure, and by the quality of the projects they put on screens, then we also have to acknowledge that Roadside Attractions is one of the better examples out there of just what an independent film distributor should be.
For more entries in our studio series, click here.