Is the Indie Film World in Trouble? Actually, Not Really

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The Birth of a nationFox Searchlight

The other day, I talked about how Uwe Boll is retiring because there is no longer a market for his particular brand of cinematic trash. That led to the question about whether the dough for all movies was drying up, and whether or not we should be worried. My feeling was, no, we shouldn’t be. Not yet, anyway.

Then someone pointed out to me that Fox Searchlight is going to lose as much as 10 million bucks on The Birth of a Nation, and that had them worried that this was going to make distributors think twice before spending so much money on the indie films they need to fill out their release slates. Searchlight, after all, set a record by dropping $17.5 million smackeroos on the flick back in January at Sundance, but the movie died at the box office, and now there’s concern that this will affect the whole indie film world, both buyers and sellers.

Happy TexasMiramax Films

But it doesn’t really work that way. One flop does not make companies stop spending money. If it did, they would have stopped making movies before the introduction of sound. The lesson to be learned from Birth of a Nation is to do a better of vetting the film and the people who made it, not to spend too much money on buying the thing in the first place. Remember back in 1999, when Miramax dropped $10 million ill-spent dollars on a movie called Happy, Texas? A movie that then didn’t even clear $2 million at the box office? Of course you don’t. Because nobody remembers that far back. Which is exactly my point.

The failure of Happy, Texas wasn’t terribly deleterious to the industry then, and Birth’s box office failure won’t be one now, just as Uwe Boll’s inability to sell his lousy movies to susceptible distributors and gullible viewers shouldn’t be a sign of the impending apocalypse. Anyone who thinks otherwise is what my grandmother used to call a worrywart, but I prefer to call a Chicken Little. To them, the sky is always falling and the world is always ending, and the slightest little negative occurrence is enough to cause blinding panic and a grand, sweeping declaration that we are all, inevitably and irrevocably doomed.

Which, of course, is poppycock.

love and friendshipAmazon Studios

I’m not conflicting with my own opinion, voiced on Friday, that we should be wary of the future and consider that there is not a limitless amount of funding for creators. On the contrary, I’m just following through on a thought expressed at the end of the piece. I mentioned that Boll could be the proverbial canary in the coal mine, and that’s true. It puts us all on notice that we need to be careful, but not that we’re doomed. We’re not. There is still plenty of money out there for creators to make the films they want to make, simply because there continue to be audiences for these same films.

I have said it before and will say it again here: Hollywood is no longer making the kinds of movies that made us fall in love with the movies in the first place. Those movies are now being made on the independent level, and as much as audiences still love to sit through the big tentpoles and watch superheroes cause trillions of dollars in property damage, they also still love to be challenged and made to think about what it is, exactly, they’re watching. For that reason alone, we could all take a breath and relax. As long as there is an audience for smart cinema, that cinema will find a home.

The InfiltratorBroad Green Pictures

But it’s more than that. If we separate movies by those released on at least 1,500 screens and those not, there were 11 fewer indie films put out on screens this past summer than the summer before, with 199, as opposed to 210 in 2015. Yes, there were several wider releases put out by indie distributors (like Broad Green’s The Infiltrator), but for comparison’s sake, let’s stick with this formula.

Those 199 releases actually scored the same percentage of the summer box office as the 210 in 2015. Both years, smaller releases scored four percent of grosses for films released between the first weekend of May and Labor Day weekend. Consider that this is prime time for tentpoles, and that number is a lot higher than it sounds. In 2015, it was $173 million, this year, it was $156 million. That’s a fair amount of dough, and it’s even more when you factor in major hits like STX’s Bad Moms ($113 million), solid performers like Focus’ Kubo and the Two Strings ($47 million) and nice little sleepers like the aforementioned The Infiltrator ($15 million), Roadside Attractions’ Love & Friendship ($14 million), and A24’s The Lobster ($8 million). Then, you can add another $227.5 million to that total.

No less than a half dozen indie distributors — A24, Roadside Attractions, Bleecker Street, Pure Flix, EuropaCorp and High Top Releasing — are having the best years in their history, while two others, Broad Green and Open Road, are near their best ever performances and could still surpass their previous bests. STX is also showing great returns in just its second year in existence, and mid-major Lionsgate — technically an independent — has a legitimate shot to break a billion dollars at the domestic box office for the very first time.

The LobsterPicturehouse Entertainment

None of this, by the way, factors in VOD, which is as much a savior to the indie film world as anything else. The actual numbers are not really available, but the thinking is that many indie films, if not most of them, earn at least one dollar from home viewing for every one spent at the movie theater. A good example is The Lobster, which did rather well during its theatrical run, but is believed to have added several million dollars more in the nearly three months since it became available for streaming and home viewing.

I gave Uwe Boll a well deserved hard time the other day, but acknowledged that there is a slight chance he could be right about a shrinking market. I still think there is that shred of a chance, simply because there is only so much money out there, but that’s all the chance I offer: a shred. The reality is a bit more hopeful. More indie distributors doing well means more indie movies seeing the light of day means more opportunities for the kind of filmmaking that gives a good number of us hope for the medium.

Which, when it all comes down to it, is all we’re really asking for, right?


ProfilePic adjusted 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful and useful article that puts a lot of misconceptions about the so-called plight of independent film in a more accurate light. So why undermine your own authority by invoking the irrelevant garbageman Uwe Boll? Sorry if he’s a friend but I can’t think of any other reason you’d include him in a discussion about the future of any films much less films of any quality.

    Anyway. Love the article and will pass it along to a lot of people who need to read it!

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