A24 / Open Road / Roadside Attractions
Once upon a time, not so long ago, things were dark and depressing for the independent film world. The bubble had burst and there were few outlets for smaller, interesting fare to find an audience. A company would appear on the horizon, coming up like a new sunrise after a storm, then would disappear just as quickly after its intended big splash failed and creditors came a calling.
But something interesting has happened over the last few years. Gradually, an increasing number of smaller distributors began to pop up and actually stick around. Rather than spending big bucks in an effort to plant their flags and play with the big boys, they developed specific plans to gain some traction on a very slippery slope and, slowly but surely, establish themselves as players in a most competitive — but increasingly wide open — field.
This week, we’re going to take a look at three of the more successful ones: Roadside Attractions, A24, and Open Road, the latter two of which won the top prizes for feature films at this year’s Oscars — Best Documentary Feature and Best Picture, respectively.
So let’s start alphabetically, with A24, which put Amy in theaters last fall and then saw it take home the Doc statuette. This is only its fourth year in existence, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from a cursory glance. It set a company best in 2015 with just under $56 million in domestic grosses, got that impressive Oscar and, oh yes, also released Room and Ex Machina, the former of which won Brie Larson her Oscar, and the latter not only earning a Best Screenplay nod and a win for Visual Effects, but also landing itself atop the company’s leaderboard as its all-time highest earner, with $25 million domestic and over $36 million worldwide.
That impressive momentum has only continued into 2016, with February’s sleeper hit The Witch grossing a shade less than Ex Machina’s domestic total, but surpassing its global numbers by clearing the $40 million mark. Add in solid performers like The Lobster, Green Room, and Swiss Army Man, and the total to date stands at a shade over $52 million. Subtract the nearly $10 million that Room made after the calendar turned, and that $42 mil is still within striking distance of last year’s number. There are at least three, and as many as five, more films on the 2016 slate, as well. Among them are this week’s The Sea of Trees, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Matthew McConaughey, next month’s teen road drama American Honey, and then, in October, comes Moonlight, which has as much positive buzz as any indie film in recent memory. A lot of people have been talking about awards possibilities for Searchlight’s The Birth of a Nation, but that talk could very well shift to Moonlight, once both are inside theaters.
It might be enough that the two question marks, How to Talk to Girls at Parties and Free Fire, wouldn’t even be needed to set a new high for grosses.
Roadside likewise needs little help to establish a new company high. It cleared $44.8 million domestic in 2013, and is already over $38.7 million in 2016, thanks to movies like Hello, My Name is Doris and Love & Friendship, both of which put up strong numbers for small investments, picking up the former at SXSW for under $2 million, and the latter as part of a deal with Amazon. With such a small margin needed to establish a new company best in its tenth year in business, having two highly anticipated films ready to go — as well as a third, micro-budgeted one that could be a sleeper — has it in an enviable position.
First up is Southside With You, the Before Sunrise-style, fictionalized retelling of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. That hits this weekend, with glowing reviews in its wake, and would seem to be the perfect end-of-summer movie to draw an audience desperate for some good, old-fashioned romance, especially during such a divisive and caustic election year. It’s not absurd to expect that it could gross enough on its own to give Roadside its new record, but in case it doesn’t, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea almost certainly will.
While both films were Sundance sensations, Manchester has been garnering awards buzz since its very first screening. It’s an early frontrunner for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Casey Affleck), and yes, like Love & Friendship it’s technically an Amazon Studios film — that company spent $10 million to buy Manchester in Park City — but Roadside is actually putting the movie into theaters, and thus getting the benefits of box office grosses for its own statistics.
The third film, the aforementioned micro-budgeted Priceless, is a question mark, in that it could come and go with hardly a whisper, or it could be another Winter’s Bone, which was the company’s very first awards contender and also put on the map a young actress named Jennifer Lawrence. Is it realistic to think that Priceless might have the same impact? Probably not, but it is getting a prime release, right in the middle of October, when Oscar season is just heating up.
Open Road, meanwhile, is still riding the high of owning this year’s Best Picture winner, Spotlight, and even though the four movies it has released this year have not done the business the company probably expected — Mother’s Day did $32 million domestic, the thriller Triple 9 only did $12 million and Fifty Shades of Black did $11 million, with the first two doing negligible foreign and Black not even clearing $10 million worldwide — but it’s still got a reasonable shot to reach $100 million in grosses for 2016, something it has done three of the last four years.
Short of 2011, the company’s initial year in business, when it released just a single film — the action thriller Killer Elite — to the tune of $25 million in grosses, it has never done less than the $70.2 million it made last year, with a high of $162.7 the year prior. Right now, it’s sitting at $57 million, with the Oliver Stone film Snowden coming out next month, and then the boxing biopic Bleed For This in November. Both films have awards potential, and what have we learned about such things? All together now: awards talk almost always leads to bigger box office.
The fact that Open Road is only putting out six movies this year — after releasing either eight or nine each of the previous three — handicaps its overall potential, true, but the final numbers will almost certainly be higher than either Roadside or A24, and it could be the only one that surpasses one percent market share, a number that might seem low, but in fact is exceedingly difficult for an indie distributor to reach.
There’s another aspect to these numbers that is, admittedly, harder to quantify. Companies like these three are increasingly making money on VOD, with the various streaming and on-demand services at an all-time high, and only getting better. The reason they’re hard to quantify is because companies tend to be stingy with information about those numbers, but a good example to use is A24’s 2014 comedy Obvious Child. That movie did a shade over $3 million at the box office, which would be impressive enough for a film that cost in the neighborhood of half a million bucks or so, but it is thought that the movie actually made as much, if not more, in the VOD market, making it an especially profitable enterprise.
The thing is, stories like that are more and more becoming the norm, rather than the exception, which means an important added revenue stream to each company’s bottom line.
Speaking of which, one of the ways they have all created their success is by starting out exclusively as a distributor, then slowly getting into the finance and production side of things. Each has moved at its own pace, with A24 taking the lead with a lot more of its own films coming over the next couple years. It has no less than 10 projects in some form of production — with roughly a 50/50 switch between distributor and production entity — and another half dozen in active development with the same ratio. The other two companies are not nearly as prolific, but the trio is still respected enough to attract top notch filmmaking talent like J.C. Chandor, James Ponsoldt, Yorgos Lanthimos, Kevin MacDonald, and Jonah Hill, set to make his directorial debut.
Ultimately, two of the three companies are either having their best year ever or are close to it, while the third has established itself as a solid player consistently putting successful independent films into theaters to impressive financial gain. With more and more opportunity for smaller distributors to fill the gaps left by the studios, their success could bring a whole new set of imitators following their lead.
Which would only be a big win for filmmakers everywhere.
For more entries in our studio series, click here.