GOING THEATRICAL AND PROJECT 281
At Stream, Jamie Stuart muses on the possibilities of theatrical for one’s first feature.
More and more independent producers and distributors with years of experience are trying to convince indie filmmakers that theatrical distribution isn’t that important. This isn’t because these people in the know dislike the theatrical experience. It’s because they understand that the costs of going theatrical are becoming a legitimate burden, and that the real revenue streams lie in the ancillary markets, especially for small movies. Unfortunately, the thing that most filmmakers understand — and this has nothing to do with advocating the communal experience — is that by going theatrical, the movie is given a credibility that it would otherwise not have. This may change in another generation or so as people become more used to multiple platforms, but currently, this is still the general mindset.
To offer an example of this disparity, does anybody believe that if the IFC Center hadn’t screened its mumblecore series in 2007, the “movement” and its filmmakers would’ve attained the same level of credibility? The three best-known voices from that scene — Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers — have all received some level of theatrical distribution, whether it’s micro or day-and-date. Are these three great filmmakers? I think the jury’s still out on that. But, by going theatrical, they’ve legitimized the whole handheld DV film festival movement — a movement that until recently, had critics, journalists and distributors constantly complaining about the amateurish production values of the movies flooding fests. Theatrical alters people’s perception. Theatrical makes it a real movie.
I’d add a comment to this. Yes, I agree, theatrical makes it a real movie in the eyes of the filmmaker. It also finalizes a marketplace verdict on that same film. I remember bringing an independent film to Sundance years ago and receiving two offers: a theatrical offer and a pay-cable premiere offer. The latter was twice the money of the former. We (the other producers, investors, director and myself) all chose the theatrical offer, and we did it for two reasons. We believed that the theatrical release would boost our foreign sales, but also, I think we subscribed to the same reasoning that Jamie outlined. We wanted to have made a “real movie.” Despite solid efforts from the distributor, the film tanked — it opened on a couple of screens in New York, grossed very modestly, and then dribbled out to a few other screens across the country. The theatrical didn’t help foreign in any significant way as most of the foreign deals were for TV. I often wonder if we made the wrong decision and if the cable premiere, with all of those bus-shelter ads, would have conveyed a greater idea of “success” than the failed theatrical run. As a more recent example, consider Tommy O’Haver’s An American Crime, which was slaughtered by critics at Sundance after which a theatrical release from First Look evaporated. The film went on to premiere on Showtime where TV critics were much more positive towards it.
As I wrote several posts below this, one of the problems with the new day-and-date models is the lack of clearly understood metrics. The theatrical ad spend is supposed to impact both box office but also stay-at-home PPV buys, but all we in the industry see are the opening weekend theatrical numbers. We base our idea of “success” on those numbers, not the overall viewership of a film.