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Industry Beat

by Anthony Kaufman

Can Critics’s Awards and Top Ten Mentions Boost Revenues for Independent Films?

Minding the Gap

Do critics matter? Maybe. But do critics’ top ten lists matter?

There’s little doubt within the industry that an Academy Award nomination (or win) can provide an extraordinary boost to a film’s profile, especially smaller independent films who need the long tail of awards recognition more than most. Think of last year’s The Florida Project or Faces Places. But what about all those year-end numerical rankings and lists, proffered by that dwindling professional entity known as the film critic? He’s no Oscar, but when the New York Times’ A.O. Scott puts your little film at the top of his year-end list, how (financially) beneficial is it?

Some distributors say that annual critics’ rankings are a mere insular cineaste’s practice that doesn’t provide any significant sales bump. But others we spoke with point to concrete evidence to the contrary, with noticeable increases in eyeballs and sales.

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, for instance, which was ranked #2 on influential New York Times critic Manohla Dargis’ Top 10, won runner-up for Best Picture from the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle, and whose co-star Steven Yeun has received Best Supporting Actor prizes from the National Society of Film Critics, the L.A. Film Critics, and Indiewire’s Critics Poll, saw an uptick in its box-office grosses in December, seven weeks after it opened.

“We found that once the year-end lists started to hit, beginning in December, the grosses started to go up,” says Dylan Marchetti, SVP, Acquisitions & Theatrical Distribution at Well Go USA, which opened Burning in October.

According to Marchetti, they’re now reopening the film in theaters where it’s already played, and finding better results than its original run. At Laemelle’s Glendale theater, the film saw a 40% increase from when it first opened (roughly $2,700 compared with a more recent gross of $3,700). In the larger scheme of box-office numbers, these are admittedly small sales, but Marchetti isn’t complaining.

“It’s almost unheard of to get 11 weeks in a New York theater,” Marchetti continues, referring to the film’s continuing run at a 100-seat house at the Quad Cinema, where sales were up 26% in January, well into its run.

It’s also playing fewer shows but earning as much as it did in its second week, according to C. Mason Wells, the Quad’s Director of Repertory Programming. While Wells admits that the durability of the title isn’t solely a result of critical attention, as the holidays are always a good time for audiences to catch up with films that have garnered positive word-of-mouth, he says critics and critics groups can provide a kind of “rallying call” around certain films.

Another such title, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, named the best film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics, had a solid theatrical run starting in April of last year, but Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard says ancillary sales are far more than when the film first hit online platforms. “I think we’re up 75% this month from where we were in August,” he says. “It’s a new audience, and now we’ve got these critics’ endorsements and to be called the number one film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics, that’s pretty darn good. If people haven’t heard of it before, they’re going to seek it out.”

Sony Classics also re-released the film theatrically — it’s currently in New York’s AMC Empire 25 and L.A.’s Laemmle Music Hall 3 and Laemmle Monica Film Center — to continue to keep it visible and part of the Oscar campaign season.

Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, which placed fourth on Dargis’s top ten list and ranked eighth best film overall in Indiewire’s annual Critics Poll of 232 critics, has also seen an increase in ancillary sales, according to Strand Releasing’s Jon Gerrans, the film’s distributor. Though the film was released online in August, the company has seen a significant bump in December, which Gerrans attributes to the critical affirmations.

“We’ve definitely seen a huge increase on all digital platforms from November,” says Gerrans, citing a tenfold increase in viewers on Amazon Prime and a five-times surge on iTunes in December. “I think people must see these articles, jump on their platforms, and are finding the film.”

But even with an increase of 1000%, with online views in December stronger or equal to its opening month, Gerrans admits, “The overall numbers are pretty small.”

Another title garnering considerable end-of-the-year accolades, Bing Liu’s documentary favorite Minding the Gap, which was named best doc by the New York Film Critics Circle, Indiewire Critics Poll, Chicago Film Critics Association, and National Society of Film Critics, has “seen an uptick in requests to book the film,” says Tim Horsburgh, Director of Communications and Distribution at Kartemquin Films, which produced the film.

Though Hulu, which acquired Minding the Gap, would not provide data about its online views, Horsburgh believes “it will translate to financial gain,” he says. “I can show you what happens when a documentary doesn’t receive so much acclaim. It’s a lot harder.”

The momentum about Minding the Gap could also lead the documentary to an Oscar nomination, which would assure long-term success. And while critics may not have as much impact as the major awards, Wells argues that they’re all interrelated, especially for independent and foreign films. “All of these things influence one another,” he says. “The top ten lists of certain critics are important, and those might influence certain critics groups, and those in turn can influence the Oscar shortlist.”

In this way, the critics groups help keep the Oscars legitimate and not too populist. If it weren’t for the barrage of critical accolades, suggests Wells, more challenging, artier films, such as past nominees Son of Saul, Leviathan, or Toni Erdmann, might be overlooked by the Academy.

And it’s not just critics, of course. Wells points to one significant top ten list that may have had more influence than any other this year: Barack Obama’s, which included such indie and foreign gems as Minding the Gap, Burning, The Rider and Shoplifters. “Maybe we can just give all the credit to Obama,” he jokes.

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