3 Trends You Need to Know for Distributing Your Film in 2015

Prepare your indie film distribution strategy for powerful challenges to industry traditions.

“The only screens we’re watching are the screens in our jeans!”

So sang actor Jack Black at the Oscars, sounding the death knell for movie theatres during his playful lampoon of Hollywood this year. “This industry’s in flux… Opening with lots of zeros, all we get is superheroes… formulaic scripts!”

While Batman and his costumed brethren swoop down on opening weekend crowds, less spectacle-driven films sometimes struggle to find an audience – at least, in theatres.

Jon Snow from Game of Thrones | HBO

Jon Snow from Game of Thrones | HBO

I. Television: Cutting the Cord

Today we’re consuming content at home and on mobile devices, those “screens in our jeans”, in greater numbers, thanks to the convenience and affordability of services that make films and television episodes available anywhere, anytime, à la carte.

Of course, this disruptive force impacts television providers as well as movie theatres, presenting cord cutters with myriad options. Want to watch Jon Snow defend the Seven Kingdoms against an undead army in 2014’s most pirated television series, Game of Thrones? Well, you can stop your torrent downloads! HBO launched HBONow in April, unshackling its programming from pay-TV. All you need is the internet.

HBO’s decision is one of many developments to challenge the traditional film and television industries since last summer, when we published our introduction to the world of film distribution covering key concepts such as the Release Windows System, primary Video on Demand (VOD) platforms, and strategies for indie filmmakers ready to distribute their films.

Here, we build on that foundation with an update, evaluating where we are one year later and why it matters for indie filmmakers.

"Life Finds a Way." | "Jurassic Park", Amblin Entertainment and Universal Pictures

“Life Finds a Way.” | From Jurassic Park, Amblin Entertainment and Universal Pictures

II. Movie Theatres: Evolve or Go Extinct

Despite Jack Black’s doomsaying, the movie theatre business is on track “to have its biggest money-making year yet”. It’s buoyed by the rising price of admission – in 2013, the average cost of a ticket in America crossed the $8 mark for the first time – and, yes, by a proliferation of big budget blockbusters, the lifeblood of the studios. Jurassic World rampages, The Hunger Games looms, and Star Wars Episode VII is in a galaxy not so far away.

When it’s all said and done, 2015’s box office revenue likely will exceed $11.5 billion.

Some theatres are using the upturn to evolve. AMC Entertainment, a leading movie theatre chain, plans to invest $600 million over five years “to outfit its locations with reclining seats and alcoholic beverage service.” It also partnered with MoviePass, a ticketing startup, to experiment with a subscription service, a move it vehemently opposed when MoviePass launched in 2011.

Why the about-face? Well, “the only screens we’re watching are the screens in our jeans.”

Competition from VOD platforms is fierce. At the time of this writing, Netflix, a leading Subscription VOD (SVOD) service, boasts over 62 million members in more than 50 countries. Some 60% of Amazon Prime’s tens of millions of members use Instant Video, Hulu hit 9 million subscribers in April, and estimates suggest HBONow is already one million strong. Meanwhile, transactional VOD (TVOD) platforms like iTunes make new films available soon after their theatrical runs for a fraction of the cost of admission.

All of this comes while studios actively explore the potential of VOD, most notably with The Interview. Sony Pictures’ film was pulled from major theatres a week before its release, then made available online the day before it opened in whichever theatres would carry it. As of January, The Interview has generated over $40 million in rentals and sales.

With VOD platforms growing and release windows shortening, theatres must create new incentives to woo customers; hence reclining seats, alcoholic beverages, and new business models.

From Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II: The Green Legend | The Weinstein Company, Netflix

From Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II: The Green Legend | The Weinstein Company, Netflix

III. VOD Platforms: The Road from Television to Features

Last fall, the pressure mounted further when Netflix announced its entry into the film business. 2013’s House of Cards established Netflix as an outlet for innovative television programming; now Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend, a blockbuster sequel to the Academy Award-winning original, represents a legitimate claim to Hollywood’s Iron Throne. The streaming service signed a deal with The Weinstein Company to release the film simultaneously on demand and in IMAX Theatres, a deal that’s the first of its kind.

“I understand change isn’t always the easiest thing in the world,” IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond said of the unconventional arrangement. “It’s easier to stick with the status quo, but on the other hand, if you don’t try to change you get stuck in a certain place.”

Stuck as some theatre chains are stuck, refusing to screen the film for fear of the precedent it would set. “At Regal we do not participate in an experiment where you can see the same product on screens varying from three stories tall to 3-inches wide on a smart phone,” a Regal spokesman insisted.

It’s a defense of the moviegoing experience that’s also a defense of the old guard, and it’s falling on deaf ears. Since Crouching Tiger, Netflix has partnered with Adam Sandler to produce four feature films and signed the Duplass Brothers for another four. It has acquired the rights to Jadotville, starring Jamie Dornan from Fifty Shades of Grey; True Detective director Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation; and Brad Pitt’s War Machine, Netflix’s biggest investment in a feature film to date, around $30 million.

Netflix is not alone. In January, Amazon unveiled its plan to “produce and acquire original movies for theatrical release and early-window distribution on Amazon Prime Instant Video starting in 2015”, with a trajectory of 12 indie-style movies per year costing $5-25 million per title. Also in January, Amazon signed Woody Allen to his first-ever television series, just before greenlighting the Ridley Scott-produced adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.


Indie Filmmakers: Where You Come In

Today, the precedent is set. VOD platforms are convenient and affordable. They’re attracting top talent with their original television and, soon, film content, which in turn attracts subscribers. Meanwhile, embattled movie theatres and television providers struggle to adapt to the internet revolution, some more successfully than others.

If you keep up with our blog, you know we’re excited about the future of indie filmmaking here at Lights Online Film School. Greater demand for content means greater opportunity for content providers. Mainstream adoption of VOD platforms popularizes alternatives to theatrical distribution, paving the path to exposure and profit.

“Getting yourself into theatres is great,” Sundance Film Festival veteran Mark Duplass told Variety, “but my first movie made a grand total of $220,000 in theatres but about 5 million people have seen it on Netflix because they can click on it and they can try it out. And so I really recommend to get your movie on Netflix. It made my career.”

Also interesting is Amazon’s intention to produce films costing $5-25 million each, suggesting it may greenlight projects in the risky mid-range. An enticing creative opportunity, mid-range films are traditionally flops, since they’re too small to play wide but too big to benefit from limited release.

Thankfully, “tradition” is evolving with the rest of the distribution landscape. Who knows? Hollywood was founded by a coterie of independents, after all; perhaps the pendulum is swinging back.

What are your thoughts on the state of the industry? What about opportunities for indie filmmakers? We invite you to share your perspective and distribution stories in the comments below!

If you’ve yet to make a movie and are wondering where to start, check out our online filmmaking course.

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