3 Trends You Need to Know for Distributing Your Film in 2017

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

 

“We’re entering a time of perpetual change.”

This post is a part of our yearly series about how to distribute your independent film in the current industry landscape.

It is best read after our original 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. For further context, check out our 2015 update and 2016 update.


Subscription streaming services stoked the flames of revolution in the film industry last year, challenging traditional distribution and exhibition models in unprecedented ways.

In 2017, that challenge intensifies.

For proof, we need look no further than Netflix, the king of streaming, now some 94 million members strong. That’s 25% growth in 2016 from the previous year, representing an existential threat to the old guard’s paradigm of theatrical windows and the moviegoing experience.

In fact, moviegoing flatlined in 2016, its $1.32 billion at the domestic box office inflated by ticket prices and IMAX and 3D releases. “It has been widely suggested that going to the movies will one day become a rarified experience, akin to the opera or a Broadway play,” observes Eric Kohn. “We can no longer assume these experiences will continue to define the paradigm for how we relate to movies… The big screen is optional.” More than half of all video viewing is now happening on mobile, a trend which most subscription services embrace.

“You have to be available to the way that people are watching movies,” says the senior vice president of programming and production for Turner Classic Movies and FilmStruck. “You have to be there for them.”

I. The Advance of Acquisitions and Auteurs

“Be there” they are. Eleven films sold for more than $5 million at Sundance this year, up from five last year. Of these, Netflix took four and Amazon took two; among them, The Big Sick for $12 million. Tech companies including Hulu, Google, Apple, and Vimeo were in on the bidding, suggesting that they, too, could place in the acquisitions game.

In short, it’s becoming an internet TV world.”

SVOD services have not won a clean victory, however. For example, “Netflix will be forced by the dynamics of the industry to enter the theatrical business if they want to get the best films,” speculates Efe Cakarel, CEO of Mubi. “The 90-day theatrical window is very important to the producers and the filmmakers; that’s how they build their reputation and get the attention.” Case in point, some upcoming Netflix deals promise a level of parallel theatrical play, “a tip of the cap to the need for theatrical play, and in particular how coverage from established movie critics legitimizes a film.” Moreover, Netflix cannot (yet) afford to spurn the system outright, since some 70% of its content is licensed (despite its shock-and-awe spending on original content).

Meanwhile, Amazon honors tradition and attracts top titles and talent with advance theatrical play. 2016’s Manchester by the Sea was the first-ever film released by a streaming service to be nominated for Best Picture at The Academy Awards; it picked up Best Original Screenplay for Kenneth Lonergan and Best Actor for Casey Affleck. More recently, Amazon signed an exclusive first-look deal with three indie powerhouses, “another sign that the company will continue to finance high-quality independent filmmaking.” Nicolas Winding Refn, Chan-wook Park, and Todd Haynes are among the directors who already have worked with Amazon.

Even Netflix is beginning to attract auteurs, with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on the horizon, not to mention a slew of indie and mid-budget features (including a Cannes debut). The streaming services’ burgeoning indie-friendly spirit is welcome, since Hollywood continues to lean heavily on big-budget, franchise-friendly tentpoles.

Manchester by the Sea | Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios, 2016

II. The Need for Curation and Quality

The rise of the streaming giants is as promising as it is disruptive, but their ascent is not without danger.

[Netflix] is not a distributor; it’s a graveyard with unlimited viewing hours,” David Ehrlich argues. “It’s a volatile sea of content that likes to measure itself in terms of dimension rather than depth; pull up the homepage, and the first thing you’ll see is text boasting about the sheer number of new shows that have been added to the site in the past week. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet that stretches further than the eye can see, and most people are likely to lose their appetite before they discover the good stuff.”

In other words, if your indie film heads to Netflix, then it runs the risk of getting buried by the competition.

Smaller SVOD services, like FilmStruck and Mubi, differentiate themselves through careful curation, focusing their niches instead of casting their nets wide. Even HBO Now, which recently passed 2 million subscribers, considers itself to be “in the business of curating great content.” Curation, it seems, is a selling point in the internet TV world.

There are financial questions and concerns, too. For example, “when you make a deal with Netflix, you’re making a deal with the devil,” quips Lee Dintsman, a partner at the APA talent agency. “Because basically, they are buying out all rights.” Zoom out to the studio level, and you’ll find fear that Netflix is driving alternatives out of business. “You just can’t compete with someone coming in with fresh money, low overhead and a lot less baggage than you,” said one entertainment lawyer. A veteran television executive even likened Netflix’s advance to Gengis Khan’s.

Conquerors or not, Netflix and its ilk “are now a viable finance model for independent filmmakers,” according to a speaker at 2016’s American Film Market. In order to draw their attention – and the attention of the studios, for that matter! – it’s important for indie filmmakers to deliver quality. Essentially, “the pre-sales market is softer. You need to leverage sales with gap finance and then with mezzanine finance; that means more aggressive lending against unsold territories. There is less pre-sales and more leveraged debt. There has never been so much money available, but never so much emphasis on quality.”

The principle in play here is simple, filmmakers: quality helps cut through the noise. When the market is crowded, you need to stand out.

III. The Inevitability of Exodus and Revolution

You also could change your format.

It’s become increasingly prestigious for successful filmmakers to choose smaller screens for their encores,” Tom Brueggemann observes. For example, “Oscar winners Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle have announced their next projects; both are on TV… While this drains the potential for top-quality filmmaking, it’s hard to fault their exodus. The prime constituencies for theatrical movies are animated features for kids and families, comic-book movies for worldwide consumption, and stories that appeal to older audiences who grew up with the movies and remain loyal to them – but won’t be around forever.”

Netflix may be the film industry’s Gengis Khan, but Brueggermann argues that “perhaps the only thing worse than Netflix plunging into movies, would be a Netflix that decided movies are dying and it wants to put its billions elsewhere.”

That is not what is happening. The reality is far less dismal. It seems that creators in today’s internet TV world have more freedom than ever before to experiment with the conventions of visual storytelling, as the line between serial and feature formats and career opportunities blurs.

Here at Lights Film School, we remain optimistic about the future of independent cinema – and of the film industry as a whole. Movies continue to find life in 2017 as the mechanism that makes them evolves. “We’re not passing from one age to another. We’re entering a time of perpetual change,” The Hollywood Reporter published. “How odd that this most capitalist of industries might be America’s foremost exemplar of permanent revolution.”

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!

 Michael Koehler, with


For more details, explore the rest of our yearly series about how to distribute your indie film in the current industry landscape:

Part I – How to Distribute Your Indie Film in the Digital Age
Part II – 3 Trends You Need to Know for Distributing Your Film in 2015
Part III – 3 Trends You Need to Know for Distributing Your Film in 2016
Part IV – 3 Trends You Need to Know for Distributing Your Film in 2017

If you’ve yet to make a movie and are wondering where to start, then check out our online filmmaking course, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

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