|THE PHANTOM INDIE MOVIE
PRODUCER STRIKES AGAIN!
Last week, The
Phantom revealed what he saw as the greedy behavior of the distributor
of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," a runaway sleeper hit. He now sheds
light on a questionable distribution deal just made in Toronto...
The acquisition under scrutiny here is "Cabin Fever," an independently
produced horror film. In the largest deal of the Toronto International
Film Festival, Lions Gate Films reportedly paid seven figures to the
filmmakers, while committing another $12 million toward prints and
advertising. Other offers for "Cabin Fever were said to be in the
$4-5 million range, but without that hefty commitment to marketing.
All told, perhaps a dozen independently financed movies were sold
to distributors last week in Toronto. This activity should help Toronto
retain its reputation as one of the best markets for independent filmmakers
to sell distribution rights to their movies. But when all the checks
have cleared, these deals will amount to good news for only a handful
of the thousands of people who have invested in little movies.
And, perhaps more important, it's very bad news for anyone who loves
small quirky movies. Why is that? Because when the only picture to
get more than $1.5 million in advance is a mass-market horror movie
that will probably open in over 2,000 theaters, the independent film
business is obviously in serious trouble. In other words, if Toronto
is an indicator, a filmmaker who spends more than $1.5 million to
make an independent movie has very little chance of getting money
back, unless the budding auteur has been smart enough to spin his
plot around flesh-eaters hanging out in a cabin in the woods.
But, wait a second. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," a movie that cost
$5 million to make (funded through a cable TV deal by HBO and Gold
Circle), has just blown through the $100 million domestic box-office
barrier. Isn't that reason for optimism? Not really. My guess is that,
if screened at a festival or market, "Wedding" would have gotten no
more than a small advance--less than the negative cost of the movie.
Don't forget--this is a market, and the top price offered is the best
price you're going to get. It's easy to see how "Cabin Fever," a conventional
shocker, started a frenzied bidding war at Toronto, and you've got
to wonder whether "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," a romantic comedy aimed
at a non-teen audience and boasting no stars, could have elicited
the same excitement among wary acquisition executives.
The nature of a "bidding war" is that the buyers know what their competitors
are offering. Multiple bidders can drive the price up, but collusion,
fear of being outbid, or fear of over-paying can also keep prices
down. Clearly, the distributors have become accustomed to paying pennies-on-the-dollar
for movie rights acquired at festivals and markets. As Tom Ortenberg,
president of Lions Gate Films Releasing, said in a conversation with
indieWire, "We believe the economic model for producing arthouse films
is a limited one. We've had great success acquiring specialized arthouse
films at festivals for a fraction of the production cost and so, I
would argue, in general, that the better economic model for arthouse
films is acquiring them at festivals."
The trend of paying less than the movie cost to make comes at a time
when the key distributors of independently produced movies are in
fact divisions of the major studios: Miramax is owned by Disney, Fine
Line is part of Time Warner/AOL, Good Machine has been absorbed into
Universal, and so on and on. The paltry payments for independently
produced pictures also come as marketing departments rely more on
polls and focus groups. In recent years, Miramax has gained a reputation
for asking filmmakers to re-cut movies based on these group endeavors.
And, of course, Miramax has started producing larger budget pictures
such as "Serendipity" and "The Four Feathers"--movies which are indistinguishable
from routine studio fare.
At the same time, Miramax has begun to rely on expensive pre-release
marketing for more and more of their movies. The patient build of
a "platform" release is almost a lost art. Today, lower-budget independent
films are often marketed as if they were studio pictures. Rather than
being given a chance to build word-of-mouth, independent movies are
being lumped together with studio movies. The rule is, "Open big or
Miramax started this trend by spending huge amounts to market certain
independent movies. But as they--and other distributors of small movies--have
learned, this is a very risky game. While some small movies have benefited
from expensive pre-release marketing, the broader result has been
the closing of theatrical markets to movies that don't have $5-million
budgets for splashy launches. The reality is that most specialty fare
can't be marketed as if it were intended for a mass market.
To compete with Miramax, independent distributors now must take out
large ads in major newspapers and be prepared to spend freely if the
movie seems on the verge of becoming a hit. Because they are competing
with divisions of major studios, small independent distributors know
that the cost of marketing their movies in theatrical release will
be enormous. So the distributors are understandably cautious with
their advances to filmmakers. If a movie doesn't have an obvious pre-release
marketing hook (i.e. a big star, genre appeal, or notoriety of some
kind), it simply isn't deemed a sound investment.
Today, instead of being encouraged to make a unique film, independent
filmmakers are advised by executives like Jonathan Sehring, president
of IFC Entertainment--the company that gave us "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"--to
make bigger-budget movies with big stars. "It's a distribution market
that is increasingly reliant on higher budgeted films, with name casts,"
he has said, seemingly forgetting that there was not one big name
in the phenomenally profitable "Wedding."
The irony is that lavish spending on pre-release marketing can bankrupt
those few small companies that risk spending to sell their "star"
vehicles. Take "Scotland PA," a well-reviewed comic spin on "Macbeth"
that starred Christopher Walken, Maura Tierney and Andy Dick. The
movie made an auspicious bow at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001.
A small New York-based distributor, Lot 47, acquired the film. Lot
47's marketing strategy was to find a quiet weekend and buy large
newspaper ads to launch the black comedy as if it were a big studio
movie. After all, "Scotland PA" had name actors and "buzz" out of
Sundance. But the quiet February weekend carefully selected to open
the movie (away from studio competition) turned out to be the nightmare
weekend eventually chosen by Warner Bros. to open "Collateral Damage"
and for Universal and MGM to release "Big Fat Liar" and "Rollerball."
No one had huge hopes for these three mainstream movies. Yet, unfortunately
for "Scotland PA," the studio marketing departments have learned how
to spend unsparingly to maximize the opening weekend when they know
that subsequent poor reviews and word-of-mouth are inevitable. Thus,
"Scotland PA 's" advertising campaign was swamped in a sea of two-page
ads and relentless TV hype from the studios.
Despite spending big on ads and posters, the promoters of this little
movie could not get the public's attention. "Scotland PA" never even
recouped its advertising expenses. Six months later, Lot 47 was all
but out of the business.
The Phantom Indie Producer
New York City