What a year! A far cry from last year’s “Slumdog Millionaire” (albeit well-deserved) award blitzkrieg and more glitz than than desert of 2008 after reeling form the Great Writers’ Strike.
Oscar provides a vehicle to maximize exposure to the “indie” films that would otherwise hover in a theatre for weeks before gaining traction via word of mouth both online and by mouth. The new preferential voting system has given smaller films a veritable chance to compete, and increasing the nominations in each category from five to ten has also raised awareness of such fare. We are entering a brave new world.
The fact that indie films are able to recoup their budgets and (gasp!) even go into profit without sole reliance on film welfare, confirms there are audiences out there for such cinema. Most indie films still fail to recoup their production costs, but hopefully times are a-changin’ through improved and increased distribution channels. I saw “Mao’s Last Dancer”, the brilliant Aussie film in an airplane, flying to… erm.. Oz.
Global box office for Slumdog has exceeded the $377 million mark, Hurt Locker has pipped the $21 million mark, and Precious has topped the $53 million mark. Of course these figures are a far cry from the “blue” film’s $2 billion global haul, but who cares? There’s a place for everything.
Last decade saw the studios convert “indies” into “dependies” with lavish P&A campaigns, but this trend was reversed recently. Many “specialty” divisions such as Warner Independent, Fox Atomic and UIP either shuttered their doors or scaled back on these “non profitable” films. Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight and Focus Pictures, where the few outfits that survived. Thanks to Hurt Locker, Summit can stand tall. Lionsgate is floundering as a mini-major making coin largely through patchy acquisitions.
The indie market landscape has started sprouting green shoots, but is still a long way from it’s heydey in the nineties. There was encouraging, but cautious sales activity at Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and Berlin last year. So the indie world still isn’t out of the woods. There are also signs that coin is starting to flow back to producers as the pre-strike production glut has run it’s distribution course. Not necessarily money from hedge funds or high net worth individuals, but also private sponsorship of socially conscious cinema.
2009 was the year when it was easier to make Star Trek than Precious. The massive studio distortion of the indie market appears to have subsided as they revert to their core activities; four quad tentpole movies; especially 3D. This may or not be blessing as studios are gorging themselves on an expensive feast of megablockbusters such as Spiderman 4 and Avatar 2. Judging by the tepid critical response to Alice In Wonderland, studios may be sacrificing storytelling for spectacle. My advice to them; don’t do it. Audiences will notice and punish you after the initial box office sugar rush.
However, this leaves the independent distribution sector free to reinvent itself at budgets more befitting of it’s remit, minus the force-fed viagra pills to perform at the box office. I suspect distributors will collaborate for global marketing campaigns to spread their financial risk. I doubt the industry can replicate it’s stellar performance of 2009 because people are going back to work and have the disposable income for pricier forms of entertainment.
I also suspect the internet will play an increasing role in film distribution once someone works out how to make it profitable. Even VOD distribution models are still in their infancy, but will mature. Who would have thought YouTube would be a platform to find new talent and raise awareness of new product.
Some distributors have argued against the “one size fits all” P&A campaigns of blockbusters. Many indie films only have budget as a common point. Most need delicate nurturing as they take their baby steps into cinemas. They are common as counter-programming to studio fare, but still need a more sustained drip feed into the marketplace rather than a gush; much like an all day sucker.
The DVD market has bottomed out, and hasn’t recovered. However, straight to DVD (I grew up in the straight to video era) will remain a viable avenue of distribution for indie films through carefully targeted advertising. The beauty of DVDs is that you can press more batches as necessary. I also envisage cablers picking up more flack with the proliferation of more movie channels.