Small movies are getting buried at the box office. Theaters are dead. Netflix is the future.
This is the conventional wisdom. And this summer, the box office slide for small films is particularly alarming. Right now, things look more dire than ever for independent cinema.
Netflix, however, is not the savior, nor is the instant access it provides.
The problem isn’t access, it’s awareness, and streaming’s mass distribution is not the solution.
I’ll try to explain, although this perspective is still a work-in-progress. It will likely continue to evolve, but there’s already a lot to unpack. So here goes.
A New York Times article recently struck a nerve on Film Twitter. Titled “How Will the Movies (As We Know Them) Survive the Next 10 Years?“, the piece is a compilation of quotes from a wide spectrum of industry filmmakers (actors, directors, producers, studio heads, Oscar winners, etc.).
Writer/Interviewer Kyle Buchanan assembles these comments into a comprehensive distillation, one that addresses the various facets of the pervasive anxiety that’s being felt industry-wide about the seemingly inevitable demise of the theatrical experience, especially for non-tentpole blockbusters.
Case in point: this summer.
Despite some sizeable promotional pushes that led to wide launches on over 2,000 screens, two of the season’s most hotly anticipated indie films have underperformed since this summer’s movie season kicked off. Hell, they’ve tanked. Nobody was expecting these indies to become huge breakouts, but they seemed primed to be successful counter-programmers. Instead, they’ve been buried.
Booksmart (a word-of-mouth sensation for critics and audiences alike at the SXSW film festival) and Late Night (a popular star-driven crowd-pleaser at Sundance that was snagged by Amazon for $13 million) were both well-reviewed, each received solid audience scores, and were given wide releases (over 2500 screens for Booksmart and, in its second weekend following a NY/LA opener, over 2200 for Late Night).
None of that paid off.
Booksmart bombed with a scant $8.5 million over the 4-day Memorial Day weekend, and Late Night (with the star power of Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling) only scrounged up $5.1 million over three days in wide release after enjoying a high per-screen average in its limited debut.
Variety just reported that, after marketing costs are factored in, Amazon Studios will lose $40 million on Late Night. Forty million?! There’s no reason, none, that a movie like this should be losing money like that. This isn’t the result of a creative failure or even (entirely) a marketing one; this is systemic.
Even tentpoles are underperforming now, such as Toy Story 4’s $118 million debut that set off alarm bells when it didn’t match the low-end projection of $140 million (but that’s a whole other issue).
For most observers, this latest downward trend (nay, spiral) simply verifies the working assumption that only streaming platforms (and Netflix especially) can be the savior of small movies.
The knee-jerk reaction has been obvious: there’s no room at the multiplex for smaller, smart adult entertainment (and these latest fianancial duds are entertaining), and therefore the only place for them is on streaming platforms.
I disagree with that conventional wisdom. Vehemently.
In fact, this summer’s sour indie box office verifies the exact opposite. Their failure to catch on is actually the result of following the theatrical version of Netflix’s release philosophy, one that’s inherently doomed whether applied to theatrical or streaming.
Just follow me here.
The white flag for small films in movie theaters is effectively being waved, even by industry titans like J. J. Abrams who said in the Times piece:
- “When you have a movie that’s as entertaining, well-made, and well-received as “Booksmart” not doing the business it should have, it really makes you realize that the typical Darwinian fight to survive is completely lopsided now. Everyone’s trying to figure out how we protect the smaller films that aren’t four-quadrant mega-releases. Can they exist in the cinemas?”
Most professionals and pundits echo Abrams’ lament, and that really frustrates me. It’s a defeatist posture that is completely short-sighted and (forgive my hubris) misunderstands the actual dynamics at play.
In tandem with that misunderstandng, streaming is not a real, practical solution for small movies either, and here’s why.
Yes, streamers like Netflix are gobbling up indies, and yes, that makes them instantly accessible to everybody while giving their producers a return on their investment but, with few exceptions (almost all being rom-coms), debuting and playing exclusively on streaming platforms are where small indie films go to die, not thrive.
To date, there has yet to be a streaming-exclusive movie to enjoy any form of pop culture saturation success, the kind that taps into the zeitgeist like only a breakout theatrical hit can.
Here’s why movies can’t become cultural sensations on TV or streaming like they can in theaters: the television / streaming platform still favors narrative series (and binging), not one-off feature-length stories.
When a single movie can “always be seen or gotten to at some point”, it’s easy to put off and ignore. A TV movie will never have the cultural immediacy of a series because a series has a built in “keep up or catch up” aspect to its structure and how the culture engages with it. How culture forms its relationship with a series is entirely different than how it does with a movie.
As a result, the exclusivity of the theatrical platform is the only way a film can garner the same kind of “watch it now” immediacy that, subsequently, creates discussion and, over time, a lasting place in the culture itself.
In short, theatrical is the only platform that can turn a movie into an event. It’s the only platform that can make a movie matter, whether that’s a tentpole like Avengers: Endgame or an underdog Best Picture winning no-star indie like Moonlight.
Furthermore, premiering Booksmart and Late Night via streaming would not have saved either of those movies. It might have made their financial losses noticeably less due to the savings on distribution costs, but their lack of cultural success would doom the streaming business model for indie movies in the long-term.
Here’s what we can’t lose sight of: once we get past this wild west era of overspending for streaming content, the current Ponzi scheme being touted as “the future” – of streamers throwing money at indie movies – will collapse.
Worse yet, if we also let theaters collapse in the interim, we’re going to find that the future of cinema (and indies especially) is a dystopian hellscape.
So how, then, can we best use the theatrical platform to turn these smaller movies into events again? The answer: what’s old must become new. Platform distribution of a radical kind must become the standard.
Before Jaws redefined everything in 1975 (and Star Wars cemented that shift in 1977), the theatrical distribution model did not follow a “nationwide” release rollout. Movies “platformed”, opening in limited markets (like New York and L.A.) and then slowly, steadily, and strategically expanding as word of mouth and awareness grew.
Then, after Jaws and Star Wars, studio movies shifted to wide release strategies. Smaller indie movies, however, continued to follow the traditional platform process. It worked, even as the blockbuster revolution continued to expand.
But now, even small distributors have become impatient.
Indie labels have begun to bank on “mass release” strategies (a.k.a. the theatrical equivalent of Netflix’s “day-and-date everywhere” streaming philosophy). The thinking is simple: strike while the marketing iron is hot, especially in an era where there’s such a glut of content. Since the competition never ends, you have to play now or never (or so the thinking goes).
The failures of Booksmart and Late Night, however, are a huge wakeup call to how wrong that thinking is. Then, if you look to streaming to save these movies, well, I’ve already beat that drum. It’s a false hope.
Platform distribution of the classic kind, however, is what can save small movies. Platforming does something that mass release marketing budgets can’t: raise the right kind of awareness.
For small movies, simply knowing that they’re out there in theaters to be seen (which is all that marketing can do) isn’t enough anymore. What’s needed is buzz, the curated kind.
The buzz I’m talking about can only come from a steady word of mouth built through strategy, not viral whims: start in big cities, expand to second-tier metroplexes, and then mid-size cities, and so on, all while being covered (and praised) in cinephile media outlets.
Platforming does two very important things: it creates organic buzz that can turn an unknown movie into a must-see event (something that only time, not money, can buy) and, equally important, it’s financially conservative.
To think of it in social media terms, it’s the more patient version of “First Reaction” tweet storms that bombard Twitter when initial screenings for MCU-sized tentpoles occur. You could also look at it as the Film Festival equivalent turned into a business model, where the limited release works like Film Festival buzz that can help lay the groundwork for those smaller markets.
This isn’t a radical idea, per se, but it will take a radical commitment that ditches modern processes and metrics.
By doing so, these small films will become Event Movies in the next-tier metroplexes and mid-size cities. More viewers in those locales will be anticipating the arrival of these movies (like they used to) rather than missing them during their one-or-two week mass release window.
These small films will also be free of the marketing baggage they’re now saddled with. Being forced to compete financially against the biggest studio tentpoles simply because these small movies have oversized marketing budgets required for mass releases is an absolute albatross, and that’s what’s destroying the market as much as anything.
In essence, small movie distribution must become radically different from the norm, not simply a smaller version of the norm as it is now. The shift in those distribution tactics may be simple enough, but it requires nothing short of a tectonic shift in how the industry thinks about distributing small movies, how that operates, the metrics used and the expectations applied.
To put a fine point on where to start: for small movies, the weekend box office race has to end.
Right now, indie movies are graded in Monday-morning weekend box office reports right alongside big studio releases. They’ve been forced to because they’re getting wide releases as well. But inherently, they’re not wide release style movies, whether theatrically or via streaming.
However, when platforming drives the business model for small films rather than multi-million marketing budgets (often times in the tens of millions), expectations and profit margins can change to something more managable, reasonalbe, and sustainable. Creating a safe theatrical market for indie voices to exist and thrive (rather than being huge financial risks) is the only true hope, not streaming obscurity.
In fact, this extreme platforming approach could also work for mid-size studio movies. Again, in order to do so, studios would have to leave behind the “box office race” mentality, reserving that strictly to the biggest tentpoles. For everything else, instead of resigning in defeat to streaming, create a new, separate, wholly different model that helps small budget movies to be much safer financial risks while also giving them a “cultural event” platform that has actually been proven to work.
The more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that more movies need platform releasing. In the age of stream-it-now, the solution to saving mid-to-low budget movies is to pull them from — not sacrifce them to — the glut of streaming’s overwhelming tide.
Furthermore, as big studio streaming services like Disney-Plus, NBCUniversal, Paramount, and more start to compete with Netflix (while also taking their coveted content back from Netflix, the kind that people currently subscribe to Netflix for), the ubiquitous streamer’s monopoly will fold and the landscape will look dramatically different than it does now, especially as the new streamers’ parent studios will have a vested interest in the ongoing success of the theatrical model that Netflix has been trying to destroy.
I’m also heartened when an industry organization like the Directors Guild of America draws a line in the sand to support theatrical, like they did this past week. The DGA announced a new rule change, stating that day-and-date streaming releases (a.k.a. movies that don’t have a theatrical-exclusive debut or run) will no longer be eligible for their top award. This is the right call, the right kind of leadership, and other guilds should follow.
Trust me, Netflix isn’t going to look like a savior forever. If anything, those days are numbered.
The best defense of everything I’m arguing for here comes from the New York Times piece, and it echoes a fundamental point I’ve expressed in the past (here and here, being just two examples). Steve Gilula, the co-chairman of Fox Searchlight, says the following:
- “Take Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade,” Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” or Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”: I do not believe those films would have ever found a significant audience if they had premiered on streaming, because they did not have either the stars or the established directors that could have gotten them attention. I believe there’s still an incredibly vital role that festivals and movie theaters play in giving those films time to be discovered.
UPDATE: Or this, from Ted Mundorff, the CEO of Landmark Theaters , in IndieWire’s “rebuttal” to the Times piece (published the day after I posted this essay) where they talked to actual theater owners and distributors, something the Times piece failed to do:
- “…when you see “Late Night” go out (a.k.a. fail), it’s astounding. Just because one pays $14 million for an acquisition doesn’t mean it should go into wide release. The amount being spent on acquisition or production doesn’t change the character of the film. If it requires nurturing, then it should be nurtured, not blown out on 2,000-plus runs. That type of wide release ensures that the film will fail…It’s not like we have awful product. We have awful release patterns.”
If we allow the current defeatist thinking to win the day, it will only lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. The result won’t be a saving evolution; it will be a suicidal extinction.
But it doesn’t have to be. There is another way. The beautiful irony? The answer to our 21st Century the problem is a proven 20th Century solution, one adapted for the modern age.