“Unless you’re Tom Cruise, launching a new movie today is a study in frustration. Or self-destruction.
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So says a veteran independent film distributor commenting on the current film market (see below), whose testimony is backed by filmmakers and aspirants gathered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Tribeca marks the start of festival season in the United States, where opportunity and disaster collide. Indie filmmakers consider Tribeca a delightful launch pad, but this year its schedule is also filled with streamers, music, audio awards, assorted activist presentations and even celebrity sightings: Taylor Swift will present her new short film and on Wednesday evening, Jennifer Lopez will praise her new documentary half time, which was the festival’s opening film but, even with Lopez’s promotional influence, will not have a theatrical release. It debuts on Netflix next Tuesday.
There will also be premieres of indie dramas and rom-coms, but it will take some work to find them. Tribeca dropped the word “movie” from its title, so its busy schedule reflects the maze of content: it’ll be harder than ever to find the next one. Last picture show Where Sex, lies and video, those revered “sleepers” of past generations. But the high-energy festival has added online premieres, sharing the proceeds with creators overseas as well as in the United States.
Even in the banner days, Hollywood found movie launches to be expensive and self-destructive. Twenty years ago, two rival Wyatt Earp films opened back to back; so have a few $100 million disaster movies (Armageddon and deep impact) with alarmingly similar plots.
While studios call on the strength of marketing to prop up their tentpoles, independent films remain dependent on the kindness of critics and festivals. “Every filmmaker must find a rabbi among the critics,” said Robert Altman. He shrewdly pursued Pauline Kael with private screenings and expensive dinner parties. Some directors have even paid critics to do rewrites, managing to earn favorable reviews along the way.
Release schedules this year are particularly slim and focused on tent poles with advanced branding – Jurassic World Dominion from Universal and Thor: Love and Thunder from Marvel. Warner Bros. Elvis directed by Baz Luhrman is reminiscent of an old Hollywood extravaganza and therefore perhaps the riskiest.
Overall, the majors estimate annual revenue will reflect a 70% increase from last year, but still down 34% from pre-pandemic levels. But independent films are particularly rare on release lists, reflecting not only a shortage of theaters but also an absence of reviews. The mainstream media have become increasingly stingy with magazine space, with the exception of the New York Timeswhich each Friday reviews up to 20 films.
His generosity represents a mixed benefit since Time critics usually disdain “raves” for new films, instead mastering a lexicon of subtle disdain: “Every plot development seems preordained” (fire island); “The film’s referential pleasures seem insubstantial compared to more meaningful works” (18+).
If the Time‘second-tier reviews are of no use in selling tickets, its top reviews also remind readers of their cultural preferences. AO Scott delivered a generous review last week on Blessing, a biopic about a British poet named Siegfried Sassoon. It was directed by Terence Davies, also British, who gave us earlier A quiet passion, dealing with another poet, Emily Dickinson. His work, Scott assures us, “was as attentive to the inner climate of his subject as to the details of his time and place.”
Scott last Sunday even half-apologized for his “lukewarm” review a few months ago of low budget Dog, with Channing Tatum (who also directed). He now realizes that film was “a politically charged throwback film that offers a smooth ride through scorched earth.”
In order to merit criticism in the Time or other newspapers in major cities, film distributors must ensure a theatrical release, however brief. This exercise could cost up to $150,000 even for a modest 20-theater release.
“There’s never been a tougher time to launch a film,” observes Strath Hamilton, who co-heads Tri-Coast Film Distribution, which last year handled the overseas distribution of The newbie, a Tribeca winner. “You need a good film and a good cast,” he says. Hamilton’s chances have been improved this year as one of their outings, Dog wolf, is an independent aerial action film. “It helps share a genre with Tom Cruise,” he notes (Grindstone/Lionsgate distributes this film in the US).
Given all the obstacles, will independent films continue to emerge? “Of course they will,” insists Hamilton. “Making movies is addictive. So hopefully see them.
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