If you are of a certain age you likely remember a time when movie trailers used to end with some variation of the phrase “Coming Soon to a Theater Near You.” It was common enough that when Siskel & Ebert launched their first TV show on Chicago public TV in 1975 they called it Opening Soon at a Theater Near You (a title they abandoned after one season). This came from a time when movies didn’t open everywhere at the same time. There was rarely a set national/global release date. As such, the trailers couldn’t give you an exact release date because the distributors didn’t know when the movie would reach you. They just had to wait to see how it did in the big cities first before deciding anything else.
Boring! We get it, history nerd. We used to say something, now we don’t (or at least not as much) because things have changed. What does any of this have to do with the Sundance Film Festival? Or my couch? You promised both of those things in your title!
Right. So, the point is there used to be a relative assurance with most movies, big and small, that they would eventually play in a theater near you. That’s still the dream of many indie filmmakers who hawk their wares on the festival circuit, cozying up to those buyers with the authority and power to guarantee their movie a theatrical release.
For example, at last year’s Sundance the bidding war over Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation ultimately went to Fox Searchlight over Netflix because Parker still believed in the cultural value of a wide theatrical release, and Manchester By the Sea sold to Amazon over Netflix because Amazon still grants its festival acquisitions a proper theatrical run (through distribution partner Roadside Attractions) before being added to the Prime streaming library. Birth of a Nation turned into a box office bomb for reasons largely unrelated to the actual film whereas Manchester, continually propped up by its various awards wins/nominations, has already tripled the $10m Amazon ponied up for the distribution rights.
History will likely repeat itself at this year’s Sundance. Some movie will sell for far more than it should and never live up to the resulting critical/financial hype (the history of Sundance is littered with such films). Another will probably turn into a genuine hit and sweep through awards season come this time next year.
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon’s autobiographical rom-com The Big Sick is the early Sundance hit this year, with the winning bid going to Amazon (for $12m). But what about all the other movies at Sundance 2017, the 56 dramas/documentaries (32 from the US, 24 from world cinema)? Where do they go? Where’s the market for them?
Online, of course.
In years past, outlets like Deadline have been quick to warn “Buyer Beware” to all the distributors flooding film festivals, asking that they at least look at a chart of the meager box office grosses for prior festival films [such as the one below specific to Sundance 2014]:
However, you can’t make that same argument anymore because while the middle has fallen out of the theatrical release model VOD and streaming services have risen to fill in the gap. As Vulture explained last year:
These days, distributors look at a film, their own budgets, the acquisition cost, the potential audience, and the projected publicity and marketing expenditure that comes with a theatrical release, and then decide which way to go. Increasingly, they’re choosing VOD. Of the 14 Sundance dramatic competition movies to be acquired at or after the festival in January, seven have been primarily VOD releases, including Clea DuVall’s The Intervention and Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America, both of which won acting prizes. For the most part, those films still get a New York/Los Angeles theatrical release, which guarantees them a review in the New York Times and awards eligibility. But most are available on VOD the same day, and some even earlier. That’s where they really live.
That’s why you can rent Rebecca Hall’s Christine on Amazon Video right now but likely never even had a chance to see it in theaters. And that’s why the majority of films at Sundance 2017 will never come remotely close to a theater near you. In 2017, “Coming Soon to a Theater Near You” has been replaced by “Coming Soon to Your Couch.”
That’s a bad thing, why?
It’s not necessarily a bad or good thing; it simply is what it is.
It’s certainly harder to make a lot of money that way just as it is harder for anyone outside of the distribution teams to even know which films are financially successful and which are not since VOD sales information is almost never made public. As IFC Fim’s President Jonathan Sehring told IndieWire last year, “You’re going to look at the box office on Pele: Birth of a Legend [just $50k domestic box office] and say, ‘That movie didn’t work,’ and we’re all going to be sitting here with huge grins on our faces saying, ‘That movie has worked extremely well.’”
In a way, this frees us from the shackles of BoxOfficeMojo and returns us to a time of simply talking about certain movies as movies, not commerce, even if we’re completely clueless about the financial ruin/gains brought to the makers and what that signals to the industry. I was exposed to five of my favorite films of 2016 (Other People, Hush, Zero Days, Weiner, Don’t Think Twice) through streaming, all of them technically box office flops which never played anywhere near me, and I am expecting that total to rise in 2017, for more of the best films of the year to never play in a theater outside of New York and California. That I’ll still be able to see these types of films without the benefit of a theatrical release is progress, a fuller realization of an artist’s goal to have his or her work viewed by as many people as possible, right? Perhaps.
However, these are nightmare times for indie distributors. At last year’s Toronto Film Festival, IndieWire noted that many indie studios are seriously struggling to stay afloat, with layoffs all around, multiple bankruptcies and strategic shifts toward either more broadly appealing entertainment (as with Broad Green and Bad Santa 2) or over to TV (as with The Weinstein Co. now aiming to make at least 50% of its revenue from TV ). Those that are managing to survive say things like “we focus on ‘tribal’ films, hence our interest in music films and social issue films, where there are audiences that are identifiable and committed” (according to documentary distributor Abramorama’s president Richard Abramowitz) and “[Controlling costs] is basically how we’ve been able to stay in business all these years–we’re able to spend appropriately” (according to Zeitgeist Films co-founder Nancy Gerstman).
But, as I said earlier, it is what it is. The future of film distribution is everywhere other than in theaters clogged up with one four-quadrant blockbuster after another. It’s up to the distributors to figure out how to actually make money off of streaming and VOD; it’s up to us to simply watch the movies and spread the good word through reviews and social media praise, increasingly from the comfort of our own couch. I personally can’t wait to weigh in on Sundance 2017 selections like The Big Sick, Ingrid Goes West (an Instagram-culture satire starring Aubrey Plaza and Elisabeth Olsen), Wind River (the directorial debut of Sicario/Hell or High Water writer Taylor Sheridan) and The Polka King (starring Jack Black as a real life Polish immigrant who became a music star and then ripped off his fans with an elaborate Ponzi scheme) whenever they arrive in a theater or in front of a couch near me.