This week I look at the window-release system for film distribution, with a focus on the marketing and cinematic release (or lack of) for contemporary independent features. From The Spectacular Now – a movie that won the hearts of critics – to It Follows – a nostalgic horror movie that pleased genre fans; I briefly dive into, and attempt to mildly analyse, the world of film distribution. (Wish me luck.)
I stumbled upon a fantastic article this year that used It Follows as a case-study for an analytical approach in breaking down film distribution for low-budget flicks. Tim League, who wrote the feature, spoke of the underlying success of the movie as a trophy for the world of small-time filmmaking, and the positive change in which it could therefore bring about for similar titles. This article sparked something inside of me; probably because I had just watched James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now. I watched the film two years after its release, simply because I happened upon its existence thanks to a trailer-watching spree on the old You on the Tube. Similarly to It Follows, Pondoldt’s heartbreaking feature of adolescent life and love saw a limited release in the US and a non-existent release in the UK. This isn’t unusual.
The limited release of low-budget flicks, directed by under-the-radar film makers and starring up-and-coming actors, is in constant swing. At one time, this lent to a belief that these features, which aren’t often programmed at ‘mainstream’ cinema chains and awarded a VOD opening, are of little value to the average cinema-goer or at home audience member. Cinephiles, critics, and movie lovers know this not be to be true, and as the landscape of distribution shifts, so does the way in which audiences consume new and diverse film.
As an example of big-budget studio film versus small-budget indie feature:
The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and shot on a budget of $100 million received a somewhat restrained response from critics, but a plethora of anarchic applause from mainstream audience members. Legitimately, people went a bit bat-shit for it. The movie opened in cinemas across the world and garnered an overall box office success of $390 million. The Spectacular Now, directed by a lesser known name, and starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley (both of whom are now industry gold but at the time were doing their indie bit) was shot on $2.5 million and made a modest $6.9 million. Rotten Tomatoes graced the tender film with a whopping 93% (in comparison to the 73% it gave ‘Wall Street) and iconic film critic Roger Ebert awarded it 4/4 stars, stating:
“Here is a lovely film about two high school seniors who look, speak and feel like real 18-year-old middle-American human beings. Do you have any idea how rare that is? What an affecting film this is.”
The movie was a very mild success in art-house cinemas but had no identity in UK chains. Teller later starred in drumming phenomenon Whiplash which due to its Oscar buzz received a much bigger marketing campaign and didn’t suffer from its limited release. Fish Tank, directed by Oscar-winning British film maker Andrea Arnold is another startlingly real example of raw and uninterrupted film making that went amiss among the general viewing public. Winner of BAFTA’s film of the year in 2009 and featuring Michael Fassbender (again, just before his Hollywood time came calling), the challenging narrative and blisteringly natural performance from newcomer Katie Jarvis received 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, 4/4 from Roger Ebert but a £332,488 domestic box office total. There was little in the way of an advertising campaign and those who saw it were present aware of Arnold’s directing prowess.
But as technology evolves and the consumption of cinema shifts, there is perhaps one saving grace: Netflix. One of my first introductions to the service’s dedication to showcasing indie film was when I watched 6 Years; a study of a destructive relationship between two childhood sweethearts. The movie – which stars Taissa Farmiga – is standard at best, but a good example of a melodramatic romance that is generally targeted at a demographic of young woman. Buying the rights to 6 Years gave Netflix subscribers the opportunity to see, on demand, an indie drama that otherwise could have perhaps disappeared in the hole of forgotten films.
Since 6 Years, Netflix has upped its game by funding and distributing a large number of indie-style flicks and features with hard-hitting narratives; from Okja to Mudbound and beyond. Its most recent output, Bright, polarized critics and audiences, receiving universal dislike from most film outlets but receiving praise from at-home viewers, perhaps proving the content doesn’t have to be top-notch to win over audiences if it’s available at the touch of a button.
Thanks to on-demand services such as Netflix, independent films don’t need big-budget advertising campaigns to be noticed because the beauty of the service lies with the simplicity of scanning, selecting, and watching. The service is placing control in the hands of the viewer, as he or she choose to spend 90 minutes watching a film they feel is exclusive to them. The creation of big-budget feature-length film readily available online, for what feels like ‘free, is perhaps leading to a change in the everyday audience member’s initial perception of independent filmmaking, and that can only be positive for the industry.