Study the ad campaigns emblazoned across the media this week and you realize the degree to which the specialty film business operates in a different universe than Hollywood’s sequels-and- remakes grind. And the crowning irony is that, while Hollywood’s numbers go down, the indie business is going up.

Peter Bart

With a boost from the award shows, the specialty pictures that dominate attention this week essentially violate all the rules of studio commerce: no spectacle, no stars, no China market, no hint of a sequel, and no production mega spends. Their themes encompass a dizzying array of ideas and backgrounds that defy the imagination, their characters range from monster fish to delicate fashion designers and skating champions.

Now we’ve always understood that the studios and the indies were heading in opposite directions, but this didn’t quite prepare us for an array of films like The Shape of Water, Three Billboards, Phantom Thread, Lady Bird or The Disaster Artist. Or for the bottom-line reality that, while the majors are finding their core audience consistently slipping away, the specialty business seems to be finding new markets.

Last weekend, more than half of the top 20 movies at the box office were specialty movies, and the demos of films like Lady Bird and Shape included more women, of Darkest Hour more older men. Distributors like A24, Bleecker Street, Focus, Sony Classics or Fox Searchlight aren’t betting their survival on teenagers in Brazil and China.

Sure, there are problems in indie land. There haven’t been breakout films like The King’s Speech or Black Swan that cross the $100 million barrier. Too many promising indie films simply disappear without a trace, such as Breathe or Patti Cake$. Rating services like Rotten Tomatoes annihilate too many interesting releases before they can catch a breath.

Still, the budgets are lean and the returns are promising. With peak days approaching Lady Bird has grossed $34 million, Shape $21 million, Three Billboards $25 million and Darkest Hour $28 million. Then there are anomalies like Get Out, which has passed $254 million having started life as a micro-budget genre film, and The Big Sick, from Amazon, which has passed $55 million.

Downsizing
“Downsizing”
Paramount Pictures

Then again, the indie film business is not wholly owned by indies – vestiges of the majors reside in Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight and Focus, for example, but they operate with autonomy. On the other hand, the major distributors by and large have learned that they don’t “get” the rules of the specialty business – witness Paramount’s $68 million gamble on Downsizing, which has fizzled (the prototypical indie film is budgeted at under $20 million).

“We all live dangerously, but I’m doubling my slate,” said the chief of one indie, who requested anonymity. “We all face the impact of streaming and the unbelievable noise of the marketplace, but filmgoers want not just noise but exciting noise.” To be sure, no one can perfectly predict where the “excitement” will come from. Stars provide no guarantee (witness Matt Damon’s terrible year), nor do star directors (Lady Bird is Greta Gerwig’s first directing gig). I, Tonya did not find its audience on Margot Robbie’s name, nor did Sally Hawkins’ star power create a market for Shape of Water or the brilliant Maudie.

Dan Talbot, the pioneer distributor of art house films who died last week, described his business as “financially masochistic,” but noted: “When I look at movies I don’t think of box office. If it has some artistic foundation I take a chance with it.” Talbot introduced New Yorkers to the great European filmmakers but boasted that “my theaters have a policy of no policy.” Sadly, his Lincoln Plaza Cinemas closed last week while a few new specialty theaters bravely opened their doors, as though to demonstrate that Talbot’s mission will continue.