The success of Netflix’s Roma this Oscar season with ten nominations has some traditional film distributors worried sick that the streaming service’s theatrical/SVOD release model will ultimately spell the death of indie cinema.

Michael Weber/Shutterstock

Their concern: No longer is a lengthy theatrical release needed for an independent movie seeking an Oscar. With Netflix, or any other streaming service, you can truncate your time in theaters, avoid any potential sour headlines about box office grosses, target the film’s publicity toward awards voters, and voila — you’ve got Golden Globe wins and Oscar nominations.

Such apocalyptic thoughts from certain indie distributors are two fold: Last year’s pricey theatrical buys at Sundance arguably didn’t pan out at the box office with AGBO/NEON’s $10M purchase of Assassination Nation ($2M) and Lionsgate’s pick-up of Blindspotting ($4.3M). Annapurna’s seven-figure buy of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You ($17.5M domestic B.O.) and Sony’s $4M purchase of Searching ($26M) were the brighter spots.

Emma Stone The Favourite
Fox Searchlight

Another bit of agita: Fewer platform releases last year (pics that launched in 1 to 40 theaters) crossed over to greater heights at the domestic B.O. compared to 2017. Among 2018’s Oscar fare, six independent platform releases grossed more than $30M including I, Tonya; The Big Sick, Lady Bird, Three Billboards, The Darkest Hour and The Shape of Water. This year, Fox Searchlight’s Isle of Dogs and soon The Favourite will only be the two indie platforms to surpass $30M. In total, not counting big studio releases like Fox’s The Post, or Universal’s Green Book, 2018 only saw 13 platform releases go over $10M, five over $20M versus 2017 which saw 17 movies earn more than $10M and 11 titles grossing more than $20M.

But per our conversations with independent film financiers, exhibitors and some distributors, theatrical is still king for content creators, and it’s not apt to wither away.

First, the cultural impact of theatrical is undeniable, and it’s what most content creators and stars crave first and foremost.

“Films can be the antidote or a reprieve from things we disagree with,” says NEON boss Tom Quinn about the the theatrical experience, and who reaped great B.O. success last year with the doc Three Identical Strangers ($12.3M) and Oscar-winner I, Tonya  ($30M)“It’s the only communal experience outside of going to church.”

IFC

Second, the theatrical-SVOD release that Netflix did with Roma and the Coen Brothers’ three-Oscar nominated The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t novel or new. IFCfilms has been handling indie titles like this for the last ten years-plus (in fact one of their 2009 theatrical/SVOD release of Armando Ianucci’s In the Loop was nominated for a 2010 best adapted screenplay Oscar). Magnolia gets credit for jumpstarting the simultaneous multi-platform release with Steven Soderbergh’s 2006 title Bubble ($145K). Like Netflix, IFC executed a distribution strategy in theaters outside the big three exhibitors (however they never had to four-wall theaters).

In sum, streaming hasn’t killed the indie cinema star, it’s only expanded the independent cinema marketplace. There are those in indie circles who praise Netflix: They are making and releasing movies that otherwise would not have gotten made by a mainstream distributor.

“What the success of Roma does show is that that Harvey Weinstein way of Oscar campaigning works with Netflix movies,” says one independent studio cappo about the streaming giant’s reported $20M-plus awards season campaign spend on the film.

There’s also something to be said about residuals: We’ve heard that there is a greater financial upside for actors when they board a Netflix movie at its inception; that they can cash in on a notable payday. When a film is bought by a streaming company out of a festival, actors’ don’t reap any upside from residuals (that said, typically there’s a percentage included on top of the MG which can be spread around to those needed as bonuses. Roma was made by Participant for reportedly $15M and Netflix acquired the pic for reportedly $20M). In fact, it’s not necessarily a film’s financier who can give the thumbs up to a streaming acquisition at a fest, rather, a movie’s star and their reps have a lot of say in whether a completed film takes a theatrical or streaming route.

That said, the Netflix theatrical/SVOD model (which they can continue to vary up; Roma had a three week theatrical lead-in time before streaming on Dec. 14) is here to stay, and any traditional naysayers of it will have to contend with this. The future is here and it’s only going to become more competitive with Disney+, Apple and WarnerMedia’s streaming services on the horizon. The whole notion of release patterns and the amount of time they’re in theaters or online will continue to be redefined.

“Not all films are the same, and distributors just need to learn and adjust their release strategies accordingly; it’s not a one-size-fits-all model, it never has been,” says another independent distribution head.

Alamo Drafthouse upcoming Los Angeles at The Bloc 7th Street location
Alamo Drafthouse

“We are in an era of hardcore expectations for a great experience and I don’t think that pressure existed ten years ago in the cinema industry; the pressure is to be excellent,” says Alamo Drafthouse Cinema owner Tim League, adding, “It’s a great time for content creators to have have additional opportunities.”

When we asked Roma director Alfonso Cuarón about whether streaming would ultimately kill the indie theatrical biz, he exclaimed that he has the best of both worlds in Netflix’s handling of Roma. They’ve made the movie available in theaters with Dolby Atmos and 70MM theaters as well as to their 139M subscribers, an anomaly for a black and white foreign language title would have been challenged at the box office. Roma‘s win is a triumph of art over commerce.

Cold War
Amazon Studios

Juxtapose Roma‘s success to Pawel Pawlikowski’s three-Oscar nominated Cold War from Amazon which still haven’t crossed $1M yet at the domestic B.O., and the director’s Oscar winning foreign language film Ida which only made $3.8M. On Tuesday, Cuarón scored four Oscar noms for best picture, director, screenplay and director tying with other filmmakers like Warren Beatty and Orson Welles who had similar Academy Award nom records for their respective films Reds and Citizen Kane. 

Free Solo
National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

However, if you’re going to blame the slowdown of last year’s indie box office –despite the unprecedented success of four feature documentaries (Free Solo, Three Identical Strangers, RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) raking in between $12M-$23M– don’t blame streaming, but exhibition itself. No, not Landmark or Alamo; they’re the backbones of the indie business, and capitalize on their consumer bases and eventize their marquees. Rather, the major chains and even smaller indie chains are to knock. While big exhibition emails out news to their club members, one classic label exec criticizes that those emails “look like a messy supermarket circular”. Another complaint is that few exhibitors mine their point of sale systems and cross-reference it with their email lists to promote indie fare to their moviegoers (i.e. if you enjoyed Mia Wasikowska in Alice in Wonderland, maybe you’ll enjoy her in her indie film Damsel). And the pre-show which includes advertisements for TV programs? “It’s like you’re telling moviegoers ‘Stay at home; don’t go to the movies!'” screams the same indie pic studio suit.

Suspiria
Amazon Studios

Another reason for the slowdown in indie fare goes back to the age-old excuse of product, and there were some somber movies this year (Boy Erased, Beautiful Boy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) that could have kept moviegoers at home. But also indie films live or die on great reviews (top critics on Rotten Tomatoes thumbed down Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria at 45% Rotten and despite a great opening screen average of $92K, died with $2.3M stateside).

“I’m not scared right now and I believe in the theatrical business and the basic principles why theaters were formed initially and that still holds,” says League, “The industry has faced other challenges in the past, and this is no different from VHS, cable and TV. We all weathered it. The independent space will always create great content.”

“In the next year, I’m building eight theaters to mainly show our support of independent cinema,” says League, “I’m either really stupid, or I think we’re fine.”