The Fourth of July weekend is typically gut-check time for the movie industry, as it unleashes some of its biggest-ticket blockbusters to catapult the summer box office into the black. As Hollywood rolled out the vampires and airbenders this past weekend, you’d be hard-pressed to hear much chatter about what’s happening at the arthouse theaters (though it may be worth your while to check out Tilda Swinton in I Am Love, or catch up on some small, good films that have hung though for the past several weeks: Restrepo, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Winter’s Bone, Dogtooth, Please Give…). If you’ll believe critical reviews or Rotten Tomatoes ratings, there seems to be no shortage of good, substantive cinema in release (however limited); and yet it stands that you don’t hear much about these films.
The public radio show The World recently pondered the current invisibility of speciality cinema, drawing a sharp contrast to the perceived desert of the present to the days when Miramax could reap tens of millions of dollars – and a good chunk of mindshare – for films like Amelie or Life Is Beautiful. It takes a rueful look at present day circumstances, citing boutique distributors like Kino Lorber and IFC Films and their struggles to break any given title into seven figures.
It’s not quite fair to compare Miramax, a former top-tier specialty player (eventually bought by Disney) with more modest operations like Kino and IFC: studio-affiliated outfits like Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight and Focus Features (part of Universal) are more relevant. And they’ve done okay for themselves – Fox Searchlight’s Slumdog Millionaire made more money and won more Oscars than any Miramax foreign film ever did. As far as how foreign and specialty films have done so far this year, IndieWire has the lowdown: their mid-year report indicates that specialty box office seems to be up from the same period last year, with about 30% more films breaking $1 million. The biggest foreign film: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, earning an impressive $8.6 million. So it would seem the specialty theatrical market is doing well for itself, thank you very much.
But the thing is that as far as measuring the fiscal health of the specialty film market, theatrical has long been somewhat of a red herring. The real money has been in home video, especially during the boom period of DVD rental and sales. And as anyone who visits this site knows, DVD is headed the way of the vinyl collectibles shop, as on-demand downloads and online streaming are becoming the new norm. And yet, as even the guys at YouTube will tell you, making money from this sea change in cultural consumption is a work-in-progress, to put it mildly. The World piece has a great nugget of anxiety from Sony Classics’ Michael Barker:
“The real issue isn’t theatrical… the issue is where do we replace the revenues we received from home entertainment that are not there anymore? And I’m not sure how. We’re all hoping that maybe it’s around the corner… But it’s like that line from [Gregory La Cava’s film] My Man Godfrey, when Godfrey says that ‘prosperity is just around the corner.’ And the hobo says, ‘well, it’s been there a long time.’”
One thing for certain is that standing still will get you nowhere. The World profiles IFC entertainment’s forward-looking (if still modestly successful) strategy of simultaneous theatrical and on-demand cable release as a way of maximizing audience share within a narrow period of publicity. But the new normal – both for viewing and for distributing movies – is still very much over the horizon. At least the IndieWire report can give us some assurance that there is and will continue to be a healthy space for foreign films among American audiences – even if the healthy space for the companies distributing them is being redrawn.