The State Of Independent Film Distribution

Over the last 5 years there has been a drastic shift in the way people are consuming movies.    No longer are distributors guaranteed the uplift in revenue generated from a DVD release after a theatrical run.  Wide theatrical releases are becoming extremely rare for strong independent film.   Unfortunately without guaranteed revenue beyond a theatrical life it makes very little economical sense to have big P&A commitments with no certainty that this initial outlay will be recouped.  

As a result, filmmakers need to find new innovative ways to reach audiences starved of strong creative storytelling.    To do this we should look at the way in which the US market has adapted to these new realities.   Rather than shun the digital space with knee-jerk skepticism and scaremongering about piracy and monetization, independent filmmakers and distributors have embraced a new model where digital and theatrical exist to complement the other.   We are now seeing films opening in cinemas albeit on a limited basis, on the same day as an iTunes or VOD release.   Rather than cannibalize the cinema market, the digital space has had no adverse negative economical effect on exhibitors.   In fact with a day and date VoD release, you are able to reach far wider audiences than you would ordinarily.    Furthermore recent studies are starting to show that OTT revenues in the US are near to matching theatrical (

 In the US we are now even seeing examples where digital releases for independent film can provide the strong word of mouth support through social media, the kind of which is required to manufacture the next cult classic.  We are even witnessing cases where strong digital performance leads to and supports a wider theatrical platform.  Filmmakers understandably want their films screened in cinemas and the digital home entertainment space can now lay claim to supporting a cinema run.   The model has in fact reversed…where cinema used to provide the marketing push for DVD…digital can now drive theatrical.    

Moving back to the UK, last year 698 films (up from 647 in 2012 and 558 in 2011) were released in cinemas in some form, however UK cinema admissions have remained relatively static over the past decade, which means the movies have on average taken a smaller share of a same size pot. Inevitably they receive shorter play (or only one-off screenings, not even a full week) and reach only a very small section of the public.  Without the strong marketing support from exhibitors and distributors these movies (the vast majority of which being independent film) are in and out of the door before you even get the chance to read the first reviews.   Yet, with a digital release on the same day you are able to watch potentially great filmmaking talent on your own schedule.  VOD offers audiences’ increased accessibility to films they may never have an opportunity to see.    VOD  is not geographically discriminatory, serving all film fans wherever they are in the country regardless of proximity to big cities and the independent cinemas more inclined to programme independent films.  

Between 2003 and 2011 1,546 independent British films were shot and within 2 years of principal photography only 25% had seen a theatrical release in UK/Ireland. It is particularly difficult for a film budgeted under £1M to get a release. These make up the majority of productions (973 of those 1,546) but only 11.6% got a theatrical release. This doesn't necessarily mean they might not be of a high production standard or have attracted a recognisable name to the cast, which can be exploited in a VOD market or via subscription channels like Sky, who are constantly looking for a variety of content and who regularly promote new talent.

Given the fickle nature of the film industry and the changing tastes of audiences, theatrical success is never guaranteed.   But with a digital platform, filmmakers can be comforted by the knowledge that their creative labours and pursuits will  be rewarded with an online audience that has a reach potentially far wider and greater than that which any cinema release provides.