Navigation – Plan du site
Tribulations numériques du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel à l’amorce du 21e siècle

Reclaiming Independence: American Independent Cinema Distribution and Exhibition Practices beyond Indiewood

Yannis Tzioumakis

Résumés

En 2008, le secteur du film indépendant américain a connu pas moins de trois fermetures de “specialty film divisions” par leur compagnie mère, alors que deux ans plus tard la puissante Miramax était vendue par Disney. Cette consolidation a créé un secteur aujourd’hui contrôlé par une poignée de filiales de majors et quelques compagnies diversifiées isolées. Ces compagnies investissent de façon croissante dans des films indépendants comme Juno (2007) et Sideways (2006) dont les résultats commerciaux sont presque comparables à ceux des films des grands studios, provoquant en retour des réactions vives de critiques s’interrogeant sur leur statut même d’indépendants.
Alors que la production “indie” semble converger vers les productions des majors (et leurs pratiques marketing), la partie « basse » du spectre des indépendants a vu se développer des modèles qui passent outre la distribution traditionnelle en salles. Ces modèles visent à établir un lien direct avec le spectateur qui consomme des films à domicile et sont caractérisés par des pratiques telles que la vente de DVD sur les propres sites internet des réalisateurs ainsi qu’une utilisation innovante et extensive des réseaux sociaux. Le faible coût de ces pratiques permet à certains de ces films d’atteindre une rentabilité permettant aux auteurs de poursuivre leur œuvre sans compromis. Cet article montre que, en dépit de l’institutionnalisation croissante du secteur indépendant et la cooptation du secteur « indie » par les conglomérats hollywoodiens au cours de ces dernières années, l’introduction de nouveaux modèles économiques dans une partie du secteur indépendant a permis à ces compagnies de se régénérer et de continuer à proposer une voie alternative à la production hollywoodienne.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

The Dominance of Indiewood

1In 2008, and as the global economic crisis had started making its presence felt in major western markets, the most recent incarnation of US independent cinema, “indiewood,” also started experiencing its own major crisis. Within the space of a few months Time Warner shut down its Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures divisions while also announcing New Line Cinema’s absorption by sister company Warner Bros. – the latter a surprising move, especially after the global success of Sex and the City: The Movie (Michael Patrick King), which was released by New Line Cinema in May of the same year. This was followed by Disney and its drastic downsizing of Miramax Films after the departure of the Bob and Harvey Weinstein and the failure of the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez double bill experiment Grindhouse (2007). Then in the early weeks of 2009, Paramount announced that its Paramount Vantage division would cease to exist as an autonomous subsidiary with its own distribution apparatus and would instead be absorbed by the major (in a similar way Warner Bros. had absorbed New Line Cinema).

2These four studio specialty film divisions had been responsible for the finance, production and/or distribution of some of the most well known “indie” films of the past twenty or so years, including Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989); Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) and Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith, 1997), all for Miramax, while some of the titles associated with the other specialty labels included: Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004), Good Night and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005) and A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006), all for Warner Independent; Factotum (Michael Hammer, 2005) and A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006), for Picturehouse; The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999), An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2005) and There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) for Paramount Vantage (formerly Paramount Classics).

  • 1 By 2009 only Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features and Fox Searchlight had remained intact with Mi (...)
  • 2 See, for instance, Geoff King, Indiewood USA…where Hollywood Meets Independent Cinema (London : I.B (...)
  • 3 Peter Biskind Down and Dirty Pictures : Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film (London  (...)

3The reasons behind the demise of almost half of the existing specialty film labels of the Hollywood majors were several.1 First, since the mid-/late 1990s contemporary US independent cinema had entered a distinct phase in its history, which has been labelled by industry analysts and academics alike as “indiewood.”2 This period was marked by specific events, including market leader Miramax’s gradual shift from “uncommercial films that [were] not amenable to big money studio marketing strategies,”3 to bigger budget productions that sometimes competed against the expensive productions of the major studios for a substantial share of the theatrical box office, not only in the US but also abroad. Indeed, films such as Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997), Shakespeare in Love (Guy Madden, 1998), Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2003), Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002), The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2005), all distributed by Miramax; Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), distributed by Focus Features; Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2007), distributed by Fox Searchlight but also other films from the so called independent sector, such as Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000), which was financed and distributed by USA Films – all recorded theatrical box office figures of over $ 100 million in the global market, often beating more commercial and expensive fare financed and distributed by the Hollywood majors.

  • 4 Yannis Tzioumakis The Spanish Prisoner (Endinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 22-27.
  • 5 Claude Brodesser, ‘Fox : A Brighter Searchlight’, Variety, 7 April 2003, 55 ; David Rooney, ‘Niche (...)

4Arguably more importantly, however, that period was characterised by the introduction in and domination of the independent film market by what I have described elsewhere as “the third wave of classics divisions:”4 Fox Searchlight started trading in the independent film market in the end of 1995; Paramount Classics was established in 1998, with Screen Gems and United Artists Films following immediately in early 1999 and Focus Features and Warner Independent Pictures formed in the early 2000s. Unlike earlier examples of such studio subsidiaries as United Artists Classics in the early 1980s or Sony Pictures Classics in the early 1990s, these new specialty film divisions were established with the intention of not only distributing independently produced films that they would acquire in key festivals such as Sundance, Toronto or Telluride; but also of financing and producing “independent” films with budgets that were provided by their conglomerate parents and often reached $ 15-$ 30 million mark (for companies such as Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, respectively), and with the participation of an increasing number of established Hollywood stars.5

  • 6 James Schamus, ‘A Rant’ in The End of Cinema As We Know It : American Film in the Nineties, ed. Joh (...)
  • 7 Ibid.

5The one element that underlined and underwrote all this activity was what James Schamus, has termed as “the successful integration of the independent film movement into the structures of global media and finance.”6 As Schamus, currently Chief Executive Officer for Focus Features, explained, at the end of the 20th century independent films “had succeeded overwhelmingly in entering the mainstream system of commercial exploitation and finance, as [at the end of the century] the economics required to make oneself heard even as an ‘independent’ [were] essentially studio economics. In this so-called independent arena,” Schamus continued, “even the ‘little guys’ need big capital if they are to survive in any economically viable form.”7 Given that companies like Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage, Focus Features, Warner Independent Pictures, and the rest of the studio divisions were by definition integrated into the structures of global media and finance as they were subsidiaries or divisions of global entertainment conglomerates, it is clear that they were fully equipped to play this new “independent film game”. Perhaps more importantly, they were equipped to play the game in ways that were more profitable for them than for the traditional independent distributor, whose integration levels into global finance are normally minimal.

  • 8 Alisa Perren ‘Sex, Lies and Marketing : Miramax and the Development of the Quality Indie Blockbuste (...)
  • 9 Thomas Schatz, ‘New Hollywood, New Millennium’ in Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies, ed (...)

6Not surprisingly, these trends eventually transformed contemporary independent cinema into a mirror image of Hollywood, especially in terms of the way in which a small number of films – the ones that Alisa Perren has called “quality indie blockbusters,”8 – could generate a level of revenue that was sufficient to offset losses that a specialty division might incur from the rest of its releases. Besides the $ 100 million hits mentioned above, one should also add Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2 (Quentin Tarantino 2003, 2004), Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004), Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007), No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007), Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008), Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009), and several others. Like the Hollywood majors’ blockbuster films, these titles have become breakaway hits in the independent sector often generating revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars and/or sweeping the Oscars and bringing ample prestige to the studio divisions. On the other hand, however, and just like the situation in conglomerated Hollywood, all the above successful indiewood films are very much the exception to a rule that sees the vast majority of films coming from the independent sector failing to find an audience, and in most cases recording major losses. As Thomas Schatz demonstrated in his essay “New Hollywood, New Millennium,” in 2007 approximately 115 out of 130 distributors of specialty or niche film, failed to generate any significant business at the theatrical box office.9

7As it turned out, 2007 was another watershed year for American independent cinema, only this time the key issue was the viability of the third wave of the specialty film divisions. While on the one hand, companies like Miramax, Paramount Vantage and Fox Searchlight were enjoying great critical and commercial success with No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood and Juno and were scooping most of the major Academy awards in February 2008, at the same time their parent companies were actively questioning their position in the general film market and their seeming evolution into studio-like organisations. If the Oscar winning No Country for Old Men played in over 1,300 theatres and with 2000 prints on its way to $ 75 million at the US theatrical box office, why would Paramount need a separate division to handle the film in the theatrical market? Why not distribute it itself?

8The closure of the Warner and Paramount specialty film subsidiaries and the demise of the once mighty Miramax have left a consolidated independent sector with fewer and better established companies: the remaining studio divisions; large independent production and distribution companies such as Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment, which resemble more the mini-major model that was established by companies like Orion Pictures in the 1980s, and trade often in genre-driven commercial titles such as the Twilight franchise (various directors, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011) for Summit and The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, 2010) for Lionsgate; and newer companies such as The Weinstein Company and Overture Films, that have access to finance to establish themselves in the market, as The Weinstein Company’s commercially successful releases of Inglourious Basterds and The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) clearly suggests. These companies compete for approximately 20% of the overall theatrical film market in the United States, which means that there are substantial profits to be made. More specifically, with the US theatrical film market valued at about $ 10 billion per annum, it means that approximately $ 2 billion is up for grabs for the “independents.” Tables 1 and 2 show the market share for both the Big 6 majors and the key independent and specialty film divisions, respectively, for 2009.

Table 1: Market share of the Hollywood majors in 200910

Distributor

No of Films

Market share

Rank in terms of market share

Warner Bros.

36

20.04 %

1

Fox

22

13.73 %

2

Paramount

16

13.72 %

3

Sony

23

13.61 %

4

Disney

23

11.33 %

5

Universal

21

8.44

6

TOTAL

141

80.87 %

  • 11 Ibid.

Table 2: Market share of the Top 9 “independent” or specialty labels for 200911

Division

No of Films

Market share

Rank in terms of market share

Summit

11

4.51 %

7

Lionsgate

12

3.78 %

8

Fox Searchlight

11

2.31 %

9

Weinstein Company

9

1.64 %

10

Focus Features

10

1.41 %

11

Overture Films

8

1.48 %

12

Miramax

8

0.51 %

13

Paramount Vantage

5

0.63

14

Sony Pictures Classics

26

0.46 %

15

TOTAL

100

16.73 %

  • 12 According to The Numbers, there were 135 distributors who released films theatrically in the US in (...)

9As the figures suggest, the Top 15 companies (the six Hollywood majors and the nine biggest studio divisions and independent film labels) controlled no less than 97.6% of the US theatrical film market in 2009, leaving a meagre 2.4% for the 300 plus films that were distributed theatrically by the remaining 115 or so active distributors in the US film market.12 As is obvious, the key specialty film labels – which are the main producers and distributors of indiewood films – command a respectable percentage of the theatrical film market, with individual divisions bound to increase their share of that market following the exit of Warner Independent, Picturehouse and Paramount Vantage from the production and distribution circuit. On the other hand, the “truly” independent pictures – the over 300 ones that have been financed, produced and distributed by companies without any corporate ties to the majors – generated very little business and have therefore remained firmly in the shadow of indiewood, which is still the dominant discourse in contemporary US independent cinema.

Away from the Theatres

  • 13 Indeed, studies of American independent cinema (but also of Hollywood cinema) have rarely looked at (...)
  • 14 Phil Drake, ‘Distribution and Marketing in Contemporary Hollywood’ in The Contemporary Hollywood Fi (...)

10Although this picture is certainly clear, it nonetheless does not reveal the whole story. In privileging discussions of the place of independent film within the context of the US theatrical market, studies of US independent cinema have ignored persistently an increasingly vibrant presence of independent film in other markets,13 which are often referred to as “ancillary,” even if in recent years some of them have started generating more revenue for films than the theatrical exhibition market.14 As the rest of this essay will demonstrate, contemporary US independent film does not stop with a theatrical exhibition determined indiewood; instead, it continues to represent a multitude of voices and approaches to filmmaking, which nonetheless tend to be consumed primarily in the home (video, cable, on demand and download) and, more recently, “on the move” (on demand and download). In this new environment, a theatrical release is not deemed anymore essential in terms of anchoring a film’s launch in other distribution windows. In other words, a significant number of US independent films largely avoid the distribution model that characterises indiewood (and Hollywood) films and which revolves around the release of films in different windows at specific times (starting from theatres and moving to video/DVD to video on demand/pay per view to cable and satellite to network television to syndicated television). Instead, these independents embrace emerging distribution and business models that are designed to exploit digital technology and the radically changing media landscape of the early 21st century. As a result, increasingly, independent filmmakers often consciously choose to eschew theatrical distribution (and the extensive advertising and marketing costs that are attached to it) and opt instead to focus on selling their films directly to cable and satellite broadcasters, release it straight on DVD, as well as making them accessible through recently established distribution outlets such as the social network site YouTube.

  • 15 Peter Broderick, ‘Welcome to the New World of Distribution, Part 1,’ Indiewire, online, at http://w (...)

11This trend has been captured succinctly in the phrase “the New World of Distribution,” which was coined by distribution consultant Peter Broderick in 2008 and was discussed in some detail in a polemic article that was published on Indiewire in September 2008 in two parts: “Welcome to the New World of Distribution Part 1 and Part 2.15 The article’s “pro-revolution” rhetoric and its strong criticism of the Hollywood and indiewood distribution models are evident right from the start, which is worth quoting in some length:

12Welcome to the New World of Distribution. Many filmmakers are emigrating from the Old World, where they have little chance of succeeding. They are attracted by unprecedented opportunities and the freedom to shape their own destiny. Life in the New World requires them to work harder, be more tenacious, and take more risks. There are daunting challenges and no guarantees of success. But this hasn’t stopped more and more intrepid filmmakers from exploring uncharted territory and staking claims.

  • 16 Broderick, ‘Welcome Part 1’.

13Before the discovery of the New World, the Old World of Distribution reigned supreme. It is a hierarchical realm where filmmakers must petition the powers that be to grant them distribution. Independents who are able to make overall deals are required to give distributors total control of the marketing and distribution of their films. The terms of these deals have gotten worse and few filmmakers end up satisfied.16

14As is perhaps evident by the use of the adjective “new” the New World of Distribution, is a novel self-distribution model (in the sense that the filmmaker supervises the various distribution processes rather than physically self-distributing a film) that utilises Web 2.0 tools and depends increasingly on social network media. As well-known New York Times film critic and strong advocate of American independent cinema, Manohla Dargis, put it:

  • 17 Manohla Dargis, ‘Declaration of Indies : Just Sell It Yourself !’ New York Times, 14 January 2010, (...)

The Old World has ticket buyers. The New World has ticket buyers who are also Facebook friends. The Old World has commercials, newspapers ads and the mass audience. The New World has social media, YouTube, iTunes and niche audiences.17

  • 18 Broderick, ‘Welcome Part 2’.

15More specifically, it is an approach to distribution that allows the filmmaker to split the rights of a film and sell them piece by piece to companies or organisations that specialise in a particular market segment (pay cable, DVD, digital download, foreign television, etc.). Under this approach, no market is more important than another, and there is no waiting period in terms of a film’s circulation among markets. In this respect, theatrical distribution becomes just one of the options available to filmmakers and is opted for only if it makes marketing or financial sense for the filmmaker. Furthermore, and despite selling some of the film’s rights to third parties, filmmakers also retain for themselves the right to carry out direct sales of their films from their own websites. Despite a potential conflict of interest between the party who bought the rights and the filmmaker (as they both sell the same product and in effect compete against each other), Broderick argues that the two are not mutually exclusive. Instead, the idea of the conflict of interest, he argues, is a construct of the Old World of Distribution in which distributors operate in a “zero sum framework,”18 which means that they refuse to trade in a market in which a different provider can supply the same product in the same distribution window. However, this need not be the case as, according to Broderick two providers can co-exist in a mutually benefiting relationship and support each other.

  • 19 Chuck Kleinhans, ‘Independent Features : Hopes and Dreams’ in The New American Cinema, ed. Jon Lewi (...)

16Broderick provides a table that distinguishes the New World from the Old World of Distribution in a series of binary opposites. Following a long tradition which has seen independent filmmaking always being defined “relationally,”19 especially in contrast to Hollywood cinema, New World Distribution is also best understood in contrast to the main features of Old World Distribution.

  • 20 Broderick ‘Welcome Part 1’.

Table 3: Old vs New World of Distribution20

Old World Distribution

New World Distribution

Distributor in Control

Filmmaker in Control

Overall Deal

Hybrid Approach

Fixed Release Plans

Flexible Release Strategies

Mass Audience

Core and Crossover Audiences

Rising Costs

Lower Costs

Viewers Reached thru Distributor

Direct Access to Viewers

Third Party Sales

Direct and Third Party Sales

Territory by Territory Distribution

Global Distribution

Cross-Collateralized Revenues

Separate Revenue Streams

Anonymous Consumers

True Fans

  • 21 Broderick, ‘Welcome Part 1'.

17Although, arguably, the Old World Distribution model is presented as much more monolithic than it really is (companies like Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight and IFC Films have often been celebrated for reaching core audiences with films like Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004), The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2005) and My Big Fat Greek Wedding (Joel Zwick, 2002) and for adopting flexible release strategies – something that Broderick also acknowledges in his article),21 it is perhaps the relationship between filmmaker and audiences (“direct access to viewers” and “true fans”) and the combination of “direct and third party sales” that make this distribution approach a hybrid one, with clear points of departure from the old model. At the core of this hybridity are the social network media that emerged in the 2000s and which have helped facilitate a number of features associated with the New World of Distribution.

  • 22 Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture : Where Old and New Media Collide, New York : New York Universit (...)

18If there is one huge benefit that social network media have provided to independent film, this is the ability for audiences to link with films and their filmmakers directly. Whether being “friends” with either of them on Facebook or “following” them on Twitter, social media have given independent filmmakers both a clientele, which they can target directly with their films, and a fanbase, which has the potential to promote their work virally. This is because, as Henry Jenkins has argued, audiences “will go almost anywhere in terms of the entertainment experiences they want,”22 which in this case means that social media enable interested audiences to locate the hubs of independent film production and support it in numerous ways. This type of relationship between filmmaker and audiences becomes a licence for the former to contact audiences directly, whether this is to sell their films on DVD, or to alert them about screenings of their films in particular geographical locations or on cable and public service television channels. Furthermore, on many occasions, fans become small contributors towards the filmmakers’ new productions, therefore encouraging filmmakers to continue working firmly away from the entertainment conglomerates and their divisions.

19One of the earliest examples of the New World of Distribution (before the term was even coined) was the case of mumblecore film, Four Eyed Monsters (Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, 2005). Shot on a shoestring budget that was limited to just a few thousand dollars, the filmmakers were aware from the beginning that theatrical distribution would be extremely difficult to secure. In this respect, they designed a distribution strategy, which involved heavy use of social media, at a time when only MySpace and YouTube had established themselves in the market. The main features of the strategy included :

  • alerting potential audiences through a series of video podcasts that documented the making of the film. The podcasts were prepared in 2005 at the same time that the video iPod was announced.

  • uploading the podcasts on YouTube which was just taking off at the time, and promoting them in My Space, which was at the time the leading social network medium in the market.

  • uploading the actual film for free on YouTube and MySpace, where it attracted over one million hits by network media users.

  • generating some income through shared ad revenues.

  • Due to the popularity of the film on social media, succeeding in attracting an established theatrical, video and cable distributor, the Independent Film Channel (IFC), who bought the film’s rights for domestic television and home video distribution. 

  • putting forward a "request" campaign for a theatrical release (popularized in 2009 by Paranormal Activity [Michael Pely]), which proved successful as the film received playdates in 30 US cities.

  • Making available on DVD, both of which can be purchased from the filmmakers’ website.23

20The result of this strategy has made Four Eyed Monsters a commercially successful enterprise for its filmmakers. And yet, if one examined only its theatrical box office figures in the US market that are publicly available, they would discover that the film made a paltry $ 13,523 and therefore question its profitability.24

A Brave New World

21Broderick was arguably correct to underscore the importance of this “hybrid” approach to distribution in the contemporary media landscape, an approach that even the Old World Distributors have now started taking into consideration. Speaking at the MIPCOM industry conference in Cannes in October 2010, Lionsgate Co-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jon Feltheimer highlighted the exact same principle when he said:

Today, most shows must make a business out of an audience that is far less broad but has far more passion; an audience that will not only watch the show when it premieres, but TiVo it, download it to iTunes, buy it on DVD and watch it on their cell phones. So we need to build new economic models that accommodate this new entertainment paradigm. And, this is where we start getting nervous.25

22Given the sums that are often at stake in indiewood cinema (with divisions such as Fox Searchlight and Focus Features already habitually handling $ 15 and $ 30 million budget films, respectively, by the mid-2000s) it is not surprising perhaps that these companies are getting nervous. In the world of the low budget independent film, however, where only a fraction of the films produced per annum will receive theatrical distribution, and the ones that will do will enter a marketplace where 10-12 new films on average are released every week,26 the New World Distribution approach might represent a more attractive option. This is especially the case as from the late 2000s onwards, many film festivals have also started branching out to commercial distribution, therefore providing an additional distribution outlet for the hordes of low budget independent films that are produced annually in the US.

23Once sites for showcasing films in order to increase their chances of attracting a (old world) distributor, in the late 2000s a number of leading film festivals such as the South by Southwest (SxSW), the Sundance Film Festival and the Slamdance film festival have teamed up with non theatrical distributors and social media and effectively have started becoming distributors themselves. Specifically, in 2009, the SxSW made a deal with The Independent Film Channel to screen five festival films in the latter’s video on demand service, including Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg, 2008), a film linked to the cycle of mumblecore films that were heavily associated with that particular festival.27 A year later, the Sundance Film Festival adopted the same practice, again with the IFC, when the latter agreed to distribute four Sundance titles on video on demand at the same time as the films played in the festival.28 Furthermore, the Sundance festival also moved to a deal with the video on demand service of YouTube to launch three of the titles admitted to the festival, even before these were screened as part of the festival’s competition programme.29 Finally, again in 2010, Slamdance made an agreement with Microsoft, which entailed the on demand availability of four of the films admitted to the festival on Mircosoft’s Xbox and Zune platforms.30

  • 31 More specifically, under ‘Film Festivals in the United States,’ Wikipedia cites 384 such events. ht (...)
  • 32 Hernandez, ‘The Future of Festivals ?’.

24The reasons behind this change in the role of the festivals are many. First, the sheer number of these events has created strong competition among them. With the United States alone being home to approximately 400 such events every year,31 a number of festivals have sought to find ways to stand out in order to continue attracting quality films and sponsorship from major corporations. Second, the rapid rise of social network media from the mid-2000s onwards and their use by independent filmmakers for promotion purposes and as distribution platforms (especially YouTube) made the above collaborations inevitable. This is especially as the number of independent films seeking distribution continued to expand, with a staggering 3,700 features submitted in Sundance alone in 2009.32 Finally, the post-2008 global financial crisis affected the economies of even the most established film festivals and forced them to seek collaborations with partners, including entertainment giants like Microsoft, YouTube and Google as well as key players in niche filmmaking such as IFC. These collaborations and partnerships have enabled independent filmmakers to gain some access to the resources and innovative business models of global media players, which in turn have made filmmakers savvier in terms of designing distribution strategies for micro-budgeted productions that cannot afford the commercial elements that characterise indiewood productions.

  • 33 Jesse McKinley, ‘They don’t Tell. Why Are You Asking’ New York Times, 2 February, 2000, http://www. (...)
  • 34 Anon, ‘Eisner Launches Studio to Launch Internet Videos’ in The Toronto Star, 13 May 2007, http://w (...)
  • 35 Karen McVeigh and Paul Harris ‘US Military Lifts ban on Openly Gay Troops’ in The Guardian, 20 Sept (...)

25One such recent example of a film that exploited the New World of Distribution to become available in a number of online platforms with the hope of opening up other distribution windows was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (John Walsh, 2011). The film was based on the Obie-winning play Another American: Asking and Telling, which was written and performed as a one man show by actor-playwright Marc Wolf and had premiered in December 1999 on Broadway.33 Its adaptation as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (which takes its title from the controversial US policy that prohibited openly gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people from serving in the US military forces) maintained the format of the play. This consisted of 18 interviews with gay men and women about their experiences in the US military, with all interviewees played by Wolf, who performed all the roles in the film version too. The film was produced in January 2011 by Vuguru, a production and distribution company financed by former Disney chairman Michael Eisner in 2007, with a view to “produce and distribute videos for the Internet, portable media devices and cellphones,”34 and Brooklyn-based independent production company Decoupage Productions. Vuguru’s network of partners brought the film to the attention of a number of potential distributors in a variety of platforms, while the film also benefited from the publicity surrounding the decision of the Obama administration to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which was ratified on 20 September 2011.35

  • 36 Dana Harris ‘SnagFilms Acquires Online Rights to "Don't Ask Don't Tell," Times Release to Policy Re (...)
  • 37 Britt Bensen ‘Slacker, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and Goldman Sachs : SnagFilms Isn’t just Docs Any More (...)
  • 38 See the Vuguru website, http://vuguru.com/projects/dont-ask-dont-tell Accessed on 26 November 2011.
  • 39 Shelby Hill ‘Don’t’ Ask, don’t Tell Sets Release : First Chapter Online Today’ in Variety On Line, (...)

26Indeed, on 12 September 2011, major online nonfiction film distributor SnagFilms bought the film’s ‘online rights.’36 With the distributor boasting a distribution network of more than 110,000 websites and partnerships with major entertainment conglomerates’ film streaming services, including: Comcast’s Xfinity, Verizon’s FiOS, Hollywood studios and US television networks’ joint on demand subscription streaming service Hulu Plus, iTunes, YouTube Movies and Amazon; agreements with mobile platforms, including: Apple’s iOS, Android and Blackberry; and content delivery platforms such as Wal-Mart’s Vudu and Microsoft’s Xbox Live,37 it is clear that the film was guaranteed a presence in most of the leading, on demand, providers’ list of titles. This meant that potential audiences could locate Don’t Ask, don’t Tell on line, irrespective of which film streaming services they were subscribing to. Furthermore, the distributor decided to release the film in certain platforms in chapters, with the release of the first chapter coinciding with the 20th September repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and with other chapters released shortly after, while also making the film available as a whole through other platforms, such as Amazon Instant Video.38 According to Variety, there were also “other partners” lined up to make the film available as an “electronic sell-through” later in the distribution process.39

Conclusion

  • 40 Bensen ‘Slacker’.
  • 41 Brian Brooks ‘Sundance Institute Teams with Kickstarter in Three-Year Deal’, Indiewire, 27 January (...)

27Although Don’t Ask, don’t Tell is perhaps not the average low-budget independent film, given the fact that one of its production companies (Vuguru) was a well-capitalised, pioneering multi-platform studio with a number of partners both in the US and internationally, it nevertheless demonstrates some of the many avenues available to films outside the theatrical exhibition circuit and with their filmmakers and producers being able to retain some control in the distribution process and still own the film’s rights for other markets in case the film proves a commercial success. With production and distribution companies utilising social network media in increasingly sophisticated ways in order to enhance visibility of and locate the core audience for their titles, an increasing number of films has the opportunity to find commercial success in “ancillary markets” without having to resort to a theatrical release. Indeed, the name SnagFilms, the distributor for Don’t Ask, don’t Tell, derives from the ways in which the company encourages the audience of its films to support and promote them through their personal blogs and individual pages in social network media.40 On the other hand, social network media such as Facebook have jumped on the independent American cinema bandwagon through a partnership with organisations such as the Sundance Institute to offer filmmakers training “on free tools and apps for social engagement, education in the types of pages and profiles they can utilize and insight into Facebook’s advertising opportunities.”41

28All these very recent developments clearly suggest that American independent cinema is at the dawn of a new era. Despite the current dominance of indiewood and its Hollywood-derived distribution model which depends on a film’s theatrical release before this becomes available in ancillary distribution windows, the rapid rise of social network media, the relentless evolution of digital technology and the increasing manifestations of convergence in global entertainment have all helped create distribution opportunities for low budget independent filmmakers that were simply not available, even as recently as in the mid 2000s. This suggests that an increasing number of American independent films already are (and will be more so in the future) in a position to recoup their budget costs and perhaps even reach profitability, despite the absence of wide exposure that a theatrical release provides. In this new environment, and as filmmakers become increasingly savvy in orchestrating the distribution of their films, low budget independent film has the potential to reach audiences to an extent that it was never able to throughout the history of the American independent film sector. In this respect and in the near future the small number of indiewood titles supplied annually by the studio specialty divisions and the large standalone distributors would have to meet in “ancillary markets” fierce competition from low budget films, whose producers and filmmakers treat these markets as “primary” and know how to “work” them best for their own advantage. Irrespective of who is going to win, American independent cinema has found itself in a position where films from across its spectrum can be accessible to a paying audience, whether members of this audience pay for them “on demand” or access them through a variety of subscription models.

Haut de page

Notes

1 By 2009 only Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features and Fox Searchlight had remained intact with Miramax eventually sold to a consortium of investors in 2010.

2 See, for instance, Geoff King, Indiewood USA…where Hollywood Meets Independent Cinema (London : I.B. Tauris, 2009).

3 Peter Biskind Down and Dirty Pictures : Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film (London : Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005), p. 195.

4 Yannis Tzioumakis The Spanish Prisoner (Endinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 22-27.

5 Claude Brodesser, ‘Fox : A Brighter Searchlight’, Variety, 7 April 2003, 55 ; David Rooney, ‘Niche Biz Comes into Focus : U Specialty Label Marries Taste with Overseas Savvy’ Variety, 2 August 2004, p. 8, 15.

6 James Schamus, ‘A Rant’ in The End of Cinema As We Know It : American Film in the Nineties, ed. John Lewis (London : Pluto Press, 2002), p. 254.

7 Ibid.

8 Alisa Perren ‘Sex, Lies and Marketing : Miramax and the Development of the Quality Indie Blockbuster’ Film Quarterly, 55 : 2 (Winter) p. 30-39.

9 Thomas Schatz, ‘New Hollywood, New Millennium’ in Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies, ed. Warren Buckland (London : Routledge, 2009), p. 27.

10 The figures for this table were taken from The Numbers, http://www.the-numbers.com/market/Distributors2009.php Accessed on 26 November 2011.

11 Ibid.

12 According to The Numbers, there were 135 distributors who released films theatrically in the US in 2009. This means that the 2.4 % of the theatrical market was shared among 120 distributors, which is very similar to the figures Schatz cited for 2007.

13 Indeed, studies of American independent cinema (but also of Hollywood cinema) have rarely looked at other markets primarily because it is difficult to obtain hard data.

14 Phil Drake, ‘Distribution and Marketing in Contemporary Hollywood’ in The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry, eds. Paul McDonald and Janet Wasko (Oxford : Blackwell, 2008), p. 76-77.

15 Peter Broderick, ‘Welcome to the New World of Distribution, Part 1,’ Indiewire, online, at http://www.indiewire.com/article/first_person_peter_broderick_welcome_to_the_new_world_of_distribution_part1 and Peter Broderick, ‘Welcome to the New World of Distribution, Part 2’ Indiewire, http://www.indiewire.com/article/first_person_peter_broderick_welcome_to_the_new_world_of_distribution_part2/ Both accessed on 6 February 2011.

16 Broderick, ‘Welcome Part 1’.

17 Manohla Dargis, ‘Declaration of Indies : Just Sell It Yourself !’ New York Times, 14 January 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/17/movies/17dargis.html Accessed on 6 February 2011.

18 Broderick, ‘Welcome Part 2’.

19 Chuck Kleinhans, ‘Independent Features : Hopes and Dreams’ in The New American Cinema, ed. Jon Lewis, (Durham : Duke University Press, 1998) : p. 308.

20 Broderick ‘Welcome Part 1’.

21 Broderick, ‘Welcome Part 1'.

22 Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture : Where Old and New Media Collide, New York : New York University Press, 2006), p. 2.

23 Broderick, ‘Welcome Part 1’. See also the website dedicated to the film, http://foureyedmonsters.com/1/ Accessed on 10 February 2011.

24 The figure was taken from The Numbers, http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2006/04EYM.php Accessed on 1 November 2011.

25 Jon Feltheimer, ‘Embrace New Economic Models’ Indiewire, 5 October 2010, http://www.indiewire.com/article/jon_feltheimer_embrace_new_economic_models/ Accessed on 6 February 2011.

26 According to the MPAA 555 films were released theatrically in the US in 2009. http://www.mpaa.org/Resources/93bbeb16-0e4d-4b7e-b085-3f41c459f9ac.pdf Accessed on 26 November 2011.

27 Eugene Hernandez, ‘The Future of Festivals ?’ Indiewire, 7 December 2009, http://www.indiewire.com/article/eugene_hernandez_the_future_of_festivals/ Accessed on 6 February 2011.

28 Eugene Hernadez, ‘The Doctor Is In,’ Indiewire, 11 January 2010, http://www.indiewire.com/article/eugene_hernandez_the_doctor_is_in/.Accessed on 6 February 2011.

29 Hernandez, Eugene ‘Five Sundance Films, 3 From This Year’s Fest, Coming to YouTube This Week’ Indiewire 20 January 2010, http://www.indiewire.com/article/five_sundance_films_3_from_this_years_fest_coming_to_youtube_tomorrow Accessed on 6 February 2011.

30 Peter Knegt, ‘Slamdance Pacts With Microsoft For VOD’ Indiewire, 21 January 2010, http://www.indiewire.com/article/slamdance_pacts_with_microsoft_for_vod/ Accessed on 6 February 2011.

31 More specifically, under ‘Film Festivals in the United States,’ Wikipedia cites 384 such events. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php ?title =Category :Film_festivals_in_the_United_States&pageuntil =Mammoth+Film+Festival#mw-pages Accessed on 26 November 2011.

32 Hernandez, ‘The Future of Festivals ?’.

33 Jesse McKinley, ‘They don’t Tell. Why Are You Asking’ New York Times, 2 February, 2000, http://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/01/theater/they-don-t-tell-why-are-you-asking.html ?src =pm Accessed on 25 November 2011.

34 Anon, ‘Eisner Launches Studio to Launch Internet Videos’ in The Toronto Star, 13 May 2007, http://www.thestar.com/Business/article/191059 Accessed on 25 November 2011.

35 Karen McVeigh and Paul Harris ‘US Military Lifts ban on Openly Gay Troops’ in The Guardian, 20 September 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/20/us-military-lifts-ban-gay-troops Accessed on 26 November 2011.

36 Dana Harris ‘SnagFilms Acquires Online Rights to "Don't Ask Don't Tell," Times Release to Policy Repeal” Indiewire, 13 September 2011, http://www.indiewire.com/article/snagfilms_acquires_online_rights_to_dont_ask_dont_tell_times_release_to_pol Accessed on 26 November 2011.

37 Britt Bensen ‘Slacker, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and Goldman Sachs : SnagFilms Isn’t just Docs Any More’, http://ondemandweekly.com/blog/article/slacker_dont_ask_dont_tell_and_goldman_sachs_snagfilms_isnt_just_docs_anymo/ Accessed on 26 November 2011.

38 See the Vuguru website, http://vuguru.com/projects/dont-ask-dont-tell Accessed on 26 November 2011.

39 Shelby Hill ‘Don’t’ Ask, don’t Tell Sets Release : First Chapter Online Today’ in Variety On Line, 12 September 2011, http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118042699 Accessed on 25 November 2011.

40 Bensen ‘Slacker’.

41 Brian Brooks ‘Sundance Institute Teams with Kickstarter in Three-Year Deal’, Indiewire, 27 January 2011, http://www.indiewire.com/article/sundance_institute_teams_with_kickstarter_in_three-year_deal Accessed on 26 November 2011.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Yannis Tzioumakis, « Reclaiming Independence: American Independent Cinema Distribution and Exhibition Practices beyond Indiewood », Mise au point [En ligne], 4 | 2012, mis en ligne le 26 juin 2012, consulté le 28 juin 2017. URL : http://map.revues.org/585 ; DOI : 10.4000/map.585

Haut de page

Auteur

Yannis Tzioumakis

Maître de conférences en Communication à l'Université de John Moores, Liverpool, Angleterre. Ses recherches portent sur le cinéma américain et l’industrie du divertissement audiovisuel. Il a publié trois ouvrages: American Independent Cinema: An Introduction (2006), The Spanish Prisoner (2009) et Hollywood’s Indies: Classics Divisions, Specialty Labels and the Independent Film Market (2012). Yannis Tzioumakis a co-dirigé Greek Cinema: Texts, Histories, Identities (2011), American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and beyond (2012) et The Time of Our Lives: Dirty Dancing and Popular Culture en cours d’écriture. Il codirige également la série American Indies pour Edinburgh University Press, dont cinq volumes ont été publiés depuis 2009.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la revue Mise au point sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page