How Scrappy Indie Distributor IFC Films Has Prospered for 20 Years by Reinventing Itself

Brent Lang

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When Ethan Hawke was promoting “Blaze,” his biopic about troubled singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, he went around Texas talking up the low-budget indie to country music fans. It was a grassroots effort, one that saw staffers at IFC, the studio behind the 2018 film, crisscross the state while ferrying the cast and crew in rental cars from one theater to another. 

“Of course, it would have been easier if we’d had $20 million to promote the film,” says Hawke. “But this somehow matched the spirit of ‘Blaze.’ IFC is hungry and scrappy, and they’re not pretentious. Those are the qualities you look for in a good indie film.” 

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Hawke acknowledges that when he signs up for an IFC release, he’s abandoning the creature comforts that come with a big studio movie. The private plane trips and ritzy hotel suites may be lacking, but IFC’s commitment to fostering  challenging and compelling auteur-driven cinema has kept him coming back for more. He’s collaborated on eight films with the New York-based distributor, including the Oscar-winning “Boyhood” and the upcoming “The Truth,” a French-Japanese drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda.  

“Without them the whole landscape of my work life would be different,” says Hawke.

Even as IFC continues to embrace that same scrappy spirit that first attracted the actor, the company has reached a venerable milestone. This year marks its 20th anniversary, an eternity in a business where indie labels have suffered a staggering mortality rate. In the two decades since IFC launched, major studios such as Paramount and Warner Bros. have shuttered their specialty film divisions, while distributors such as October Films, Broad Green and Open Road have all gone belly up.  

Lisa Schwartz, co-president of IFC Films, thinks that part of the reason the company has endured is that it’s been willing to reinvent itself alongside the industry. In 2006, IFC Films was the first indie distributor to debut movies on cable video-on-demand at the same time they hit theaters (something that has since become commonplace). And last year, the company dove into the streaming world, launching IFC Films Unlimited, its own subscription video-on-demand platform.  

“We stay nimble, and if something stops working, we stop doing it,” says Schwartz. “We respond to the market.” 

Right now, that market is making it harder for companies like IFC to compete for festival breakouts in places like Sundance and Cannes. The rise of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime is shaking up the way that movies are valued. These companies don’t rely on box office to make a profit, which means they can shell out millions of dollars for indie releases. At Sundance, Netflix spent nearly $10 million for the documentary “The 40-Year-Old Version,” Amazon plunked down $12 million for the road comedy “Uncle Frank” and Hulu partnered with Neon to buy the Andy Samberg rom-com “Palm Springs” for a record-setting $22 million. That’s made it challenging for bottom-line-oriented players such as IFC, which still needs to sell enough tickets to survive a notoriously low-margin business. Tellingly, IFC left Sundance without closing any deals, although it bought the Jude Law drama “The Nest” and the Emily Mortimer thriller “Relic” in March.  

“The Trip,” starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, and “Boyhood,” with Ellar Coltrane, are among the critically acclaimed films for which IFC has found audiences.
Courtesy of IFC Films

“There were a lot of films that we would be interested in, but not at that price,” says Arianna Bocco, executive vice president of acquisitions and production for IFC Films. “The streamers have a different business model. I don’t have insight into what their algorithms are. But there are a lot of times where I think something is a slam-dunk for us and then find myself going, ‘Oh no, Amazon is picking it up.’”  

Instead, IFC Films has decided to back more movies at the script stage, betting on filmmakers’ visions before they can sell their finished projects to the highest bidder on the festival circuit. The company currently backs between two and three of its movies before cameras start rolling, as it did with “The Truth.” The goal is to push that number to five to 10 annually. All told, IFC releases 30 to 35 films each year, some having a day-and-date component, others with a traditional theatrical rollout.  

“At festivals, things have gotten crazy,” says Schwartz. “So we’ve made a conscious decision to step back, take a beat and make sure we’re leaning into something in a responsible way.” 

Despite the business challenges, IFC Films has found audiences for idiosyncratic masterworks that might have been ignored or had their edges sanded off by mainstream distributors. Its list of credits reads like a history of the independent film movement of the early aughts. They include critical favorites such as “The Death of Stalin” and “45 Years,” foreign-language offerings like “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “Y Tu Mamá También,” and cult horror films including “The Human Centipede,” which made headlines with its novel blending of the gory and the scatological.  

“When ‘South Park’ parodied it, we knew we’d hit a nerve,” says Schwartz.  

IFC Films has also shown a willingness to get behind projects that might be too divisive for other distributors. In the past two years, it has bought the Lars von Trier serial killer drama “The House That Jack Built” and Václav Marhoul’s World War II drama “The Painted Bird.” Both films were unsparing in their on-screen brutality, prompting walkouts when they played at Cannes and Venice.  

“We’re not afraid to take risks,” says Bocco. “We look for films and filmmakers that have something to say, even if it’s something difficult or polarizing. Some of those movies may have walkouts, but that makes people want to see them and be part of a conversation, and then make a decision for themselves.” 

Not all of these movies have been big moneymakers. However, AMC Networks, the indie label’s corporate parent, believes that IFC plays an important role in enhancing its overall brand. Josh Sapan, the company’s CEO, notes that there’s a healthy amount of cross-pollination between the indie studio and the cable properties, such as AMC and Sundance TV. Such directors as Lynn Shelton (“Your Sister’s Sister”) and Shannon Murphy (“Babyteeth”) have made movies for IFC and overseen episodes of the company’s shows, including “Mad Men” and “Killing Eve.”  

“If they work with us on the film side, they see that we value creative work that is different and sets new grooves in the ground and that makes them want to work with us on the TV side as well,” says Sapan. “It’s all part of our underlying belief that fresh material will rise to the top regardless of that format.”

The studio also takes a bespoke approach to the movies it releases. It may not shower filmmakers with financial resources, but it compensates for that by offering them a seat at the table. Directors who have worked at IFC say they appreciate its collaborative spirit and the way it involves them in decisions about marketing materials and promotional activities.  

“I think directors come back to work with them again and again because they feel respected and valued and they know they’ll treat their cinematic baby with care and love and proper attention,” says Shelton, a director whose three IFC credits include “Sword of Trust.” “You don’t see your film pigeonholed into a box. It’s not pushed out into the world like a sausage made on a factory line.”  

The studio’s upcoming slate includes not only “The Truth,” which finds Japanese auteur Kore-eda (“Shoplifters”) directing his first film outside his native language, but also “How to Build a Girl,” a coming-of-age comedy with “Booksmart” breakout Beanie Feldstein. There’s also “The Trip to Greece,” the fourth installment in an unlikely franchise for IFC, one that finds comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon enjoying haute cuisine and exotic ports of call while trading dueling impressions of Michael Caine.  

“It’s definitely the last one,” says Michael Winterbottom, who has directed every installment of the series since it kicked off with 2010’s “The Trip.” “We close out the journey with this film.”  

On the distribution front, IFC hasn’t released financials for IFC Films Unlimited, but the company’s leadership says it has become a meaningful source of revenue during the first few months of 2020. There are plans to expand the company’s suite of streaming offerings, though those details are also being kept under wraps.  

“It will be a big focus for us,” says Schwartz. “I feel a responsibility to these filmmakers and these films to keep finding ways for their movies to be monetized.” 

At the same time, Schwartz and Bocco believe there remains an important role for theaters in the new distribution landscape. For one thing, a theatrical release and the attendant publicity that accompanies a debut on screens helps raise the profile of movies, they argue.  

“It’s evident that the theatrical experience is under threat, but I don’t think it’s in danger of extinction because theatergoing is a social experience, and as long as we have a communal society, it will continue to exist,” says Bocco.  

It’s also a business that IFC knows intimately — the company runs the IFC Center, an art-house cinema in the heart of Greenwich Village that has a devoted clientele of cinephiles.  

“Clearly we have a dog in this fight,” Schwartz says. 

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