As Sundance Kicks Off, the Specialty Film Biz Confronts an Uncertain Future

Gregg Goldstein
·10-min read

As the 2021 Sundance Film Festival kicks off, the survival of indepen­dent and specialty films in theaters has never been more uncertain. Even when theaters fully reopen after COVID-19 vaccines roll out and the pandemic ends, how can arthouse pics survive amidst competition from similar films with A-list stars bowing on stream­ers and majestic franchise fare?

“There’s going to be strain on the marketplace,” says Peter Kujawski, Focus Features chairman. “How many theaters are going to struggle to reopen? How many films will find a large enough audience to justify the initial theatrical release?”

Paul Serwitz, Landmark Theatres president and COO, puts it even more bluntly: “I really believe the theater industry is going to rebound completely, but smaller and midsized movies will take more of the brunt of the lon­ger-term impact, because they don’t provide that spectacle that drives the masses to theaters.”

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To find solutions to these challenges, we asked top distributors, exhibitors, producers and fest execs how the indus­try can keep indies going strong when audiences fully return to cinemas.

Given theater closures, it’s unclear how much time and space indies will have to grow audiences with platform releases — or even open. According to Exhibitor Relations, domestic box office from independent and specialty division films (including reissues) released in 1994 was $511.3 million from 142 films (a tenth of a total $5.15 billion). It jumped to $1.44 billion from 263 films in 2004 (16.4% of a total $8.76 billion). While grosses for these films released in 2018 — the most recent comparable period — rose to $2.38 billion (or 20% of a total $11.88 billion), the number of titles more than tripled to 862 films — and the average made per film dropped in half, from $5.46 million in 2004 to $2.76 million in 2018.

COVID-19’s impact also prompted theater chains’ grudging acceptance of shorter windows, most notably AMC Theatres’ pact with Universal (and its specialty arm Focus) on a 17-day break between theatrical and PVOD bows. But Focus’ Kujawski, whose Robin Wright-helmed drama “Land” is premiering at Sundance, sees this setting up the birth of a larger-scale theatrical/PVOD model — similar to limited day-and-date releases that IFC and Magnolia pioneered in the mid-aughts, but with slightly longer win­dows and much wider releases.

“Based on what we’ve been doing in this space, I don’t think we’re going to see too much cannibalization of the theatrical experience for any movie,” Kujawski says. “[But] we’re going to have to be smart about it — if we’re starting a release on fewer screens and growing over time, we’ll do our PVOD release a bit later. Maybe we’ll start a little bit wider on other movies, and then have the PVOD come sooner, and hopefully get uplift across how many people are getting a chance to see it.”

The concentrated marketing push of a theatrical release, adds Landmark’s Serwitz, is “still the engine that drives the train, and part of what will help the busi­ness rebound, including the indie side.”

Elizabeth Frank, AMC Theatres’ EVP of worldwide programming and chief content officer, estimates the U.S. theatri­cal industry could experience a 10%-15% contraction after the pandemic, and she’s more optimistic about indies than most.

“The market isn’t yet ready to support the widest-release blockbusters, but as the most passionate moviegoers come back to theaters first, specialty films have enough critical mass to really over-per­form,” she says.

While the largest US exhibition chain is facing an uncertain future—AMC has raised less than a third of the $750 million it needs to survive through 2021, and in a Dec. 11 SEC filing projected that its existing cash resources will be depleted this month—it’s staying devoted to indies. In June 2019, the company launched the AMC Artisan Films program to schedule and market them. “Even last year, which was extremely tough for us, we still opened 88 or so specialty films,” says SVP of content strategy and inclusive programming Nikkole Denson-Randolph. “While the tentpoles are the drivers, the indies are what keep people coming back.”

Frank’s solution to keep specialty fare thriving despite a reduced number of screens is using digital technology to tailor scheduling to fit demand — say, running a film three days a week for two months — and using excess capacity to book private theater rentals, where groups of typically six to 15 people rent an auditorium and choose films from a list AMC provides.

In preparing for a post-pandemic world, Landmark’s Serwitz says, “there are two things we’ve talked about most: a more robust, rewards-based loyalty program, and working with filmmakers, talent, critics and local film schools to help us beef up alternative and creative programming.”

Inspired by Kino Lorber, Bleecker Street and Alamo Drafthouse’s “vir­tual cinema” screening efforts, he adds, “we’ve also talked about the idea of dig­ital platforms: is there a way to tap into that to enhance our business?”

Jeff Sharp, a vet indie producer and exec director of the IFP ( just renamed the Gotham Film & Media Institute), has three films from his org’s filmmaker labs in this year’s fest (“Superior,” “Cusp” and “Ma Belle, My Beauty”).

“Film Independent screens their films all around L.A., which could be a model for us,” he says. “That’s something we’d really look to do once things come back: partner with local arthouse theaters and chains and find ways to co-program or support their programs.”

Perhaps no film exec is better quali­fied to brainstorm ideas for saving indie films than Ted Hope, the Good Machine and This Is That producer behind some 25 Sundance entries who penned the Hope for Film blog and book before joining Amazon Studios in 2015 as head of its development, production and acquisi­tions team. He was promoted to co-head of movies in 2018 before leaving the streamer last May with a multi-year first look feature film producing deal.

“There is a chance [theaters] could go out of business, and people could buy them as a distressed asset and take more chances” with them, says Hope, who exec produced the new papal doc “Francesco.” “Imagine if theaters were places you wanted to hang out at all day, like the Metrograph in New York. But picture that in a space that also had an outdoor amphitheater and art gallery, a great coffee shop and gastropub and a place that you’d have a romantic din­ner,” perhaps retrofitted onto an existing space, with bundled discounts for busi­nesses. “And how can I use my trip to accomplish more? Since there are many movie theaters in malls that have grocery stores attached to them, I [could] order my groceries and take them out of a cold storage locker when my movie ends. It has the added benefit of social distancing, keeping me out of the supermarket.”

Houston Cinema Arts Society artistic director Jessica Green is one of 20 pro­visional board members now working to re-form Art House Convergence, an association founded with Sundance in 2006 to support theaters. She says their recent meetings have focused on “a need to develop new audiences, new strategies of engagement and outreach, particu­larly [identifying] who the new critical and curatorial voices are — local, diverse and young voices on Patreon, Letterboxd, Twitter, TikTok —that can amplify films and exhibition houses.”

Film programming that involves inter­activity, virtual reality, crowdsourced content and cosplay (seen at pop-up drive-ins including Newark Moonlight Cinema, which screened “Black Panther” with staffers dressed as the film’s char­acters) can help draw crowds to arthouse theaters, expanding the definition of spe­cialty cinema and the traditional audi­ences it attracts.

“Maybe you’re doing engagement work around the development of artists and filmmakers in the community, doing work that garners funding and grants,” Green adds. She cites NYC’s Maysles Documentary Center, where she worked for a decade, and the Richard Linklater-founded Austin Film Society.

There are ways film fests can help indies in theaters beyond creating buzz or marketplaces for distribs. Film Festival Alliance exec director Lela Meadow-Conner notes that her org and Theatrical-at-Home introduced a series of Film Festival Days last year, where member fests partnered with filmmakers to screen films online and split the revenue.

“This collaboration model, be it with other film organizations, nonprofits or brands, is going to be the key to supporting smaller films that have a niche subject,” she says.

“We envision it being a great way for local arthouse cinemas to collaborate with their local film festival as a way to eventize in-person screenings and support film­makers,” she adds. It can help films get revenue without a distributor, and potentially show their appeal to distribs or other outlets.

But the role of film festivals in exhi­bition can get a bit tricky: one local fest recalls hearing concerns from a specialty distributor that even a fairly small screen­ing could cut into their film’s opening weekend grosses.

New Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson is supporting indepen­dent theaters with the Satellite Screens program, which will show fest selections at around 30 outdoor, drive-in and art­house theaters around the U.S., with plans evolving along with pandemic health guidelines. But while Sundance helped found Art House Convergence in 2006 “to increase the market for film exhibition by expanding the number and effective­ness of community-based, mission-driven theaters,” as Jackson’s predecessor John Cooper described it, she takes a more agnostic approach.

While agreeing that decreased theatri­cal exhibition “would be a great cultural loss,” Jackson says, “we don’t really have our hooks into the theatrical distribution system, [so] it is not for us to solve this particular conundrum, though we want to be a part of grappling with it.”

Unlike most other execs we consulted, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard doesn’t see any clouds on the horizon.

“One of the things that favors specialty product is that it’s for an older audience, the first in line to get the [COVID-19] vac­cine,” he says. “If the country can vacci­nate a lot of these people by the summer, I believe people will be going back to the movies. And I think this hiatus has got­ten the theaters thinking a lot sharper thoughts about: How are we going to reach out to our audience and get them to be aware that the movies are coming?” through internet-based marketing efforts.

But with the inevitability of fewer screens and more competition, Hope says there’s one way specialty films can succeed where others so often fail.

“Spectacle is why franchises are so compelling, but the next thing people look for is emotion, and I think that we’ve abandoned that as a real core deliverable with our movies,” he says. “There’s such an inherent, magical power of people feeling a common emotion with their neighbors or strangers in a dark space, hearing people laugh and cry next to you. You look at the stuff happening today and ask, ‘Can we ever be brought together?’ And I would say, ‘Yes! Great movies can do it.’”

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