Indie movies and their uncertain future in theaters

Last week I caught a screening of Titane at the TIFF Bell Center here in Toronto, the first theater experience I’ve had in over a year and a half. It was an arresting ride with excellent sound, a high quality projection, and welcoming staff. But as the lights came up, even in a theater that can seat hundreds for an eight PM show, I counted only six people in the audience.

My knee jerk reaction was that a mix of pandemic caution and Titane‘s penchant for body horror and violence (Palme D’Or winner aside) kept many at home. But afterward, I had a sinking feeling the screening’s low attendance may be part of a larger trend.

Back in January, writing about the pandemic’s impact on cinema, I predicted theaters’ only path to survival would be on the backs of four quadrant blockbusters. Distributors would push smaller budget independent movies to VOD and streaming services. Ten months later, I’ve seen little to dissuade my opinion. Frankly, the state of indie movies in theaters is at best uncertain, at worst fairly bleak.

While it’s premature to label the state of moviegoing in the U.S. and Canada as “post pandemic,” widespread vaccine availability, lower COVID infection rates, and theater precautions (required proof of vaccination, masks, reduced capacity) mark a clear reopening phase. Theaters are bouncing back and doing well based on their recent box office performance. The biggest franchise movies – Shang Chi, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, No Time to Die – are hits, showing that the right content can roll out globally with the same pre-COVID handbook. Day and date premium VOD is unnecessary and is a costly distraction based on the numbers from Black Window.

Smaller budget film releases from independent studios have had decidedly mixed results. The Green Knight was a summer success, charting in the top ten thanks to strong word of mouth, A24’s marketing clout, and Dev Patel as the lead. The latest Gerard Butler B-movie action romp Copshop is also performing well in a theatrical only run. But there have been many more misses for every hit: Titane, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Respect, and Blue Bayou all underperformed. Each film had the advantage of recognizable stars or awards buzz but didn’t deliver in terms of paid theatergoers.

Even with the 2021 indie box office to date a mixed bag, it’s clear many lower budget “prestige” movies (awards, critical buzz, prominent director or cast) are siding with streaming and VOD as the primary goal. Theaters are a relative afterthought. Zola, The Green Knight, and The Card Counter went to premium VOD within three weeks of their theatrical debut. Others have a streaming partnership: Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog pops up on Netflix two weeks after a limited theatrical rollout.

Two years ago, it would have been fair to expect a select number of prestige movies to get a lavish marketing campaign paired with an extended theater run, one eye to the box office, one to the Oscars. Take a movie like The Tragedy of Macbeth, practically an idyllic prestige drama for awards season. It stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, the former one of the biggest movie stars in the world, the latter a multiple Oscar winner with a large following. Joel Coen of the Coen Brothers fame directs, the screenplay is a Shakespearean adaptation, and the movie has moody black and white lensing by the great DP Bruno Delbonnel.

In 2019, a major studio under their indie division (e.g., Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics) likely would have bankrolled Macbeth with an expensive marketing cycle for the holidays (junkets, talk shows) after picking up some festival awards. The film would premiere in a November to December holiday sweet spot. It might open limited in New York in L.A., only to go wide soon afterward with a three month theater exclusivity run before moving on to VOD and streaming the following spring after picking up some Oscar nominations.

In 2021, Macbeth gets picked up by the comparatively minuscule A24, opens on Christmas Day with a limited theater rollout, and shows up on Apple TV Plus streaming three weeks later. You can blame the strategy shift on tech companies eager to enter the streaming game or pandemic conservatism. However, I see Macbeth‘s rollout as indicative of a more fundamental change, a lack of confidence from the big studios to open their pocketbooks for practically anything but the biggest franchises around.

Yes, we are getting a handful of movies through 2021 that closely follow the traditional small budget prestige path. Last Night in Soho, The Souvenir Part II, Spencer, and The French Dispatch are all opening in theaters for the holidays with no announcement of a VOD release date or streaming partnership. However, based on the mixed indie track record to date, I’m fascinated to see how these films do in theaters.

What worries me is we’ll look back at 2021 and see few small budget movies that made a dent financially. Maybe Wes Anderson gets his fans out to see The French Dispatch. Or the name recognition of Princess Diana gets an older audience out to watch Spencer. However, I suspect most small movies will underperform studio expectations.

The repercussions of a stalled 2021 will lead Warner Brothers, Universal, and the rest to redirect their smaller movies into streaming and VOD. The latest festival darling becomes another bullet point in the great streaming wars. Meanwhile, your local cineplex has blanket coverage of every superhero sequel and mega-franchise, while movies that fall under a $200 million budget cease to exist.

You don’t have to be a theater purist or art house devotee to understand how this potential moviegoing future isn’t great. Blockbusters continue to enjoy wide distribution and availability: marketed relentlessly, available at a multiplex near you, or soon on VOD, steaming, or Blu-ray. Everything else falls into a streaming void that can be hard to navigate or locked behind paid services you have little interest in. Of course, I’m grateful streaming as technology amplifies the reach and diversity of what everyone can watch, but relegating whole genres and types of films out of theaters as part of that process has a high cost.