Unless you’re Disney, releasing the umpteenth iteration of a money-printing hit, or you’re some other version of a franchise blockbuster derived from beloved IP, you likely haven’t had a great run at the box office so far in 2019. (In fact, Jordan Peele’s horror film “Us” is the only original screenplay among the top 10 grossers of the year so far.)
As bad as things are for the five major studios and longtime mini-major Lionsgate, the situation is worse for independents and the specialty divisions of the majors heading into this month’s Toronto Film Festival. Indie film releases made up approximately 11% of the 2019 domestic box office to date, which comes to approximately $890 million out of the $7.8 billion that all of Hollywood has amassed. By the end of last year, indie films made up 13% of the overall box office total.
“It’s been a bad year,” Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles said. “There’s been some fine films, but I haven’t been phenomenally inspired.” (Magnolia’s own top performer this year, the Japanese Oscar nominee “Shoplifters,” was a holdover from last year that topped out at $3.3 million.)
The narrative surrounding the 2019 indie box office has been one of nearly unrelenting disappointment. The year started off strong with Lantern Entertainment’s “The Upside,” an American remake of the French film “The Intouchables” starring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston. The former Weinstein Company drama, distributed by STX Entertainment, grossed $108.3 million in the U.S. and is far and away the highest grossing non-studio release of the year.
But after that early January release, films such as Fox Searchlight’s “Tolkien” ($7.8 million), Annapurna’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” ($8.5 million) and “Booksmart” ($22.7 million) fell flat when they hit theaters. And then buzzy titles out of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival such as New Line’s “Blinded by the Light,” Amazon Studios’ “Late Night” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon” — which sparked higher hopes after selling for between $13 million and $15 million apiece — haven’t been able to live up to expectations.
Add to that the rumblings of financial troubles from major indie studios. STX, which had to forego an IPO in Hong Kong last year, has shed top executives and been on the hunt for investors — and possibly a buyer, TheWrap has previously reported. And Megan Ellison’s Annapurna, which has had a rocky year at the box office, was forced to renegotiate its financing deals with banks to pay off debts.
That’s nothing, however, compared to the toll the indie box office slide has had on art-house theaters themselves. Mark Cuban sold Landmark Theatres, which operates 252 screens in 27 markets, to Cohen Media Group late last year. Just last month, the 16-location premium chain iPic Theaters filed for bankruptcy, while Deadline reported that the 41-screen family-owned Laemmle Theater chain was up for sale. On top of that, New York City’s beloved Paris Theatre shut its doors for good.
As a result, many in the indie film world are questioning the future of theatrical releases for lower-budgeted, non-studio projects.
“The indie business isn’t dying, it’s just evolving. There are arguably more independent movies being made now than ever before,” Juliet Berman, head of development for indie production company Treehouse Pictures, said. “The thing that’s changing is the way that people are consuming them. The traditional theatrical model isn’t going away but it’s not necessarily the best way for every film to reach its audience or make money.
She added, “We need to look at each project on the basis of its own merits and apply individual barometers of success rather than measuring everything up against a distribution model that is no longer the gold standard that it once was.”
And many of the indies are pursuing strategies similar to the majors — just on a smaller scale. Of the 10 top grossing films from indie distributors so far through 2019, only three weren’t remakes, reimaginings, sequels, true stories or pulled from preexisting IP: “Booksmart,” Searchlight’s “Ready or Not” and A24’s “Midsommar.”
Now the film community looks to Toronto, whose festival kicked off on Thursday, to help turn the narrative around. From a business standpoint, however, Bowles said relying on glitzy festival acquisitions is the worst strategy for an indie distributor. “Yet every year, without fail, people are out here doing it,” he said.
“Unfortunately, this is such an image- and perception-based business,” Bowles said. “This is a very, very hard business. The success rate is probably worse than restaurants.”
Jeremy Fuster contributed to this report.
The Independent Filmmaker Project announced on Wednesday that it has tapped film producer Jeffrey Sharp as the institution’s new executive director.
Sharp, an award-winning producer for “You Can Count on Me,” will bring decades of experience to IFP, including his other work producing films such as “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Evening and The Yellow Birds” and digitally publishing authors such as William Styron, Pat Conroy and Pearl Buck as co-founder and president of Open Road Integrated Media.
“We are delighted to have Jeff join IFP as its leader. His credentials and background are a perfect fit with our organization,” IFP co-chairs Anthony Bregman and Jim Janowitz said in a statement. “He has developed and produced prestigious independent films. He has extensive non-profit experience as a co-founder and Chair of the Hamptons International Film Festival Advisory Board. He has broad contacts across foundations, arts organizations, and government.”
“I am tremendously honored to be joining the IFP as its new executive director,” Sharp added. “IFP has had an enormous impact on the independent film industry in New York and around the world for the past forty years. I am excited to begin working with the talented IFP team, IFP members and alumni as we continue to explore new opportunities and expand on Joana Vicente’s remarkable legacy.”
The IFP connects artists with essential resources at all stages of development and distribution. The organization fosters a vibrant and sustainable independent storytelling community through its year-round programs, which include Independent Film Week, Filmmaker Magazine, the IFP Gotham Awards and the Made in NY Media Center by IFP, a tech and media incubator space developed with the New York Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.
The IFP represents a growing network of storytellers around the world and plays a key role in developing 350 new feature and documentary works each year. During its 40-year history, the IFP has supported over 10,000+ projects and offered resources to more than 20,000 filmmakers, including Barry Jenkins, Laura Poitras, Debra Granik, Miranda July, Michael Moore, Dee Rees, and Benh Zeitlin.
Sharp will succeed Joana Vicente who previously served as the executive director of IFP for eight years. The IFP Board of Directors selected Sharp after conducting a nation-wide search.
In 2009, Sharp co-founded the digital publishing and marketing company Open Road Integrated Media with former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman and served as the company’s president. In 2013, he co-founded Story Mining and Supply Co. with Jim Kohlberg serving as president and CEO. The company produced the TV show Outlander for Starz, as well as feature films “The Yellow Birds,” “UFO” and Fox Searchlights’s upcoming production of “The Fence.”
He also formed Sharp Independent Pictures in partnership with GEM Pictures in 2016 to develop, finance and produce feature films and TV shows for the U.S. and China co-production market. Sharp Independent productions include: “My Other Home,” the hit TV show “Wonderful Life” and the current $300 million Chinese box office hit “Crazy Alien.” Upcoming projects include “The Great Banquet” and “The Baccarat Queen.”
Sharp is a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Producers Guild of America. He won an Independent Spirit Award for best first feature for “You Can Count on Me,” was nominated for a Golden Globe for “Nicholas Nickleby,” and was honored with the Andrew Sarris award in 2005 from the Columbia University School of the Arts for his contribution to independent cinema in 2005.