Tom Jolliffe looks at a pre-Covid rise in popularity for independent films, and a big upcoming push for content going forward…
Slowly but surely, changes were afoot this time last year. It had been a progressive rise for a few years. Cinema was still monopolised by the mega budget blockbusters. In particular, Disney and every subsidiary under their wing was batting out goliath hits with all consuming regularity. We were getting a number of billion dollar grossing films a year, some of which might almost have turned a profit (he said, facetiously). The outlay on some of these films was of course gargantuan. A $200 million hit on budget, and as much again on the simple matter of marketing and releasing the picture around the world. The magic number to turn a profit, as such, becomes a virtual, sometimes insurmountable summit.
In the last decade, A24 has stepped to the forefront of independent cinema, producing low budget films and progressively expanding their impact on the box office. Just last year films like The Farewell and Uncut Gems did excellent business on the big screen, proving there is enough of an audience to push that content wider than previously. With those few particular exceptions (mostly from Marvel), it would seem audiences are beginning to tire of the eye blistering onslaughts of CGI laden spectacle. It was once a ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ mentality that saw studios out gunning each other for on screen chaos. That in turn lead to occasional cases of numbing repetition from said onslaughts.
As an example, in Man of Steel the final third was somewhat contentious for its almost relentless collateral damage and destruction as Supes and Zod pounded the life out of each other and the CGI cities around them. I’m getting on a bit, so I’m becoming tired of 20 minute action scenes shot on green screen that don’t seem to end. Maybe, just maybe, some of the younger audiences are too. Increasingly, all those studio films attempting to pilfer Kevin Feige’s formula, pick out the gloss, but forget some of the more insightful aspects in some of his films (and yes, whilst they’re still simple escapism, for that ilk, the best have some depth). As such many tend to fail. Mackenzie Davis recently spoke of franchise fatigue contributing to the disappointing performance of Terminator: Dark Fate. She’s partly right of course, and it’s another aspect that perhaps we’ve topped out on. We’ve passed the summit and are on the way down.
Even now there are many calls for the monumentally successful Joker to be sequalised, or the character (as played by Joaquin Phoenix) to transfer into a DC tentpole. That will make many happy of course, but a film that had a backbone of indie sensibility, shot for relative peanuts would inevitably be bastardised by continued returns to the well. We’re hopefully seeing a turnaround to more direct demand for standalone material, and non-franchise. There’s certainly a place for franchise still, and a demand, but as Star Wars has seen on the big screen, it can turn sour. Between fan apathy (to outright vitriol) the cinematic rebirth beginning with The Force Awakens (which has already aged a little poorly as far as ultimate legacy, albeit it’s fun), fell off the rails and the returns (whilst still huge) were disappointing compared to the benchmark laid by that first ‘sequel’ and by Marvel’s superhero A-list.
We can already see that post Covid, the enterprise of theatrically releasing a film will change. The business model has to. It was not working particularly well before, and a small handful of films propped up the overall numbers each year, papering over the cracks of the industry (which more than ever is tipping its scale heavily on market over creativity). We’ve seen Disney re-adapting tactically and using their streaming platform to release their films on home platform (Mulan for example) and now Warner Bros. has moved to release their upcoming slate of tent-poles on streaming simultaneously to theatrical releases (including Dune, Godzilla vs. Kong, The Suicide Squad and The Matrix 4). In the old days you’d call it straight to video or TV premiere. Nowadays it could mean a picture that cost a quarter of billion all in. What we’ll see for the next few years is the tail off. Those films that cost enormous amounts will slowly find their big screen release (the pessimistic view would be that for many, it’s damage limitation, and a hope to break even) having delayed already. In 2022 how many films will sign off on budgets over $100 million? Let’s see.
So there are big questions over theatrical distribution and what will make a viable business model from the films themselves, and even down to the cinemas themselves. More generally, there is in fact a big need for content. Things slowed through spring this year, almost everywhere (understandably). Going forward, as the streaming market rises further (whether streaming becoming the be all and end all is good or not, is for another day) audiences require more content to satisfy the demands. Pre-Covid, A24, Blumhouse etc were showing how to turn a neat profit utilising every platform. Jason Blum never spends beyond comfort. Between successful box office returns and popular home releases, he’s shown a definitive model that can blueprint a way going forward. Initially it could well mean an increase in choice, with more studios hopefully willing to create more films for less, as opposed a couple that may cost you half a billion combined.
The home market has risen and hasn’t suffered in the way cinema has (that big screen experience though, is still incomparable). People are open to an array of content. Additionally, Parasite’s success may well contribute to a more willing openness for studios to push world cinema (the audience has always been there, and has risen, but the releases haven’t always been enough). Low/micro budget independent film-makers and studios have kept on plugging away, with their market always existing on home premiere. There is space for more, even if finding those investors may be difficult, but film-makers are increasingly finding ways to shoot for less, such is the rise in increasingly affordable tools to do so. Budget genre films remain popular around the world. In the UK young creators like Charlie Steeds keep on delivering their content and are quickly making a name for themselves.
On that very low budget level there’s often been a narrow vision with what distributors expect. That will hopefully open increasingly, and allow film-makers to explore their more unique visions (over continued visits to vampires, zombies etc). Success with films like Mandy, so utterly bizarre but passionate and creative (and retaining a genre marketability), show there should be a market on the DTV market for ‘arthouse.’ Generally arthouse films need a good festival run or buzz to hit wide or even get picked up, but it would be good if there was a shift to emulate A24 et al, on even lower budgets too, which can still remain a solid pitch for sales agents for home releasing. I’m enjoying my own creative push right now delivering to spec on genre films (which I love doing, whether it’s witches or action fests), and going into 2021/2022, hoping to push more personal projects too. It’s time to strike. Hopefully that money that tended to be set aside for a select few will continue to filter down with more regularity for aspiring creators. The iron is hot.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.