How Indie Distributors Have Thrived in Unlikely Places Like Drive-Ins

“The audience has never been more vibrant or hungry for our type of content,” Jonathan Saba of Saban Films tells TheWrap

While the pandemic left major studios scrambling to reschedule entire film slates, a handful of indie distributors have found playtime on drive-in screens normally reserved for blockbuster films.

IFC Films, Saban Films and RLJE Entertainment have thrived during the pandemic. IFC, for example, monetized the release of “The Rental” by offering drive-in screenings, as well as video on demand (VOD), which resulted in $420,871 in box office over its opening weekend, while also becoming the top-rented film on Apple TV and iTunes. It became the second film to ever top VOD charts and the box office in the same weekend, joining “Trolls World Tour.”

“Along with our drive-in releases, we were able to rather quickly reconfigure our marketing to a more targeted strategy for digital audiences,” Arianna Bocco, EVP of Acquisitions for IFC, said. “Even though we didn’t get the usual theatrical exposure that we expected, we were able to stay flexible in how we were releasing films, particularly ‘Made in Italy,’ which reached No. 1 digitally among dramas upon its release.”

At the same time, RLJE Entertainment released Shia LaBeouf’s “The Tax Collector” on VOD and in limited theaters, earning the film $942,666 and a No. 1 spot at the box office. According to Mark Ward, RLJE’s Chief Acquisitions Officer, Feature Film Division, “The Tax Collector” is on track to be RLJE’s highest-grossing film in the company’s history by the end of the year. Currently, Kurt Russell’s “Bone Tomahawk” stands in first place.

“We knew we had ‘The Tax Collector’ coming, and it’s one of those that feels like a studio film, so we talked and said, ‘Let’s go for it,'” Ward told TheWrap. “We marketed it as if it was going to be available everywhere theater-wise, and I think it worked because of the genre, the star power, and we still went out there and promoted it.”

Saban Films found success in August with “The Silencing,” which grossed $100,000.

“We are not facing the usual glut of studio films hitting the ancillaries, in addition to the influx of moviegoers flooding VOD platforms… this has created somewhat of a golden age for indie distributors,” Jonathan Saba, Senior Vice President of Saban Films, told TheWrap. “We were No. 1 at the box office with ‘The Silencing’ which was the highest overall grossing new film release and highest per-screen average for its opening weekend. It took in $53,205 on 79 screens, and it’s doing great business digitally becoming the No. 1 highest transacting movie in the country.”

Specialized distributors have been “the heroes of the cinema,” Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap. In the face of unprecedented challenges, he said, they’ve provided fans across the country with new movies on the big screen.

“IFC found new ways to get revenue, and the big streamers have seen some growth in their business, and PVOD has been good for smaller independents,” Endeavor Content EVP Alex Walton told TheWrap. “It’s not just streamers — there are many other businesses that have really prospered.”

Box office analyst Shawn Robbins commended the distributors for recognizing that drive-ins would still be searching for new films to screen even during the pandemic. Since most drive-ins have at most four screens, they usually devote their summer screen times to the biggest movies. But with drive-ins lacking new blockbusters and indie films lacking their usual arthouses, IFC, Saban and RLJE were able to find a new relationship to keep their theatrical releases moving forward.

“It’s all about that interest in new material,” Robbins said. “People who go to these drive-ins wanted to see new films regardless of what they were, and the drive-ins were willing to bring them in to provide a change of pace from the repertory screenings. It was a good bit of adaptation that allowed both distributors and drive-in owners to keep some revenue coming in.”

Saba added: “The audience has never been more vibrant or hungry for our type of content, and the need for this type of entertainment has never been greater.”

That said, it’s unlikely that other indie distributors will be able to follow IFC’s lead. As summer turns to fall, turnout for drive-ins usually diminishes until they close in many U.S. states for the snowy winter months. While some independent films like Searchlight’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield” have enjoyed strong revenue from drive-ins, the films premiering at TIFF and Venice this month in the hopes of launching an Oscar campaign will not have drive-ins to rely on if they release in November or December.

And that especially poses a problem considering what kind of moviegoers buy tickets to those type of awards contenders. One rival distributor told TheWrap that the biggest concern among specialty studios is that their target demographic — the 50 and over crowd — will be the last age group to return to theaters, as they face the highest risk of contracting COVID-19. On top of that, New York and Los Angeles, the two cities that serve as the launchpad for countless specialty films via a platform release, still have theaters closed with no sign of when they will reopen.

“I’m really impressed by what they did with ‘Tax Collector’ and ‘The Rental’ but the circumstances those films came out in won’t be there in the fall,” the distributor said. “There’s a lot of tough decisions that are going to have to be made about how we get adult dramas out to older audiences this year.”

Jeremy Fuster

Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • jeremy.fuster@thewrap.com

Beatrice Verhoeven

Beatrice Verhoeven

Senior Film Reporter



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