Where’d You Go, Indies?: 2019 Has Been a Tough Year at the Art-House Box Office

“It’s been a bad year,” Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles says

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.

Trey Williams

Trey Williams

Film Reporter covering the biz • trey.williams@thewrap.com • Twitter: @trey3williams


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