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The world of independent cinema is facing a significant challenge, as discussed by industry experts Bob Berney, CEO of Picturehouse; John Sloss, founder and CEO of Cinetic Media; and Eugene Hernandez, director of the Sundance Film Festival, during a panel at the Woodstock Film Festival titled “The Current and Future State of Independent Cinema.”
John Sloss opened the discussion by highlighting the impact of streaming giant Netflix on the independent film landscape. While acknowledging Netflix’s progressiveness, Sloss pointed out that their decision to withhold crucial data from the industry has had a detrimental effect, setting the industry back significantly.
Sloss, who has a long history of working with independent films, admitted to being initially drawn to Netflix when they started acquiring indie films over two decades ago. However, this posed a dilemma for filmmakers and distributors. While traditional theatrical releases offered the potential for revenue on the back end, Netflix’s substantial upfront payments were tempting. This shift towards global-only rights by Netflix resulted in many indie films losing their chance for a theatrical release.
The decline in theatrical releases for independent films was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many independently run theaters to close. To make matters worse, streaming platforms like Netflix began reducing their acquisition of indie films, leaving fewer opportunities for these films to find homes.
Bob Berney, who formerly served as head of marketing and distribution at Amazon Studios, added that while Netflix has a firm stance on avoiding theatrical releases, other streaming services have mixed attitudes. Berney highlighted Amazon’s shift from theatrical releases to streaming and its recent return to wide theatrical releases with the acquisition of MGM. However, the fate of smaller, independent films remains uncertain, as there is currently no dominant streamer interested in acquiring them.
Eugene Hernandez also shared insights into the challenging landscape for independent film sales. He mentioned a distributor who had been offered several films that had failed to sell at festivals, with no upfront guarantee to the distributor. Surprisingly, the distributor declined the offer, citing reluctance to invest in marketing. This situation raises questions about the viability of rebuilding the theatrical marketplace for independent films.
Despite these challenges, John Sloss emphasized the vital role of theatrical releases in revitalizing independent cinema. He argued that it is crucial for everyone in the industry to support the theatrical experience. Sloss believes that streamers are unlikely to champion new voices and independent films, and the only way to showcase them effectively is through theatrical releases where they can be reviewed and generate word-of-mouth support.
Sloss also pointed out a positive development: Netflix’s recent decision to buy individual territory rights rather than global-only rights for certain films. This shift is seen as a positive step towards granting more flexibility to filmmakers and distributors.
In conclusion, the discussion highlighted the critical importance of theatrical distribution for independent films. While the rise of streaming platforms has created challenges, industry professionals like John Sloss are optimistic about finding new ways to ensure the longevity and profitability of independent cinema, potentially by exploring shorter licensing agreements and expanding viewership around the world.