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The Independent struggle

Indie films don’t always get to theatres, as they are unable to resist generous offers from Internet giants like Netflix

A few days after the recently concluded BAFTA Awards, an actor friend and I were at the BAFTA headquarters, quaffing a beaker full of the warm South, and discussing which of the films we had voted for had won, or not. One of the films we differed on centred on our mode of watching. He had watched it as a full-on IMAX experience, and I had seen it off a screener, and our experiences were vastly dissimilar. This led to what is now becoming an almost daily discussion about modes of distribution.

Last month, at the Sundance Film Festival, Amazon and Netflix rode into Park City, Utah, with deep pockets, and scored most of the buzz titles, except one. The Oscar nominations had just been announced and as well documented in these pages and elsewhere, were overwhelmingly white. Nate Parker’s labour of love, The Birth of a Nation, that focusses on an 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia, that he wrote, directed, produced and acted in, received a standing ovation at its premiere. Then the bidding war began and continued until dawn. When the dust settled, it emerged that the $10-million budgeted film had been acquired by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the most lucrative deal in Sundance history.

Astoundingly, later reports suggest that Parker had turned down a $20 million offer from Netflix, with other rumours hinting that the global digital giant was willing to go up to $25 million. Parker’s decision to go with the lower offer is possibly linked to a desire to be considered for awards kudos, for which a theatrical release is essential, and also that general audiences watch the film as a cinema experience. While watching it on smaller screens provides for an intimate experience for the viewer, nothing can quite beat the thrill of watching images unfold on a big screen along with a roomful of strangers.

That said, the reality for independent films is something quite different. Typically, if an indie gets selected for an A-list festival like Sundance or Cannes, it finds a sales agent soon enough. And then begins a long process of secondary festival runs and the hunt to find a buyer. This is a process that can take years. The film is drip-fed, territory by territory, finding theatrical release in some and television sales in others, with tertiary sales including home video, satellite, airline etc. And even with all of these, the producer may not recover the budget. Also, independent films, with some obvious exceptions, just do not generate the kind of box office that commercial films do.

So, when a player like Netflix or Amazon comes along with a generous offer, and the promise of your dream project being available in hundreds of countries globally simultaneously, the kudos of a theatrical release pales in comparison.

A happy compromise can be achieved as in the case of Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, a $6-million film acquired by Netflix for $12 million. After its festival run, the film had a limited theatrical release alongside its Netflix premiere. Now, that is a dream come true.

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 9:13:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/cinema/indie-films-dont-always-get-to-theatres/article8289539.ece

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