Programming profile: Indie film distribs

With festival season underway, Playback speaks with three indie distribution execs making shopping lists for the markets.

With fall festival and exhibition season swinging into gear, Playback speaks with three independent distributors with a track record of acquiring Canadian indies on what they’re looking for and their preferred exhibition strategies.

Strand Releasing (U.S.)

California-based distributor Strand Releasing has often acquired Canadian indie films in its near-30 years of business, says Strand co-founder Jon Gerrans. The company, which acquires roughly 20 to 25 films per year, specializes in independent, documentary and foreign-language film distribution; its most recent Canadian acquisition was Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster. Among Strand’s other Canadian pickups are Pat Mills’ Guidance, Bruce LaBruce’s Gerontophilia and Hustler White and Jeremy Podeswa’s Eclipse.

Pat Mills' Guidance

Pat Mills’ Guidance

Looks for: It’s fairly simple: quality art house films that we also feel an audience would pay to see. On the one hand it’s such a broad description, but when you think of the art house audience they’re not particularly looking for a specific genre, they’re looking for a good film.

Target audience: We’re one of the top distributors in the U.S. of high-quality LGBT films. We don’t go out looking specifically for these types of films, but we have built up a reputation as a distributor who is able to find that audience. We seem to get pitched a lot of new titles that fall into that category. Of the films that we acquire every year, it’s fair to say that half of our lineup could be of that genre.

Main exhibition markets: We tend to start on the coasts, New York, L.A., and expand from there. But it’s not the number of screens at one time, it’s the number of screens over a three- or four-month period. A good release for us is to have it in 50 to 75 cities.

Where they scout new films: Most of our films come out of festivals: TIFF, Sundance, Berlin and Cannes are the ones we always attend. There is a certain level of artistic merit to [Strand's acquisitions], and usually they’re critically driven and have strong reviews. In the case of Closet Monster, we saw it at TIFF and both artistically and commercially the film was very appealing.

What it looks for in a Canadian indie: I don’t have proof of this, but for the most part I don’t think audiences identify it as a Canadian indie versus U.S. indie. If the film is coming out and it has recognizable stars then there’s no difference. It’s just an independent film. A lot of the Canadian stars are also U.S. stars.

By Jordan Pinto

Shout! Factory (U.S.)

Shout! Factory’s name is one that is popping up increasingly in the context of Canadian film. Over the past year, the L.A.-based distributor has acquired runaway Quebec hit La Guerre des Tuques 3D (Snowtime! in English), and inked a three-picture distribution deal with Vancouver’s Arcana Studio for its H.P. Lovecraft trilogy. The 13-year-old company makes about 20 new pick ups a year (as well as between 50 to 100 library acquisitions), and has also previously taken the U.S. rights to Breakthrough Entertainment and Black Fawn’s horror feature Bite, as well as The Editor, produced by Astron-6. Jordan Fields, VP of acquisitions and film development, breaks down Shout’s strategy.

Snowtime!

Snowtime!

Looks for: Content that fits into our four core competencies: kids and family, genre (with a special emphasis on horror, cult and sci-fi) and classic TV. We attend the major film markets, which include Toronto, Berlin, Cannes, as well as Fantastic Fest, SXSW and MIPCOM. It certainly makes our sales projections easier if we are able to see a finished product, but that being said, we are open to pre-buying distribution rights if the package is attractive, with a strong script, cast and creative team.

Exhibition strategy: Shout!’s theatrical releases are usually done on a limited basis, typically on three to 15 screens. Our main markets are L.A., New York, Boston and Chicago. For us, the purpose [of a theatrical release] is that of a marketing tool: to gain exposure, reviews, and to help establish credentials for the project as a theatrical feature film. That raises its profile to all the more lucrative windows downstream [digital, retail, broadcast]. In the case of Snowtime! we actually released the film on 51 screens in the U.S., which was a bit anomalous for us.
Minimum guarantees: It’s something we consider as fairly automatic. It has very little to do with the budget of the film, and everything to do with how much money we think we’re going to make in distributing it, and how much money the licensor is going to make. Therefore, our minimum guarantee is a percentage of the licensor’s projected royalty income. In terms of the budgets of the films we acquire, they fall into the USD$500,000 to USD$10 million range, broadly speaking.

Buying trends: Cast is becoming increasingly key in assessing the value of a property, which in some ways is a shame. There are so many great films and TV shows that have names that don’t travel, and they may not get the distribution they deserve because distributors think they can’t make enough money with them.

By Jordan Pinto

D Films (Canada)

Seven years after launching, Toronto-based D Films has carved a niche for itself as a distributor of challenging and “peculiar” indies. The company, which typically releases 12 to 16 films per year, recently released Andrew Cividino’s coming-of-age drama Sleeping Giant and Swiss Army Man, in which Daniel Radcliffe plays a flatulent corpse. In 2014, the company inked an output deal with American horror distributor Blumhouse International and is expected to distribute Prey, the second film from that deal, in 2017. Now, D Films’ SVP of acquisitions and new business development, Michael Robson says the company is looking to get into production.

Andrew Cividino's Sleeping Giant

Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant

Jump-starting production: Television sales for films are a little bit harder to make [and] the various revenue streams are down across the board. What we need to invest in these films upfront versus what we used to be guaranteed in the back, is not always guaranteed anymore. We’re looking to get into production so we’ll actually have a bigger piece of these films that we love and that we want to be a part of – an equity piece, something that makes more sense when we’re putting out those [minimum guarantees].

Looks for: We will always buy great one-off films when they’re available – David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake is a good example of one we had recently – but generally, we’re looking for long-term partners as opposed to opportunities. The Blumhouse deal, for example, is a partnership that spans years and will deliver quality films.

Moving to digital: We’re now also looking at smaller films that are more niche and foregoing the expense of theatrical to go straight to digital users. For example, we bought an amazing little art film with Ewan McGregor called Last Days of the Desert, which will go direct to DVD and VOD. The film was released in the U.S. in June and, while it’s a great film that we love, it would never find its legs in theatre in Canada.

Minimum guarantees: Our range is zero to lots. We do straight zero deals sometimes. It doesn’t mean that we work any less hard on the film, it’s just that the math makes sense for the producer and us. A zero deal would be if the film’s already paid for. They don’t necessarily need money upfront. So they would take more money back end.

The next generation: There’s a whole new crop of young amazing filmmakers who just made their first films, like Closet Monster, River, Backcountry, Sleeping Giant. These guys are working on budgets that are reasonable and fresh. They’re not the big budgets that are dragging down the system. Maybe, as a philosophy, that’s what we’re drawn to: people who have a vision that can be realized within a smaller budget, but feels like a bigger film.

By Regan Reid

Main image via Shutterstock