Mary P Erickson. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 1. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
Four of the five films competing for Best Picture at the 2006 Academy Awards were unique in that a good portion of each film’s financing derived from nonstudio investment sources. For example, Minneapolis-based River Road Productions partnered in the production of Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), requesting international distribution rights in exchange for its investment. This $14 million film premiered at film festivals in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto before heading into theaters in the United States and internationally. This investment secured a substantial return for the film’s producers and distributors, which also included Universal Studios’ division, Focus Features; Brokeback Mountain garnered a respectable $83 million at the domestic box office. In addition, the film received several awards, including three Oscars, four Golden Globes, and two Independent Spirit awards.
Brokeback Mountain was joined in the race for Best Picture by Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005); Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005); Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004); and Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005). Much of the publicity leading up to the awards ceremony focused on these films’ production financing because most of them were “substantially produced outside the studio system.” Each of the films, with the exception of Crash, was also substantially produced inside the studio system: United Artists (a division of MGM at the time of the film’s production) produced Capote, Warner Independent Pictures (a division of Warner Brothers) produced Good Night, and DreamWorks and Universal Pictures produced Munich. Article after article in the press touted these films (with the exception of Munich) as “independent,” their reliance on nonstudio financing an anomaly for films leading the Oscar race. But this “independence,” and the corollary primacy of nonstudio financing, is misleading because it does not account for the infrastructure that accompanies the film’s studio-based financing. As Hollywood producer Avi Lerner declares:
No one can disagree that when you’ve got Crash having this kind of success, it’s good for independent film. That’s a true independent film. I consider Lionsgate [Crash’s distributor] a real independent company. But Brokeback Mountain? No way. It was released by a studio with all the machinery and money and people of a major studio—the same people who released Munich. The same people who released King Kong. No, Brokeback Mountain was not an independent film. An independent film is a movie that was really made by independent people, independent producers, not by Focus. The producer of Brokeback Mountain was James Schamus, the head of a specialty studio.
Specialty divisions such as Focus Features increasingly rely on the concept of “independent” to describe and promote their films, as these films tend not to resemble studio blockbusters in style, plot, or character. But Focus Features still, as Lerner asserts, offers the distribution infrastructure of its parent studio, giving its films more support in publicity and promotion. This becomes particularly problematic for independent filmmakers who do not have investment relationships with specialty divisions. These people are thus forced to compete for the same audiences through the same press outlets and the same distribution and exhibition channels without similar resources. The flood of so-called “independent” films that have originated at studio divisions saturates the marketplace, which in turn shapes the public’s expectations of what independent film looks like as well as the perception of diversity of filmmakers and film content available in theaters and on home video.
Independent filmmaking occupies a spot in American cinema as the obvious alternative to mainstream Hollywood fare, but audience preferences that seem to shift away from blockbusters lately have troubled studios who rely on hundreds of millions of box office dollars for every film. The development of new distribution windows such as the Internet has allowed independent filmmakers to gain more direct access to audiences. With declining box office revenues and audiences turning toward newer technology to watch films, Hollywood has found itself in a troublesome financial spot.4 While studios continue to focus on producing tried-and-true formulaic films (witness the release of several sequels in 2007, from Spider-Man 3 [Sam Raimi, 2007] to Shrek the Third [Chris Miller and Raman Hui, 2007] to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End [Gore Verbinski, 2007]), they have also ventured more actively into genres, subject matter or aesthetics not traditionally found in Hollywood films. Because these studios, operating as specialty divisions such as Focus Features, can utilize the production and distribution infrastructure of a major studio (in this case, Universal Studios), marketing efforts are much more coordinated, encompassing, and forceful than the marketing efforts of a singular filmmaker or even smaller-scale distribution company that operates outside of the studio system.
Hollywood carefully crafts film marketing, spending extravagantly to achieve its marketing goals. Major studios spend approximately $34.5 million on prints and advertising (P&A), or a full third of a film’s budget, while specialty divisions of major studios spend an average of $17.8 million on P&A per film (although this number is more variable based on the wide range of “independent” film budgets).5 Even with smaller budgets, such as Brokeback Mountain’s $14 million, investors expect returns to make their contributions worthwhile, and thus, specialty divisions focus on the most attractive angles to ensure high levels of box office and home video revenue.6 We can witness various instances, particularly lately, of specialty divisions marketing films by using the concept of independence as the primary selling point. Therefore, the question becomes this: How do specialty divisions exploit the concept of independence in film publicity? By examining the marketing campaigns of films such as Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006), Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004), Garden State (Zach Braff, 2004), and Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005), we can find similarities in the usage of “independent” as a marketing label. This has significant implications for independent filmmakers who are not affiliated with major studios, as their primary methods of marketing are co-opted by Hollywood. As we shall see later, these filmmakers must then develop new methods of marketing to reach audiences.
The Difference between Independent and “Independent”
A definition of independent film is difficult to pinpoint because it can hinge on aesthetics, subject matter, budget, actors, director, or any number of other factors. The label of independent film typically connotes certain aesthetics or social themes, or what Holmlund calls “a distinctive visual look, an unusual narrative pattern, a self-reflexive style.” Many scholarly accounts of independent film reflect on past eras, documenting the industry’s history as eras distinct from the independent film era of today. Greg Merritt writes a thorough biography of independent film, beginning with the early days of cinema, and Peter Biskind formulates his history around the rise of Miramax and the Sundance Film Festival. Others try to understand independent film through an examination of what are often considered the “founding fathers” of the contemporary canon, including, among other films, Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984); sex, lies and videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989); Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992); and Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994). Many accounts speculate on the present-day status of independent film but surprisingly often fail to expand beyond superficial musings on the blurring lines between Hollywood and independent studios.
Independent films are typically made outside the Hollywood studio system and are often products of creative devotion, a luxury not afforded within the confines of a tightly managed studio production. The lines quickly start to blur when we try to pin down a definition because high-profile actors may star in nonstudio films, $50,000 and $15 million film budgets are classified together, and art house cinemas may screen Woody Allen’s latest alongside a local filmmaker’s production. Even applying the limitation of making films outside the Hollywood studio system is problematic; is it fair to say that George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels were independent? They were, after all, made outside the standard Hollywood studio system, produced instead by Lucasfilm; however, the trilogy’s budget stood at roughly $350 million, hardly the scale of budget associated with independent films.
The central problem lies with ownership. Hollywood is generally divided into six major film studios: Warner Brothers, Disney, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, and 20th Century Fox; these studios control an estimated 94 percent of the domestic box office gross. Each of these is part of a globally diversified media conglomerate that operates myriad business divisions (Time Warner, for example, owns Warner Brothers, its main film studio, in addition to a cable television system, multiple cable television channels, and Internet service provider America Online; it also publishes approximately 130 magazines and employs roughly 96,000 people worldwide). Each of these major studios owns at least one “specialty” studio arm, such as Miramax (Disney), Warner Independent Pictures (Warner Brothers), and the newly formed Paramount Vantage to accompany Paramount Classics (Paramount Pictures); these specialty studios handle both production and distribution of nonmainstream films. Hollywood studios have managed their specialty, “independent” divisions for many years now, most of them having been started or acquired in the mid-1990s. Others have more recently evolved to represent the changing independent film landscape. New Line Cinema, a specialty division acquired by Turner Broadcasting in 1994 (acquired by Time Warner two years later), had its own specialty division, Fine Line. In 2003, Fine Line folded into the streamlined Warner Independent Pictures, in order to “provide an outlet where artists can express their vision, where ideas and controversies can be aired, where new talent can grow, where new styles and techniques can develop, where the conventional wisdom of tomorrow can first take shape.” In a sense, one could say that Warner Independent is providing the educational ground through which to develop strategies for thinking about independent film within its own structures; it defines who those artists are, what ideas are aired, and how new styles develop, all within the objective of profit-making. After all, Warner Independent is designed to “fill a niche in what is otherwise a fully integrated, broad-based global entertainment company.” It is significant that Warner Independent executives see the studio as fitting into a global and undoubtedly mainstream company, rather than as an alternative to it. This is contrary to the very definition of an “independent” company.
The fact that many of these specialty divisions are called “independent” proves problematic when we acknowledge their corporate parentage. Alisa Perren argues that My Big Fat Greek Wedding (Joel Zwick, 2002) was misrepresented in its publicity and promotion as an independent film. Actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson took the film’s concept (based on a stage version) to HBO, enlisting the Time Warner-owned cable channel’s financial support in exchange for distribution rights (foreign, cable, and video). Well-connected Hollywood individuals, in this case, helped clear obstacles that the film might have otherwise faced in securing distribution, and distribution guarantees a certain level of expenditures to promote the film; after all, the distribution company wants to recoup its investment. With Hanks, Wilson, HBO, and others backing the production of Wedding and guaranteeing its distribution, therefore, Perren does not classify the film as independent.
It becomes obvious that major studios use “independent” as a label or brand for, as King writes, “association with ‘quality’, arty, edgy or ‘cool’/alternative features is good for the image,” particularly for those “individual executives with pretensions to something more than noisy blockbuster productions and [those] branches of large corporations often subject to criticism for their business practices and much of their not-so-creative output.” But corporations use the label of “independent” to legitimize themselves by emphasizing their dedication to the art of filmmaking, and often the link between specialty division and parent company is less than obvious. While we know that Warner Brothers own Warner Independent Pictures, it may be less apparent that Universal owns Focus Features. Focus Features can more easily represent itself as a truly independent film company, not a subsidiary of a major corporation, simply because of a difference in name.
Tzioumakis has offered one of the most thorough and unflinching examinations of the intersection and interconnection between independent and mainstream film. He observes the push and pull of production and distribution practices that independents use, mainstreams co-opt, and independents then eschew for new practices. Tzioumakis tackles the conundrum of defining independent film by stating that the term is in fact “a discourse that expands and contracts when socially authorized institutions (filmmakers, industry practitioners, trade publications, academics, film critics, and so on) contribute to its definition at different periods in the history of American cinema.” Tzioumakis strips away the weight of “independent” as a definitional term by noting how it becomes situated in language and marketing in order to serve power relations.
This linkage between power and the use of independent as a term is essential for understanding how it is used for marketing purposes in film today. Tzioumakis notes that the film industry trade publication Variety declares “indie” as a descriptor to have “lost much of its rugged appeal.” However, it is still used because it does carry weight. As non-Hollywood filmmakers continue to carve out spots for themselves in production, distribution, and exhibition practices, they continue to draw audiences over which Hollywood would rather take hold. Films such as The Blair Witch Project and The Passion of the Christ startled the major studios with their box office earnings of $140 million and $370 million, respectively. The innovative and groundbreaking distribution practices associated with these films, such as Blair Witch’s online presence and The Passion’s outreach to religious communities, signal that audiences are drawn to films that challenge popular notions of filmmaking and film distribution. Film distribution is, according to Wasser, the central location for maintaining power—it is in this stage of the filmmaking process that a film moves from the filmmaker or studio to the audience. Distributors retain allocative control, or the allocation of resources. It is here that marketing dollars are spent and decisions are made as to who sees the film and who does not.
Drawing a line between independent and nonindependent film is difficult when we conceive of “independent” as a discourse of power, as it does not lend itself to clear distinctions that apply to every single case. We can say, though, that “independent” as a label is being used in the cases being discussed here because media conglomerate subsidiaries aim to secure audiences wherever they exist. Hollywood has relied on blockbuster films to bring in astronomical revenues in ever-increasing numbers of theaters. While some films have been successful (Spider-Man 3, for example, opened on 4,252 screens to garner $151.2 million in the United States alone in May 2007), many other blockbuster films have not. King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005), Universal Studios’ remake of the 1933 film, was expected to tackle Titanic’s (James Cameron, 1997) ranking on the all-time top box office revenue chart; instead, it stalled at a paltry Number 51, just after Mrs. Doubtfire (Chris Columbus, 1993). Studio executives have tried to pin blame on any number of factors, including “DVDs, video games, iPods, cellular phones, HBO, crying babies, $10 tickets, Chinese pirates, big screen plasma TVs, an aging demographic, liberal bias, video-on-demand, annoying pre-feature commercials and the Bush administration’s energy policy.” No matter the reason, the fact remains that theatrical releases are stagnating. One factor that remains constant about the Hollywood movie marketing strategy is that “if you only get one demographic into the theater, you can only achieve a certain level of success.” Therefore, there is a continual effort to maximize revenue streams by expanding the types of films produced and distributed by Hollywood studios so that no matter the audience preference, Hollywood supplies it.
This is not a new phenomenon, as we can witness various periods in cinema’s history when “independent” has been co-opted by major studios and filmmakers. Howard Hughes with Hell’s Angels (1930) and David O. Selznick with Gone With the Wind (1939) both used the concept of independence to differentiate their films from the “sausage factory” films of Hollywood. Studios turned to art house fare in the 1960s, not only co-opting “independent” as a label, but also controlling the distribution of foreign films. Often laden with sexual themes generally forbidden by the American industry’s Production Code (the precursor to the modern ratings system), these films were “attracting customers and the majors wanted a part of the business.” Then, beginning in the mid-1990s, the mainstream American film industry started to institutionalize “independent” as a marketing label by overtaking those studios that were truly independent of the mainstream system and that posed the greatest threat to Hollywood dominance over alternative film supply. It wasn’t long before “independent” came to signify formulaic elements that could be predictably located and exploited for marketing purposes; the resulting climate of film publicity is likely forcing changes in truly independent film distribution.
Film Marketing Strategies
Despite its centrality in the film distribution process, film marketing is not often covered in film literature. Yet, it is vitally important to understand because it is the most direct and overt method through which major studios try to wield control. As mentioned earlier, distributors plan to add 30 percent or more to the film’s overall budget for P&A expenses, and thus, the marketing campaign is carefully mapped out. In her study of marketing campaigns for films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994), Golden Eye (Martin Campbell, 1995), and Welcome to the Dollhouse (Todd Solondz, 1995), Tiiu Lukk writes that a film’s marketing potential impacts the very production of a film. Often, major studios use content models to mitigate risk of investment, utilizing previously successful genres, star actors, and sequels, or what Justin Wyatt terms “high concept” factors, to ensure box office success, and those elements that are untested or have been unsuccessful in the past are less likely to appear onscreen. Typically associated with blockbusters, high concept factors can now be revised and extended to “independent” films.
The marketing strategy for a Hollywood film is carefully constructed because “each film in theatrical release is a new product that needs to be explained, positioned, and promoted to consumers on its way to that short and fragile shelf life.” This strategy is a multifaceted operation, with paid advertising in print, television, radio, and other media; publicity by way of critics’ reviews and feature stories; promotional events; merchandising and cross-promotions; and various other tactics. In marketing smaller-budgeted, “independent” films, studios emphasize certain tactics over others. Publicity and advertising are likely the most oft-used tactics. A Miramax studio executive claims, “If you say a film is great enough times and can back it up with some footage, the press will begin to believe it,” which can have a significant impact on audience choice.
Marich notes that studios often use familiar elements like stars or genre for film marketing hooks because each film is its own unique product. Rather than starting from scratch every time, marketers position films in relation to those tried-and-true products that have been released in the past. Independent films represent an interesting case study in film marketing strategy because they often do not contain those familiar elements like major studio releases do. But independent films do contain their own sorts of familiar elements that are used to position a given film in relation to other successful films. These elements work in tandem to foreground the film’s very independence; some of these elements include the film’s Web site, publicity strategies to frame the film as independent (for example, a newcomer in the starring role or a novice director), and festival appearances.
The films examined in this study were selected from a list of all films, excluding foreign films, distributed to U.S. theaters by the six major studios’ top independent divisions from 2004 to 2006. These film divisions are those that self-identify as “independent” studios; for example, Fox Searchlight calls itself “Hollywood’s premiere indie movie studio,” while Miramax Films declares itself to be “return[ing] to its roots as a top provider of quality independent and modestly budgeted films from outstanding filmmakers.” Various elements of films’ marketing campaigns were examined, including: framing of actors, directors, and storylines in the media; the films’ release strategy, with particular attention to festival and theatrical platform release; and attention to certain coveted awards.
Focusing on a few select films, including Little Miss Sunshine, Garden State, Sideways, and Good Night, and Good Luck, highlights how each of these elements is manipulated for marketing purposes; these films are some of the more visible “independent” films of the past few years because they have received more marketing attention. As Globe and Mail film reviewer Johanna Schneller tells us, the logic goes that “nominations [for high-profile awards] make money” because theatrical and ancillary (home video and DVD) sales rise when a film is in the running for top awards. When a film can promise a nomination (and preferably multiple nominations), the distributor will pour money into its marketing: “[It costs] tens of millions to send out screeners to the 6,000 academy members, place ‘For Your Consideration’ ads in the trades, and fly the casts around the chat-show circuit.” Those films that cannot promise much in the way of additional revenue that spurt from nominations do not receive extra marketing efforts. Little Miss Sunshine, Garden State, Sideways, and Good Night, and Good Luck have all presumably received a good dose of marketing dollars and therefore present valuable case studies in analyzing how specialty divisions market films using elements such as specific types of actors and directors, quirky or thoughtful storylines, festival and theatrical platform releases, and certain coveted awards.
Films classified as “independent” tend to feature unconventional stories that operate outside the mainstream fare. Stories become offbeat, quirky, and artsy, positioned to alert the audience that the film might not contain the typical Hollywood cinematic experience. The films are also often labeled as quaint, charming, or endearing, as though they are the sweet but overly eccentric aunts of whom families are somewhat embarrassed. These key phrases are synonymous with independent films because they signal refreshing stories and interesting characters that defy cookie-cutter replication.
Garden State follows the story of a young man who returns home to attend his mother’s funeral after a long estrangement from his family. The film is consistently described in terms of its off-kilter storyline: it is a “quirky-with-a-capital-Q romantic comedy” with an “undeniably charming script.” Sideways, in which a pair of friends travel the southern Californian wine country in celebration of one of the friend’s impending marriage, is labeled in the press as an “offbeat gem,” its characters’ friendship filled with “quirky complexity.” In Little Miss Sunshine, a family takes a road trip to a child beauty pageant, tackling subjects such as homosexuality, suicide, and drug use, along with family dysfunction. A “silly yet endearing story,” Little Miss Sunshine is filled with “studied wackiness” and is classified as a “quirky family road picture.”
“Independent” films may also explore edgy or alternative subject matter, as was the case with Good Night, and Good Luck, which is a retelling of journalist Edward R. Murrow’s confrontations with Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early days of television. Some critics have observed a shift to more authenticity and honesty in storytelling, although many confess that this storytelling runs contrary to the average moviegoer’s preference. New York Times critic A. O. Scott predicts that “most of the discussion of [Good Night, and Good Luck] will turn on its content—on the history it investigates and on its present-day resonance,” as it is a timely critique of modern-day journalism framed within a moment of historical crisis of the McCarthy era. “The delivery isn’t as important as the message,” writes Steve Persall of the St. Petersburg Times. “Maybe that’s Clooney’s agenda: to make us consider the meat rather than the sizzle.”
An oft-used strategy of marketing “independent” films is to highlight the novice director, an aspiring filmmaker looking to make his or her mark in the world of cinema. According to Tiiu Lukk, “These are people that bring a certain rawness and newness to their storytelling style, because they’re not polished, slick Hollywood film or TV commercial directors.” The case of Zach Braff aptly illustrates this tactic. Braff, who has starred in the NBC sitcom Scrubs since 2001, leapt onto the independent film scene in 2004 with Garden State. In interviews, Braff was depicted as the amateur whose success came about from sheer luck and a dash of persistence. “I feel like I’ve won the independent film lottery,” he mused. It was a Cinderella story of sorts hammered home through promotional angles that made Braff accessible to audiences as the average Joe who made good. He traveled across the country on a publicity tour, during which he held question-and-answer sessions after film screenings. He also wrote a blog on the Garden State Web site, a personal diary of sorts, in which he related random details of his life (e.g., “I had this twisted nightmare once where I was dating a really bitchy Clydesdale who played drums in a wedding band.”) that helped audiences get to know Braff as an average citizen. “With this blog,” he said, “I thought ‘I’m just going to talk to my audience like I would with a friend.’ ” Readers of his blog were enamored with his down-to-earth style, which served to further legitimize Braff as an independent filmmaker who has not lost sight of his roots. “They say, ‘I don’t believe you’re writing this, it’s crazy you’re writing this, you seem too real, this must be your assistant.’ ” One gets the impression from Braff’s interviews that he hardly believed it either; he is “endearingly wide-eyed about his current status.”
The directorship duo, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, cut their teeth on Little Miss Sunshine. Their previous experience resided with directing music videos for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, REM, Smashing Pumpkins, and others. In much of the publicity around the film, the novice status of these directors contributes to the film’s freshness and integrity. As producer Marc Turtletaub attested, “Thankfully, we had John and Val who are two directors who have no background, hadn’t made a feature-length film, and they said ‘No, this is what we want to make’ and they stuck with that.” These “babes in the woods” with “virgin exposure” to Hollywood made for a steep learning curve, but their efforts were rewarded with positive feedback from critics. “What’s even more amazing is that this is the first feature from husband-and-wife directors,” exclaims Christie Lemire of MSNBC. “They’ve come up with no stereotypes, no self-consciously quirky indie-movie clichés.”
Having only directed one other film, George Clooney, director of Good Night, and Good Luck, could have been positioned as a novice director. However, his acting reputation precludes the marketing campaign from focusing on his inexperience in a similar way to Zach Braff or Little Miss Sunshine’s directors. Rather, the subject matter of his film compels film reviewers and feature writers to frame him as operating outside the studio system, the mark of an independent filmmaker. “You’ve got to stick with your convictions,” he says in an interview. “Do what you want to do and hope that it strikes a chord.” Because he has taken risks, one film critic labeled him as the “indie-Spielberg,” his commitment to Good Night, and Good Luck so strong that “he famously accepted only $1 for producing, directing and writing.”
Actors are probably the most visible and recognizable marketing element of a film. Unknown or unpopular actors are considered to be a handicap to a film’s success, but they are in fact becoming more integral to the legitimacy of independent films. They are logistically essential to most independent films simply because budgets cannot afford expensive stars. But they are essential as well because they are exploited as a shrewd marketing angle. The stars in Little Miss Sunshine and Sideways in particular, while generally known, are not A-list actors able to command high salaries for their participation in projects. Indeed, those most recognized for acting ability are unlikely to be among the most well-paid actors in Hollywood. Rather, these stars take risky roles and explore the craft of acting with dignity and style. Because “independent” films are typically character-driven, the actors portraying those characters make or break a film; therefore, publicity around a film’s actors highlight their excellence.
Little Miss Sunshine boasts an ensemble cast, and the contribution of each actor relays a stellar performance in understated dysfunction, indicative of their overall acting ability. It is rare,” notes Los Angeles Times critic Mary McNamara about Greg Kinnear, who plays the father in the film, “to read a bad or even lukewarm review of Kinnear’s work.” Toni Collette receives similar accolades, both for her role in Sunshine and in her other films. “Her body of work has earned her widespread respect within Hollywood, where she is considered among the most talented of her generation.” Alan Arkin garnered the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 2007 for his performance of the film’s heroin-addicted grandfather, after quietly promoting the film through “a gentle campaign fashioned around what Mr. Arkin is willing to do: talk-show appearances, a few interviews and a special evening sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.”
Sideways similarly boasted an ensemble cast that each contributed to the overall acting performance of the film. Thomas Haden Church was perhaps best known for his television roles in Wings (1990-1997) and Ned and Stacey (1995-1997) before he took the role of Jack in Sideways. Virginia Madsen had also been primarily a television actor before joining the cast of Sideways as Maya. These two actors eventually competed for 2005 Academy Awards, which signaled to audiences that their acting, along with that of costar Paul Giamatti were appropriately billed as “great anchoring performances” by critics.
Good Night, and Good Luck starred a range of actors as well, although David Strathairn’s portrayal of Edward R. Murrow drove the film, eventually securing a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards in 2006. But the film’s promotion focused less on the strength of its actors and more on its subject matter. However, because this film was based on actual events, the marketing campaign included individuals who worked alongside the real-life Murrow. For example, Hugh Downs, the retired journalist, attended question-and-answer sessions that accompanied film promotional events.
The film’s marketing strategy is carefully planned around its release schedule. Because an “independent” film often has low-profile actors, a novice director, and a quirky storyline, it is often perceived as a risky project that must be carefully monitored in its distribution and exhibition. To cushion this risk, distributors first screen these kinds of films at film festivals to test the film with critics then move them into a platform theatrical release to test with audiences.
The film festival is an arena of discovery. Ideally, any film, regardless of financial or professional connection (or lack thereof), might be sold to a distributor here; it is this Cinderella story that turned The Blair Witch Project into an overnight success. Many festivals, however, are more known for their “independent” films, rather than their independent ones, as the film festival circuit has become one component of a major studio’s planned marketing strategy. Sony Pictures Classics decided that “the best way to create a profile for [their independent feature Welcome to the Dollhouse] would be through a series of film festivals leading up to a summer release for the film.” This is an inexpensive way to garner publicity and critical acclaim: “One of the benefits of festival exposure is that films get reviewed by the media,” upon which word-of-mouth (or buzz) develops.
Garden State screened at seven different festivals, including a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 before its theatrical release. It continued to screen at festivals, moving to the international festival circuit as Fox Searchlight and Miramax prepared to release the film overseas. Sideways screened at four festivals, including Toronto and New York, before its domestic theatrical release in 2004, and also expanded to a broad range of international festivals to precede its foreign theatrical release. Good Night, and Good Luck opened at the Venice and New York Film Festivals prior to its release in theaters; the film traveled to more festivals after this release.
Little Miss Sunshine also premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival; Fox Searchlight acquired distribution rights to the film for $10.5 million. While the film did not have a financial relationship with Fox Searchlight prior to distribution, it did rely on other studio financing for its production. Focus Features had initially funded the film’s production before pulling out before the film was finished. Because Little Miss Sunshine did not arrive at Sundance with a major production and distribution company in hand, its adoption by Fox Searchlight has been classified as “the classic Sundance Cinderella story,” wherein a small, “independent” film drew attention and dollars. Fox Searchlight then structured an international festival release strategy to preface the film’s international distribution, touring the film at festivals such as Locarno, Helsinki, Tokyo, and Manila.
To complement festival exposure and to build upon critical acclaim, distributors then release their films in a platform strategy, which “involves opening a film in one theater or a few theaters in key target cities, with the intention of building word-of-mouth, then widening the run to other cities, usually in phases.” Fox Searchlight built similar release schedules for Sideways in 2004 and for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006, allowing “word-of-mouth to build, rather than this big blitzkrieg ad campaign where you feel like you’re being sold on something … [Fox Searchlight] allowed people to discover the movie rather than have them feel like they have to be talked into it.” The film started on 7 screens in July 2006, peaking at 1,602 screens two months later before finally leaving theaters in March 2007 with a $59.9 million box office gross. Garden State started on 9 screens, building to 813 screens in five weeks. Sideways opened on 4 screens and peaked at 1,786 screens four months later. To put these numbers in perspective, the average Hollywood blockbuster opens on thousands of screens in the United States and worldwide. King Kong opened on 3,576 screens, while Spider-Man 3opened on 4,252 American screens with simultaneous theatrical openings around the world. So while “independent” films still do not compete at the level of blockbuster opening, they are increasingly becoming major players in the exhibition market.
The Independent Spirit Awards are presented by Film Independent, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting independent film and filmmakers. The event “has made a name for itself as the premier awards event for the independent film community,” celebrating a “uniqueness of vision”; “original, provocative subject matter”; “economy of means (with particular attention paid to total production cost and individual compensation)”; and “percentage of financing from independent sources.” Receiving an Independent Spirit award solidifies the label of “independent” for many of Hollywood’s so-called independent films. This award is not, after all, the mainstream Academy Awards or Golden Globes. Rather, it is a banner that marketers can attach to the film’s poster, alongside its festival mentions, to validate the film’s supposed independence. Even press coverage of the event itself confirms the status of this award; the awards ceremony is “always offbeat” with a “let-it-all-hang-out tone.”
With rising budgets seeping into the independent film industry, some films’ eligibility for the award is called into question. But the award judges may overlook certain shortcomings, including having a too-large budget. Sideways, whose budget came in at $17.5 million, exceeded the awards cap of $15 million but was accepted anyway and ended up receiving the most nominations for 2005, eventually winning six awards. The awards ceremony compensates for this budget bloat by instituting an award for Best Film Under $500,000; it has also raised the budget cap to $20 million. Now, it seems, there are two types of films that can receive Independent Spirit Awards: Hollywood’s “independents” and true independents. For the truly independents, perhaps this award means something. For Hollywood’s specialty studio divisions, four Independent Spirit Awards in 2007 for Little Miss Sunshine, one award and three nominations in 2006 for Good Night, and Good Luck, and one award and one nomination for Garden State in 2005 mean that these have achieved the spirit of independence, despite the fact that the films are not independent at all.
The theatrical and subsequent home video performances of some of these films were further bolstered by Academy Award nominations and wins. In 2005, Sideways won an Oscar for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for an additional four Oscars. Good Night, and Good Luck was nominated for six awards in 2006, and Little Miss Sunshine took home two Oscars (Best Supporting Actor and Best Writing, Original Screenplay), having received four total nominations.
An Unreliable Formula
Hollywood specialty studios try very hard to construct the perfect independent film. They have tried to figure out an equation that labels films as “independent.” Unknown or underappreciated (but nonetheless stellar) actors work with young, fresh directors in quirky, offbeat films that hit all the major film festivals to build word-of-mouth. This all precedes their limited platform releases and the eventual winning of coveted Independent Spirit Awards, which leads to a respectable performance at the box office and on home video.
Hollywood has instituted many of these elements to assemble an infrastructure that can be used to dominate film distribution to all audience niches. Film festivals such as Sundance, Toronto, and Cannes have become all but unreachable for amateur filmmakers hoping to break into the film industry. Instead, they are used as one of several stops within the release strategy of a major studio’s “independent” film. Even theater chains are becoming part of that Hollywood “independent” infrastructure. AMC Theatres, the country’s second-largest theater chain, has designated a certain number of its theaters to its AMC Select program, going by the tagline, “Special Films for Select Tastes.” This program “showcase[s] independent films in theaters in markets where art house viewers are believed to reside.”
Is the formula so entrenched that every film released by studio specialty divisions can be guaranteed box office success? Certainly Little Miss Sunshine and the other films examined here attest to the reliability of this formula. But we can also locate many instances of films that have failed, despite Hollywood’s best efforts. For example, Sony Pictures Classics distributed The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada from first-time director and seasoned actor Tommy Lee Jones. It started in various festivals such as Cannes and Toronto, garnered four Independent Spirit Award nominations, and opened on 33 screens. It only expanded, however, to 356 screens in four weeks before the studio acknowledged that audiences did not agree with the film’s publicity. The film’s box office gross stalled at $5 million.
Thumbsucker (Mike Mills, 2005) faced an uphill challenge from the start, as producers and distributors alike refused to sign on to the film because, as director Mike Mills recalls, they felt that “it’s unmarketable, it’s unmarketable, it’s unmarketable.” Some “independent” films are rather too independent, as Mills discovered with his film. Despite signing on Tilda Swinton and Keanu Reeves to star in the film, Sony Pictures Classics (its eventual distributor) gave the film limited marketing attention; it tried to follow “independent” film marketing protocol by premiering the film at Sundance in 2005, followed by screenings at the festivals in Berlin and Toronto the same year. Thumbsucker was even nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. But Thumbsucker’s platform release, starting with nine screens, only expanded to 330 screens before the studio realized that the film was bombing. The film’s dual coming-of-age stories (the story of the main character, Justin, and the story of his parents) “seems to be what scared the marketing people.” Mills protested the tactics used for his film, which eventually spelled its demise of garnering only $1.3 million in a ten-week run. “The marketing thing pissed me off … In [the U.S.], it’s just lumped into this quirky independent box.”
Hollywood studio executives tend to think that they have captive audiences whose preferences are easily mapped. As Miller et al. write, “Marketing executives have already decided that an audience exists for a film with the right combination of high playability, clear positioning and abundant marketability.” The prevalence of Hollywood specialty studio divisions signals Hollywood’s confidence that it must simply massage audience tastes to match company objectives, with less attention to the integrity and quality of the filmmaker or the film.
As we have seen, the film marketplace is clogged with “independent” films that are produced and distributed by the specialty divisions of major studios. These types of films define what should be typically associated with the concept of independence. Film publicity, and the corresponding infrastructure through which to communicate it, is saturated with certain buzzwords, symbols, and themes befitting independent films. It starts to matter less if the film is actually produced and distributed outside the six major studios that dominate 94 percent of the domestic box office. So where does this leave filmmakers who do operate completely outside of the studio system? If the studios effectively decide what films are shown at most theaters in the country, what outlets do independent filmmakers have? How can they differentiate their films from the studio-supported “independent” ones percolating in every corner of the film industry, given that the media generally frames them all to be of the same ilk?
Independent film has existed alongside, in opposition to, and because of major studio productions since the very beginning of cinema. Independent filmmakers have long been driven to alter their production, distribution, and exhibition practices in order to stand out, only for Hollywood to co-opt them after the success of these practices has been proven. For example, the economic imperative of filming with consumer-grade digital cameras has translated into digital camerawork in major productions, as seen in films such as Click (Frank Coraci, 2006), distributed by Sony Pictures, and Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006), distributed by Universal Pictures. Consequently, this once economic and aesthetic necessity has mainstreamed to the point that it no longer is a mark of an independent film. The use of Web sites and social networking sites to reach film audiences has produced a glut of carefully crafted and highly purposeful online corporate marketing synergies. Because of Hollywood’s constant co-opting of independent techniques, however, independent filmmakers are forced to continue developing new techniques, infrastructures, and tactics, pushing the boundaries, in this case, of traditional film marketing and distribution.
The case of Four Eyed Monsters (Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, 2005) exemplifies the willingness of independent filmmakers to pursue innovative modes of marketing and distribution in order to connect with audiences. The film, which follows the relationship of two shy individuals who communicate by never directly speaking to each other, has located its audiences primarily, like most independent films these days, through online word-of-mouth. After an appearance at the 2006 Slamdance Film Festival (which happens concurrently in Park City, Utah, with Sundance), Buice and Crumley’s hopes of securing a distributor did not pan out. Therefore, they began to develop their own marketing and distribution plan that was not contingent on studio (or even independent distribution company) support. The duo began broadcasting via their film’s Web site episodic video podcasts that were effectively extensions of the film itself. These mini-films were paired with music by unsigned musicians and offered via MySpace in order to initiate cross-promotion, whereby music fans would discover the film and vice versa; they have been downloaded over 500,000 times via YouTube, MySpace, and iTunes. Soon, the directors decided to premiere the 71-minute Four Eyed Monsters on the video-sharing site, YouTube, becoming the first full-length feature to do so.
Their next step involved identifying clusters of interested audiences in different geographic locations in order to arrange screenings likely to be attended by at least 150 people. Buice and Crumley screened their film in over 100 cities around the United States after having received requests from over 5,000 people. With their attention now turned toward creating more minifilm podcasts and coordinating a DVD release of Four Eyed Monsters, the pair cannot promise that they themselves will arrange screenings. They do, however, encourage audiences to host screenings. They have relinquished control over possible financial gain from these kinds of screenings, merely suggesting: “We recommend screenings be free,” the film’s Web site proposes, “but if money is charged, we ask that half be sent to us via pay pal. And educational institutions that normally pay films a screening fee can just send us a check for the going rate they normally pay to other films.” Some of these screenings are arranged through Brave New Theaters, which bills itself as “the world’s first people-powered movie distributor.” This free service facilitates networks between filmmakers and venues (both traditional theaters and nontraditional venues such as churches or universities) in order to arrange screenings that “uh, wreak a little havoc on the corporate media.” “Everybody wins!” exclaims the Web site. “Except the Hollywood studios.”
Buice and Crumley have now aligned with Spout, a film recommendation community Web site, in another mutually beneficial partnership. For every person who signs up with http://Spout.com by way of Four Eyed Monsters’ recommendation, Spout will donate one dollar to recoup Buice and Crumley’s $100,000 film production costs (Spout earns most of its revenue from online DVD sales). The filmmakers have earned over $46,000 as of October 2007. Although this return is only a portion of the filmmakers’ financial outlay, it presents an alternative model of financial recouping that is not contingent on a studio distribution deal. Filmmakers are often paid an advance upon signing a distribution deal, which may or may not entirely cover production costs, and they often do not receive any additional money from box office grosses or ancillary sales. Furthermore, film rights are signed over to the distributor, therefore rendering filmmakers unable to earn any more money on the film if the film fails from distributor inattention or mishandling. Buice and Crumley’s model of self-distribution allows them to retain financial control over the film while affording them the option to try different promotional tactics.
Now other filmmakers are following Buice and Crumley’s model of film marketing and distribution. Independent filmmaker Francis Stokes released his film Harold Buttleman, Daredevil Stuntman (2002) on YouTube in August 2007; he, too, attracted the attention of Spout, which “wants to help filmmakers who are pioneering online distribution.” The Web site is contributing one dollar to Stokes’ production expenses for each member signed up on http://Spout.com through Stokes’ recommendation (Stokes had secured nearly $2,500 as of October 2007). These strategies are in sharp contrast to the operations of any corporately owned film distributor, which does not relinquish such control over distribution and exhibition. Films made outside the studio system count on communities of support, often achieved by handing over control to audiences and trusting them with it. Since its inception, independent film has relied on communities of support that gather for the love of cinema, rather than corporately distributed “independent” film that actively seeks and builds communities through the financial heft of marketing dollars. The truly independent film communities might develop as a result of festival buzz or as a collection of supporters finding and responding to a film on YouTube or Spout. Independent filmmakers’ style of promotion relies on self-selected communities who stumble across or purposefully seek out a given film such as Four Eyed Monsters, rather than having a film shoved at them from every conceivable angle.
While these films may not garner anywhere near similar levels of box office grosses as Hollywood releases, filmmakers such as Buice and Crumley are more interested in circumventing the strictures of the traditional distribution track, thereby paving the way for filmmakers to self-distribute without going broke. Another independent filmmaker, Lance Weiler, established a sustainable model of theatrical self-distribution for his film Head Trauma that hinged on paid speaking engagements, advertising sponsors, and 50/50 door split with small theaters on his film’s national tour. He notes that the current distribution system is broken, which puts filmmaking “at a very interesting crossroads. When something is damaged it provides new opportunities.” Despite Hollywood’s best efforts to control the film industry by coding their own films as “independent” in marketing campaigns, independent filmmakers continue to push the boundaries of what audiences identify as independent. With each new marketing or distribution tactic, they remove gatekeeper control out of Hollywood studios’ hands, at least momentarily, so that audiences have more agency over the kinds of films they would like to see, and filmmakers have more agency over the fates of their films. “Through all these media,” comment Buice and Crumley, “we’re having sort of a conversation with our audience. We’re becoming friends with people we’ve never met.” These personal relationships are key for independent filmmakers, as the filmmakers typically do not have the financial wherewithal to compete with “independent” film marketing materials flooding out of Hollywood. In fact, some consider their lack of marketing to be the crucial component:
If these films are hyped, they may be doomed. One of the joys of stumbling upon a charming or sophisticated or funny low-budget … film is just that, stumbling upon it, whether given to you on DVD by a friend or the filmmaker himself or walking into one of them unknowingly at a film festival … I’d think they need to come at the average viewer like a pleasant surprise, with as little forethought or anticipation as possible.
While the preceding quote refers directly to “mumblecore” films (films that have been deemed part of a new independent film movement that revels in low production qualities and casual filmmaking), film journalist Anthony Kaufman’s sentiments can be extended to much of independent cinema today.
Hollywood studios use specialty film divisions to produce and distribute “independent” films in order to maximize revenue streams by offering films to every audience niche. No matter the preference, Hollywood should supply it. Independent filmmakers have long posed a threat to Hollywood’s methods of conducting business by presenting innovative and often equally effective modes of filmmaking, and as independent filmmakers discover more techniques that facilitate the production, distribution, and exhibition of their films, Hollywood strives to retain its control by coding its films as “independent.” Major studios release films under specialty labels that self-identify as “independent” (witness Warner Independent Pictures) and follow strict marketing campaigns that foreground a given film’s “independent” qualities. These elements are intended to connect a given film with previously released independent films; they include fresh or amateur directors, quality acting, quirky or endearing storylines, a release strategy that includes the festival circuit and platform releasing, and coveted awards. While this chapter uncovers how Hollywood studios use these elements for narrative feature films, it should be noted that another area ripe for further development is how studios market documentaries, which are films traditionally under the helm of independent filmmakers. As documentaries perform increasingly well at the box office, Hollywood studios will surely more explicitly craft marketing campaigns to code these films in certain ways. Are these campaigns similar to those of “independent” films, or do they contain elements unique to the genre?
We must also consider how Hollywood studios will respond to new marketing and distribution techniques such as those utilized by Susan Buice and Arin Crumley for Four Eyed Monsters. These filmmakers eschew financial gain by offering their film free-of-charge on YouTube and allowing people to screen the film in whatever venue possible—all in return for the knowledge that their film is finding its audience. Hollywood will likely refuse to relinquish control over marketing and distribution and will likely still try to co-opt these techniques somehow, monetizing them for financial gain. Hollywood studios may more actively seek out practitioners of alternative film distribution before these models prove successful or are popularly adopted, offering opportunities to work with studios to develop distribution options that continue to favor a studio’s interests over those of the filmmakers. However, a studio promise of profits may still not overcome the lure of retaining rights to one’s own creative work and the chance to intimately connect with audiences.