The Sundance narrative films are always the hot properties going into the festival, but many of these star-studded films fade while starless films often surprise. Here’s a look at how the narrative films from the 2012 festival performed.



They acquired the audience and jury prize winners from the US Dramatic competition and both have scored Oscar nominations. The Sessions was acquired for worldwide rights for $6 million and with a $4 Million P&A (prints & advertising) minimum. It has grossed $5,818,544 in North America an additional $3,135,887 overseas. The film has since sold to dozens of territories. Beasts of the Southern Wild, meanwhile played in theaters for a whopping 20 weeks and despite never being in more than 318 theaters (60% of the max count for The Sessions at 516) grossed more than every Sundance film from 2012 except for one. Its gross stands at $11,539,605. Furthermore, it was bought at a bargain of under a $1,000,000. It has also been released in over a dozen countries that have reported box office grosses with many more sure to come in light of its best picture Oscar nominations insuring that the film will more than make back its $1.8 million dollar budget.


SPC is really known as the best company for foreign films in the US and being the latest champion of Woody Allen, but they continue to be very prominent at Sundance. They snatched up two high profile narrative films that performed on extreme opposite ends of the spectrum.

Smashed was acquired for $1,000,000 on the strength of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance. Unfortunately, it is not easy to market a serious movie about 20 somethings attempting to get sober. Despite decent if not great reviews, it will max out at under $400,000 gross even though it received the typical maximum playout that SPC has to offer with its run peaking at 50 screens. Once P&A are accounted for this film is pretty much a loss for SPC.

Celeste and Jesse Forever performed much better at the box office grossing $3,094,813, but it went as wide as 586 screens and only had 5 weekends where it averaged a  PSA (per screen average) of over $1k. Acquired for $2,000,000, this film is most likely a slight loss for the distributor, but a big profit to the filmmaker who had a reported budget of under $900,000. It has grossed just over $200,000 from releases in 8 other countries.


28 Hotel Rooms barely played in more than 10 theaters and grossed $18,869. With so few locations, the focus was clearly on digital/VOD. For a NEXT film (meaning micro budget), it is far from a terrible gross and given poor to okay reviews. Hello I Must Be Going was an opening day film at the festival, but despite playing in more theaters during its run and not being available on VOD, it only managed $106,709. At its widest, it played in 15 theaters, but the expansion was too quick and the film fizzled fast.


There are really two types of IFC releases in theaters. One is play a week at IFC Film Center in New York City and maybe one more location and the rest of the run is on VOD. The other is a theatrical push. In most cases, any late acquisitions announced well after a festival has wrapped fall into the former. Later acquisitions Price Check (2 theaters,$7,413 gross), Young and Wild (2 theaters, $5,514), and Save the Date (2 theaters, $5,719 gross)  have all grossed less than $10k in one week of theatrical release. Also not passing that threshold are The Pact and Why Stop Now (3 theaters, $2,432 gross) . As a horror film, The Pact likely performed much better on VOD, covering its mid six figure acquisitions price. The other films were targeting minority communities (Young and Wild) or relying on stars (Save the Date and Why Stop Now ) to push ill-reviewed films. VOD was not reported, but most likely these other films were all acquired for under $100,000. They should all eventually prove profitable for IFC, but not the filmmakers.

In contrast Liberal Arts has grossed $327,345 which is more than Josh Radnor’s  prior film Happythankyoumoreplease, but that film was dumped into the marketplace over a year after it won the audience award. Liberal Arts had the hot young actress Elizabeth Olson as a co star and produced a so-so gross for its over $1,000,000 acquisition price, meaning it had to do stellar on VOD, foreign and other ancillaries to be profitable

Sleepwalk With Me meanwhile  relied on a built in audience to get the message across and is truly something unique that is not easily duplicated by other indie films. It had the boost of winning Best of NEXT Audience Award at Sundance, a prime follow up at SXSW, Birbiglia’s comedian following and with, Ira Glass as producer, a tie in to “This American Life” which has a very loyal following. The film grossed $2,266,067 on 135 screens at its peak, stayed in theaters for 3 months and was followed very closely by a cable VOD release.  

This has not been a particularly strong year for IFC, but Sleepwalk With Me is its highest grossing film theatrically and the filmmakers themselves heavily promoted the film instead of relying on higher cost promotional/marketing methods as the central way of getting out the word. All parties worked overtime to push the film and it is not a model that an unknown would be able to ever duplicate.


Magnolia admitted that part of the reason it was not financing the awards campaign for Ann Dowd for Compliance was because the film lost money. While this controversial film is the third highest grossing film ever from the Next section and $319,285 is nothing to cry about, the film was also not released day and date VOD as is typical for the distributor. In its first week it amassed $43,346 on one screen, but it did not hold up well in expansion. It topped out at 21 screens in its fourth week and while the acquisition price wasn’t reported, it most likely was no more than low six figures. I think this is a case of unrealistic expectations.

V/H/S played in almost as many theaters and only grossed $100,345 (releasing in October, naturally), but as with The Pact its money came from VOD and a sequel (S-V/H/S) was quickly put through which was at this year’s fest (picked up for release by IFC). Even though $1,000,000 was spent to acquire it, this film should prove to be pretty profitable.

Meanwhile, Nobody Walks was only in theaters for 5 weeks and never played on more than 7 screens, grossing a measly $25,342 . It was acquired for mid-high six figures and the focus was clearly always on VOD. While VOD was not reported, given the cast and producing powers it is likely to have recouped.

Magnolia also released 2 Days in New York, the sequel to 2 Days in Paris to the tune of $633,210 and Magnet came to the festival with Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie which did okay theatrically with $201,406.00 and both likely had a robust life in the digital sphere.


Tribeca Film released two US Dramatic entries. For Ellen grossed $12,396 on 3 screens for 7 weeks despite the presence of Paul Dano. The Comedy however has grossed     $41,113 on 4 screens for 8 weeks and the bulk of that coming from one screen in NY capitalizing on its Brooklyn setting. Both did day and date, but I imagine The Comedy outperformed For Ellen there too.


Keep the Lights On and Middle of Nowhere did almost identical business. Middle of Nowhere was released by writer/director Ava DuVernay’s distribution company AFFRM and played in a mix of major urban megaplexes and arthouse theaters, grossing $236,806 on 25 screens for a total of 9 weeks in theatrical release. Keep the Lights On had the backing of Music Box Films and relied heavily on screens from Landmark and specialty houses in LGBT dominant markets. The film grossed $246,112 on 10 screens for a total of 16 weeks in theatrical release. Red Hook Summer hired Variance Films for its DIY theatrical and grossed $338,803 on 41 screens for total of 11 weeks in theatrical release. The Spike Lee feature was made for under $1,000,000. While it grossed more than the two films above, it did so with a brand name director.

Safety Not Guaranteed was acquired by Film District for over $1,000,000 and grossed $4,010,957 on 149 screens for a total of 19 weeks in theatrical release. The film only cost $750,000 to make and has had some international success too.

Focus Features paid over $2,000,000 for worldwide rights to For a Good Time Call but the film only grossed $1,251,749 in the US and a little over $100,000 in the UK. This may seem bad, but the film was available on VOD when it opened and has been a top performer on iTunes. It never played in more than 107 theaters. The film cost $1,300,000 to make so it also turned a nice profit for the producers.

The $2.5 Million budgeted Robot and Frank was acquired by Sony and Samuel Goldwyn for over $2 Million and grossed over $3.3 Million theatrically. It has grossed another almost $500,000 internationally.

But the big success is Roadside Attraction’s Arbitrage which they paid over $3,000,000 for and chose to do VOD/Theatrical. It has grossed almost $8,000,000 and equaled that on VOD.

Lastly, The Words was the only Sundance 2012 film to get a wide release, 2801 screens. CBS bought the closing night film for $2,000,000. It managed $11,494,838 barely out performing Beasts of the Southern Wild.


Image debuted the star studded film Goats on four screens to a PSA of under $500 and its theatrical run quickly ended in one week. The film was acquired for almost $1,000,000 coming nowhere close to the film’s $5,000,000 Budget. A loss for all involved.

California Solo is still in theaters, but with a current gross of $15,433 on 2 screens for the last 6 weeks, it is not a breakout for Strand Releasing. Unlike a lot of recent Strand acquisitions from Sundance, it actually received a theatrical release.

Teddy Bear is one of the few world dramatic films to sell and though it only grossed $16,138  for Film Movement, this is a notable success. It is a foreign mumblecore film with no name actors and it out grossed other films that have been released from the same programming section.

Sony Worldwide’s release of The First Time will likely be its last since the film couldn’t get over $25k despite opening in 19 theaters. The theatrical only lasted one week.

Madrid, 1987 and That’s What She Said did not report grosses. The latter shared screens in LA and NY then immediately went digital courtesy of Phase 4. The Film Collaborative handled the theatrical for Mosquita Y Mari. While it grossed under $15k, it is the highest grossing Lesbian narrative of 2012 that received theatrical release.


TWC Radius release Lay the Favorite is a domestic theatrical flop and not likely to justify the acquisition price of over $2,000,000. Lay the Favorite grossed only $20,998 theatrically in the US and has barely grossed over $1,000,000 abroad. Considering the production cost was $20,000,000, there are probably a lot of angry investors.

Their second acquisition, Bachelorette, cost a fraction of that production budget at $3,000,000 and has grossed almost $10,000,000 overseas ($447,954 domestically) and debuted at #1 on iTunes. The advance cost was $2,000,000. It will recoup for investors and may ultimately do so for TWC thanks to the likes of Rebel Wilson.

Millennium meanwhile is probably questioning paying just under $4,000,000 for Red Lights which grossed a puny $ 52,624 at the box office. With the star power and being a genre film, it is likely to have performed much better on other outlets, though the path to profit would be daunting at that acquisition price.  It has made over $13,000,000 overseas theatrically. Despite that, it is possible it won’t make back it $17-20 Million production budget.


  • While VOD adds costs to a theatrical, it is often a win-win for distributors and filmmakers.
  • NEXT films are doing better at the box office, but still not measuring up to the box office of the US Dramatic films.
  • 9 of the 38 Narrative releases grossed over $1,000,000 (5 premiere, 3 US Dramatic, 1 Next)
  • 8 of the 38 narrative releases failed to gross over $10k at the box office (3 Premiere, 2 World Dramatic, 1 US Dramatic, 1 Next, 1 Midnight)


Sundance received over 12,000 submissions for under 200 slots at the 2013 festival. You are more likely to get into Harvard than you are into Sundance. Yet a number of people manage to do it multiple times and even in the same year. Here are the double and triple players.

David Lowery co-wrote and co-produced Pit Stop and also wrote/directed Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and edited Upstream Color. All were official selections at Sundance this year.

James Franco and Vince Jolivette each have Interior. Leather Bar, Lovelace, and Kink. Jolivette is a producer on all three films. Franco co-wrote and stars in Interior. Leather bar, stars in Lovelace and directed Kink.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars A.C.O.D and The Spectacular Now. Her costar in The Spectacular Now, Brie Larson, is also in Don Jon’s Addiction.

Juno Temple is in Afternoon Delight and Lovelace.

Casey Wilson co-wrote and stars in Ass Backwards and is also in C.O.G

Amy Seimetz is not only one of the stars of Pit Stop, but this indie darling is also in Upstream Color.

Table for your reference of the docs and narratives from Sundance 2012

Film Company Deal Amount Terrtitories Sales Company Box Office/Release Section Budget Other Theatrical Countries with reported grosses Additional Countries with a release International Grosses
Bestiaire Kimstim Films US $1,428.00 New Fron NA NA  NA
Putin’s Kiss Kino Lorber N/A North America N/A $9,114.00 world doc NA Denmark  NA
The Law in These Parts Cinema Guild US Liran Atzmor, Produce $10,309.00 World Doc NA NA  NA
China Heavyweight Zeitgeist N/A US EyeSteelFilms $10,550.00 World Doc NA Japan  NA
Payback Zeitgeist N/A US N/A $17,979.00 World Doc NA Canada  NA
The Ambassador Drafthouse Films N/A US Trustnordisk $28,102.00 World Doc NA NA  NA
West of Memphis SPC N/A Worldwide Peter Jackson and Ken Kamins $46,307 Doc Premiere NA Portugal, United Kingdom  NA
The Invisble War Cinedigm and New Video N/A North America The Film Collaborative $62,649.00 US Doc NA NA  NA
5 Broken Cameras Kino Lorber N/A US CAT&Docs $74,571.00 World Doc $250,000 United Kingdom Canada, Japan, Sweden $36,372.00
Escape Fire Roadside N/A US CAA $87,577 US Doc NA NA  NA
Marina Abramovic Music Box N/A US Submarine $86,637.00 us doc Austria, Italy, Poland, Russa, Ukraine France, Germany, Ireland, United Kingdom $57,127.00
How To Survive a Plague Sundance Selects High Six Figures North America Submarine $123,814.00 US Doc NA NA  NA
The Other Dream Team Film Arcade & Lionsgate Mid Six Figures North America WME $135,228.00 US Doc NA NA  NA
The House I Live In Abramorama US Theatrical $186,059 US Doc United Kingdom $8,407.00
Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap Indomina Over $1,000,000 Worldwide UTA $288,312.00 doc premiere United Kingdom NA $45,388.00
Detropia DIY $377,219 US Doc NA NA  NA
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Sundance Selects N/A North America Cinetic Media, Victoria Cook $489,074.00 US Doc Austria, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom Denmark, Sweden, Taiwan $334,911.00
Shut Up and Play the Hits Oscilloscope N/A North America WME $510,334.00 Midnight United Kingdom Germany, Portugal $118,773.00
Chasing Ice Oscilloscope N/A US  (Non TV) Submarine $940,300 US Doc NA NA  NA
The Imposter Indomina N/A North America A&E Films $898,317.00 World Doc Denmark, Russia, United Kingdom Australia, France, Ireland, Kuwait, Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden $1,870,940.00
The Queen of Versailles Magnolia Mid Six Figures North America Submarine $2,401,999.00 US DOC United Kingdom NA $93,707.00
Searching for Sugar Man SPC Mid Six Figures North America Submarine $3,095,075 World Doc Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates France, Germany, Netherland, Norway $2,203,958.00
Indie Game: The Movie HBO And Scott Rudin
(Remake Rights)
N/A TV Film Sales Company B.O. Gross not
world doc NA Taiwan  NA
Big Boys Gone Bananas DIY Theatrical US B.O. Gross Not Reported World Doc NA Sweden, Canada, UK  NA
Bones Brigade The Film Sales Company/Sundance Artist Services DIY Theatrical and Digital Platforms US The Film Sales Company B.O. Gross Not Repoted Doc Premiere NA Japan  NA
Room 237 IFC Midnight N/A North America Betsy Rodgers 2013 New Fron NA Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, United Kingdom  NA
Under African Skies Snag Films N/A Exclusive Digital A&E Films Digital Doc Premiere NA NA  NA
The House I Live In Snag Films Domestic Distribution Digital US Doc NA NA  NA
Love Free or Die Wolfe US DVD/VOD Cinephil Digital US DOC The film will be available for educational/non-theatrical screenings beginning in October through Kino/Lorber in partnership with Wolfe, followed by airings on PBS stations nationwide as part of the series “Independent Lens.” Wolfe will release the film on DVD/VOD in 2013. NA NA  NA
About Face HBO Doc N/A TV Pre-Fest TV Doc Premiere $500,000 NA Italy  NA
The D Word HBO Doc N/A TV Pre-Fest TV doc premiere NA NA  NA
Chasing Ice National Geographic N/A TV Submarine TV US  Doc NA NA  NA
Marina Abramovic HBO Doc TV Pre-Fest TV us doc NA NA  NA
Me @ The Zoo HBO Doc Mid Six Figures TV Submarine TV us doc NA NA  NA
The Queen of Versailles Bravo N/A TV Submarine TV US DOC NA NA  NA
Ethel HBO Doc N/A TV Pre-Fest TV/B.O. Gross not reported Doc Prem NA NA  NA
Under African Skies A&E Films N/A TV/Theatrical A&E Films TV/B.O. Gross Not Reported Doc Premiere NA NA  NA
A Place At the Table (Finding North) Magnolia US Submarine US DOC NA NA  NA

January 29th, 2013

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, Theatrical

Tags: , , , ,

Sundance is the preeminent film festival in the world to premiere documentaries. In fact, 10 of the 15 films shortlisted for the 2013 Oscar for best documentary had their debut at the 2012 festival and 4 of the 5 nominees world premiered at the festival.

11 of the documentaries have grossed over $100,000 at the North American box office (with a 12th all but guaranteed). That is just barely less than the number of docs from TIFF, Cannes, Berlin, SXSW, and Tribeca combined that were able to cross the same threshold.

The Sundance Film Festival is an important venue for documentaries

The Sundance Film Festival is an important venue for documentaries


At the top are the two docs that were the day one films last year. If I was the producer of Twenty Feet From Stardom, this fact would make me pretty damn happy. Last year’s Searching for Sugar Man and Queen of Versailles both sold for mid six figures and enjoyed enormous success.Twenty Feet sold on Thursday to Radius and the Weinstein Co. in one of the first deals at the festival. It is scheduled to launch theatrically in the States later this year.

Performing well beyond expectations is Searching for Sugar Man which won the world documentary audience award has grossed just over $3,000,000 in the careful hands of SPC. Acquired for mid six figures the film is easily profitable for the distributor and with distribution in at least 11 other countries and an international gross of over $2,000,000 it is also easily profitable for the filmmakers.

As with a number of films we will get to in a bit, this film had a rather slow rollout and opened to a decent, but not spectacular PSA of $9,153 on 3 screens. As with other top grossing docs from prior year’s this film deals with a would-be star, a Cinderella story, and has a bit of a mystery.  For 18 weekends in a row, the film averaged over $1,000 PSA which is nothing short of remarkable. At its widest, it played in 157 screens, but at that point it had already grossed well over a million.

While Queen of Versailles opened to a much higher PSA of $17,109 on 3 screens it also expanded much more quickly and the gross suffered slightly for it. Its widest release was on 89 screens and that happened in its 4th week of release. It had 10 weekends averaging over $1k for the PSA, but basically dropped its count from week 4 on. That said, the run is nothing to complain about and a film of this type was never going to be able to play to the slow burn that Searching For Sugar Man has. What is worth noting, Magnolia chose not to day and date VOD and paid mid six figures for the film. With a total gross of $2,401,999, this film is also quite profitable for the distributor and has been a great performer on iTunes and other digital platforms since its theatrical ended. Internationally it has only been released in the UK where it has grossed $93,707.

The only company to have two documentaries from this year’s fest that grossed over $250k is Indomina. The Imposter and Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap. The latter was a combined deal with BET handling the TV premiere. The total acquisition cost was over $1,000,000.

Two other films that performed surprisingly well are the self-released Detropia and the Oscilloscope acquired concert doc Shut Up and Play the Hits. Detropia left Sundance with offers, but none of which felt right for the ode to those who have stayed in my hometown of Detroit. The filmmakers who are something close to Documentary royalty rose over $60k on Kickstarter. They opened on one screen in Royal Oak (a Detroit Suburb) and grossed $21k for the weekend. While the film has played all right outside of the Midwest, with over 1 month in the big Apple, the bulk of its grosses came from theaters throughout Michigan and the rust belt area. They were able to book both solid art house venues as well as major chains that typically would never screen a documentary. To date, the film has grossed over $377k and is a great model for DIY Theatrical. And while Burn premiered at Tribeca, the doc also did quite well relying on a regional approach. The film about Detroit firefighters has grossed just over $100k with the bulk of it coming from a theater in Chicago and a theater in Metro-Detroit. It too is a DIY, but expanded to far fewer markets.

Shut Up and Play the Hits is a band’s farewell concert doc and so Oscilloscope’s decision to do a special one night engagement at theaters around the country made perfect sense. On 161 screens it grossed $378,751! That total is from one night! It then announced that due to strong demand it would play longer. Though it disappeared from theaters in under a month it managed $510,334 and with fans doing the advertising for Oscilloscope this film is easily profitable.

The Other Dream Team was distributed by the fledgling Film Arcade in partnership with Lionsgate. The film grossed $135,228 during its 7 week run (comparatively short to a number of other films on this list). At its peak, it played in 14 theaters. While not a slam-dunk and most likely at a financial loss to the distributor, this at least shows their potential for future releases.

The Political Issue Docs

The House I Live In sold digital rights to Snag Films, but had a theatrical courtesy of Abramorama and has grossed $186,059 in the US. It opened on two screens to a PSA of $12,122 and has never played in more than 12 theaters. With Snag bound to maximize digital, this is a decent performance that only seems weaker with the high profile names that have gotten on board this film and for winning the Sundance jury prize.

How to Survive a Plague is a major theatrical under performer for Sundance Selects. They paid high six figures for this emotional macro look at Act Up.  With the film currently grossing $132,055 theatrically and most likely out of theaters for good save for a decision to bring it back in thanks to its Oscar nomination. Is grosses are not terrible, but far from great. Despite near universal critical praise, it had a number of barriers that it was unable to get over. Gay audiences are not as theatrically loyal as they used to be. They have shown that AIDS is not something they want to relive in the theaters. And straight audiences usually avoid films anchored by gay content. It will inevitably make the bulk of its money on VOD, but considering its potential, this is nothing short of a disaster. Performing much better for the distributor was Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry which at $489,074 just narrowly missed the ½ million mark. The acquisition price was not stated so we can assume it was below mid-six figures and most likely a decently profitable film for Sundance Selects.

5 Broken Cameras has grossed $75,607 in the hands of Kino Lorber and played in theaters for 22 weeks. It never played wider than 6 screens and 15 of the weeks it was in theaters it only played on 1. With next to no advertising costs and an Oscar nomination to boot, this foreign film should recoup for the budget minded specialty distributor. What remains to be seen is if any new theaters will book the film leading up to the Oscars.

The Invisible War (disclaimer:TFC is the sales agent) is a different kind of success. While the film is the lowest grossing US Documentary film to get a theatrical out of Sundance 2012, it did something none of the other films were able to; the release resulted in changes in governmental policy. There were multiple screenings held at the Pentagon and the film had a fantastic festival run to boot. Just as with the also Oscar nominated micro-budget Gasland, the success shouldn’t be judged simply by the audience, but the changes being implemented to military policy. It is also one of the highest grossing films for Cinedigm and has dwarfed the performance of its other festival acquisitions this year. Box office gross $64,010.

Escape Fire on paper would seem to have a lot going for it.  The film is about a major crisis that factored into a Presidential Election year. It was distributed by Roadside Attractions who maximized more challenging films like The Cove and Project Nim to mid-high six figure grosses. They also partnered with TUGG to spread the word. However, the film had a number of things working against it; some of which could have been fixed. Their social media campaign was something of a hot mess. Less than a month before announcing their deal with Roadside, the production attempted a second Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the theatrical, yet they simply stopped. That suggests to me that most likely the deal with Roadside was a service deal. Tugg did add some interest in a few cities, but it opened on 26 screens and was down to 2 the following week. At present, it has just barely out grossed Marina Abramovic, but that film played on fewer screens and most of its run took place after it had premiered on HBO. More importantly, Escape Fire has failed to spark legislative change. Box office gross $87,577.

Also underperforming is West of Memphis produced by Peter Jackson. The film came out the end of December and still has 90 or so theaters yet to open in, but its initial response has been tepid at best. With SPC guaranteeing the maximum payoff possible, this film may ultimately be able to gross about $200,000, but even that mark might not be reached. To date, it has grossed only $57,416 on 9 screens. While the acquisition price is not known, just by virtue of advertising costs alone, this film will not be profitable for the distributor. It will also lose out from not making the Oscar shortlist and having a run time of well over 2 hours.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present was released in theaters by Music Box Films who chose to release the film in just 2 theaters before it premiered on HBO to a gross of over $45k. It ended its run with  $86,637 and most of its additional theaters were special engagements at museums and other non-traditional theater venues. This reduced costs for extra markets and as a result of creative thinking, this film is the highest grossing doc to have premiered on HBO this year and outgrossed all the other ones combined.

Barely registering were a number of world documentary films and Doc Premiere films, in the case of the latter it is perhaps a bit surprising when factoring in the range of successes among the general premiere films (which will be addressed in my next post).

World Doc Jury winner The Law In These Parts grossed $11,227 on one screen for one month thanks to Cinema Guild. Putin’s Kiss which premiered at IDFA was even lower at $9,114 on one screen for about 3 months. Grossing just barely more than both of them are Zeitgeist’s China Heavyweight ($10,550 on 4 screens for 3 months) and Payback ($17,979 on 3 screens for 4 months). The total gross of those two films is less than the box office gross of SXSW acquisition Gregory Crewdson which is still in theaters and clocking in at $42,822. The Ambassador managed $28,102 for Drafthouse which considering they have their own theaters to help release the film, makes it possible that the theatrical wasn’t a total financial loss.

Bones Brigade had a DIY theatrical courtesy of The Film Sales Company and did not report grosses, however a complete case study of what they accomplished is now available on the Topspin Media blog. The film is now available on digital platforms. Big Boys Gone Bananas had an Oscar Qualifying run and Indie Game: The Movie did not report grosses but as was covered in an earlier blog post recouped using a number of other creative DIY methods. They also wrote their own case study and published it on their blog.

Love Free or Die has a DVD/VOD deal with Wolfe, The D Word, About Face, Me @ The Zoo, and Ethel are all HBO Docs. Ethel had an Oscar qualifying theatrical and made the shortlist, but did not get nominated. After successfully raising $29741 on Kickstarter for finishing funds, Me @ the Zoo was acquired for $500,000 and the filmmakers recouped.

Be sure to  check in next week for my final post on Sundance 2012 films with a look at the narrative films released over the last year.


January 23rd, 2013

Posted In: Distribution, Film Festivals

Tags: , , , ,

Every year there are new companies formed that want to make a big impression in the distribution world. The 2012 crop of new indie distributors is unique in that a lot of them aren’t really new. They include sales companies expanding their reach, Digital companies going theatrical and international companies making a domestic presence with varying levels of success. This post will take a look at how independent film distributors fared over the last year.

indomina logo

Indomina Releasing came out big at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival acquiring four films. They are the only company to have two documentaries from this past year’s fest gross over $250k (The Imposter and Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap). Something from Nothing was a combined deal with BET handling the TV premiere. The total acquisition cost was over $1,000,000, and though it is unknown how the cost was split, it is reasonable to assume that the TV deal was at least half of the paid price. They launched Something from Nothing on 157 screens in the opening weekend and the film grossed $288k. While it is far from their most successful film, by opening as wide as they did and having a partnership with BET, they reduced their liability and at worst it was a modest loss and most likely profitable after digital platforms.

The Imposter only opened on one screen which is where it stayed for its first two weeks racking up almost $50k! It then expanded ever so slowly to 2 then 8 then 13 screens at which point it was in its fifth week of release and had grossed over $150k. From week 5-6 its PSA (per screen average) went up by over 25% and it broke the 250k threshold while playing on 19 screens. At its peak, it played on only 31 screens and was still averaging over $3k PSA. The film, which opened in July, played until early December! When it comes to documentaries with harder to define subjects, it is almost always better to let word of mouth build. With few exceptions, only high profile names should be opened on a larger screen count. With a total North American take of $898,317, this film should be quite profitable for Indomina. The acquisition price is not known, but based on reporting practices, we can assume it was no more than low six figures. It has grossed another almost $2,000,000 worldwide. Finally they released Holy Motors which has soared to the $588k mark in 29 theaters in the US despite being nearly impossible to describe. Not shying away from edgy genre fare or challenging documentaries, the sky is really the limit for this relatively recent entry into the theatrical game.

Also performing quite well is Submarine Deluxe which is a branch of the Braun’s Submarine Entertainment. Following the success of PDA, Submarine has stepped in when top documentaries either didn’t attract the offers they thought they deserved or when things went south with the distributor They recently released Chasing Ice which has grossed over $940k with the $1,000,000 prize in sight. It made the Oscar shortlist for best documentary and though it didn’t make the final cut, it did get an Oscar nomination for best song. It has also targeted some rather untraditional theater choices and markets ranging from Cinemark theaters to one screen arthouses in small towns. They did this with the help of Emerging Pictures. Emerging Pictures has helped with the releases of the four highest grossing docs from Sundance 2012 (Doc distributors take note!) The PSA each week has held relative steady since their major expansion though it did finally see its PSA drop below $1k. It ultimately played on 53 screens. As with some films mentioned above, it has a television deal with National Geographic so this is all just icing on the cake. What remains to be seen though is if Submarine Deluxe will step in for a film that is not also a sales client?

The film arcade logo

Though not quite equaling the success of the above two companies, there are a lot of positives to be said for The Film Arcade. They released two films in 2012 each grossing around $150k. The Other Dream Team and Simon and the Oaks used very similar release strategies. They opened on just 1 or 2 screens then expanded to 7 and then to about a dozen with PSA’s holding relatively steady for a few weeks after the initial second week drop. The problem is, neither film had long theatrical runs where they were able to maximize locations. They have established a solid partnership with Lionsgate that will help the films on other mediums and both films were truly difficult to sell foreign films. The question is, can they produce a true breakout?

Adopt Films finally at year’s end has shown some potential. They have a good eye for quality foreign films, but have failed in converting that into box office success. They literally bought every award winning film out of Berlin 2012 and despite fantastic reviews for Sister and Tabu, they were unable to convert it into audiences. Sister has grossed less than $25k, Tabu opened on one screen with a PSA of about $5k and a new film, Barbara, was released timed for the Oscar shortlist, but it failed to make the cut. Its opening weekend grosses were passable, but based on the awards campaigning costs and the amount of screens they opened on, it is an immense underperformer compared to other awards fare. That said, in one week Barbara has out-grossed all of Adopt’s films combined. Through its 2nd week it had passed the $200k mark. Adopt has chosen not to report grosses online.

Entertainment One is not a new company at all, but is new to the American marketplace as a distributor. They have long been dominant in Canada and after acquiring Alliance, they are clearly the highest profile Canadian indie distributor. In the US, they have released a number of films that have featured big name stars, but mediocre reviews. While they took in $763,556 from Cosmopolis that is far from a great gross for a film from an established director. They opened on three screens and averaged $23,466 which is solid, but when they expanded the following week to 64 screens, their PSA dropped by almost 90% to $2,453. It only averaged a PSA over $1k for four weekends and then quickly faded out. That is much better than Dustin Lance Black’s directorial debut Virginia which ended its run at $12,728. The also star studded Jesus Henry Christ did slightly better on a lower max screen count of 3, but still only pulled in $20,183 by the end of its run.  The 2012 Sundance acquisition Wish You Were Here has yet to be released and it too received less than stellar reviews. That said, even when they have a well-reviewed film, they haven’t always converted it to a success. Carol Channing: Larger than Life was anything but with $22,740. All the more disappointing by the fact that human interest docs are doing quite well as a whole.

They also have A Late Quartet which has quietly grossed over $1.4 mil to date. It has had a PSA over $1k for 9 weeks and will most likely double the gross of Cosmopolis. For a film that stars Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Imogen Poots this still feels kind of like a flop.

Performing below expectations is TWC-Radius. While this ultra-VOD off-shoot of The Weinstein Company paid $2,000,000 each for Lay the Favorite and Bachelorette, the films combined for a theatrical take of less than $550,000. Bachelorette did debut at #1 on iTunes, but with having to pay the premium price for 60 theaters to book the film and the outsized advertising expense to launch the film and by default the TWC-Radius label, it is at best barely profitable. Despite opening in 61 theaters, Lay the Favorite has grossed less than $25k. Or in simpler terms, the film was seen by more people at Sundance than it was in its entire 61 screen theatrical run. The rest of the titles on the Radius label are basically the leftovers of TWC mistakes including The Details and Butter. None of these have averaged over $1k PSA in their opening weekends.

Looking ahead to 2013, Picturehouse is back and we will see if they strike for anything at this year’s Sundance festival. I also expect Indomina Releasing and Entertainment One to flex some muscle.

Next week, I will look at how the Sundance 2012 documentaries fared in release. Stay tuned!

January 17th, 2013

Posted In: Distribution, Distributor ReportCard

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2012 was a profound and often painful year in terms of the rapid technological change impacting the delivery and exhibition of independent film.

2012 was the year we wrapped our heads around the idea that there are virtually no more 35mm projectors in theatrical multiplexes, and that the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) has taken its throne as king – right alongside its wicked little stepchild, the BluRay.

2012 was the year it became clear that the delivery and exhibition formats we’ve been relying on for the last few years (especially HDCAMs) are no longer sufficient, and that in order to keep pace with the marketplace, we must now embrace the next round of digital evolution.

There are many filmmakers who will now want to stop reading, thinking “ughh, techie-nerd speak, that’s for my editor and post-supervisor to worry about.” You may believe you are first and foremost an artist and a storyteller, but in today’s world your paintbrushes are digital capturing devices, and your canvas is the wide array of digital delivery systems available to you. To shield yourself from the reality of how technological change will affect your final product is to face sobering and expensive complications later that will dramatically impact your ability to exhibit your film in today’s venues (including film festivals, theatres, and other public screening venues), as well as meet the needs of distributors and platforms worldwide.

And, so, for this New Year, I offer this “Guide to Exhibition & Delivery 2013,” a quasi-techie survival guide to the landscape of technological change in the foreseeable future, keeping in mind that this may all look very different again when we revisit this just a year from now…

What changed in 2012?

As 2012 began, major film festivals worldwide had largely coalesced around the HDCAM (despite slight but annoying differences in North American and European frame rates); and distributors and direct-to-consumer platforms were largely satisfied with HDCAM or Quicktime file-format deliveries, although varying platforms required different file specifications which could prove difficult for independent filmmakers to match (most notably iTunes). In addition, a large sector of the distribution landscape, including small film festivals, educational institutions (universities, museums, etc), and even small art house theaters remained content to screen on DVD and other standard-definition formats. The high-definition BluRay – with its beautiful image quality and powerful economic edge in terms of cost of production, shipping, and deck rental — was also emerging as an alternative to HDCAM, Digibeta, and DVD exhibition, despite the warnings by the techie/quality-control class that BluRays would be perilously unreliable in a live exhibition context.

But behind the scenes, the engine of the corporate machine driving studio film distribution was already fast at work driving top-down change. Finally, after years of financial impasse as to how to equip the theatrical network with digital projectors, the multinational Sony / Technicolor / Christie Digital / Cinedigms of the world had immersed themselves fully in the space and converted the North American multiplex system to a digital, file-based projection standard set by DCI LLC (a consortium of the major studios) – saving the studios immeasurably in print and shipping costs, as well as standardizing and upgrading image quality and providing additional security against piracy. This standardization as defined by the DCI studio consortium had already been growing in Europe for years before the North American market caught up, and became known worldwide as the DCP (Digital Cinema Package).

Once the largest technological and exhibition purveyors worldwide had made their move towards standardizing film exhibition, the writing was already on the wall, although it would take several more months to make its impact fully felt in the independent world.

What is a DCP?

A Digital Cinema Package (DCP) is a collection of digital files used to store and convey digital cinema audio, image, and data streams. General practice adopts a file structure that is organized into a number of Material eXchange Format (MXF) files, which are separately used to store audio and video streams, and auxiliary index files in XML format. The MXF files contain streams that are compressed, encoded, and (usually) encrypted, in order to reduce the huge amount of required storage and to protect from unauthorized use (if desired). The image part is JPEG 2000 compressed, whereas the audio part is linear PCM. The (optional) adopted encryption standard is AES 128 bit in CBC mode.

The most common DCP delivery method uses a specialty hard disk (most commonly the CRU DX115) designed specifically for digital cinema servers to ingest the files. These hard drives were originally designed for military use but have since been adopted by digital cinema for their hard wearing and reliable characteristics. The hard drives are usually formatted in the Linux EXT2 or EXT3 format as D-Cinema servers are typically Linux based and are required to have read support for these file systems.

Hard drive units are normally hired from a digital cinema encoding company, sometimes (in the case of studios pictures) in quantities of thousands. The drives are delivered via express courier to the exhibition site. Other, less common, methods adopt a full digital delivery, using either dedicated satellite links or high speed Internet connections.

In order to protect against the piracy fears that often surround digital distribution, DCP typically apply AES encryption to all MXF files. The encryption keys are generated and transmitted via a KDM (Key Delivery Message) to the projection site. KDMs are XML files containing encryption keys that can be used only by the destination device. A KDM is associated to each playlist and defines the start and stop times of validity for the projection of that particular feature.

As a result of all the standardized formatting and encryption features, the DCP offers a quality product generally considered to be superior to 35mm (while simultaneously conforming to the beloved 24 fps rate of 35mm), and a product that can theoretically be shared around the world with less variables and greater reliability than most formats (since 35mm) to date. Given the confusing array of formats facing filmmakers in recent years, there are many ways that the DCP revolution seems a singular advancement worth applauding, and at least on the surface, as a clear way forward for film exhibition and delivery for years to come.

So what’s wrong with that?… DCP survival for independents.

Before running out to master your film on DCP now, it is important to consider at least the following mitigating factors, 1) the utility of the format, 2) the price of DCP (including the hidden costs), and 3) the newness of the format and the inherent dangers associated with new formats, and 4) the ways that DCP will not save you from the usual headaches of delivery, and is in many ways an existential threat to independent film distribution as we currently know it.

With regards to the utility of DCP, remember that it is currently a cinema exhibition product, not a format that will be useful for delivery to distributors, consumer-facing platforms, DVD replicators etc. So, obviously you must be quite sure that you have actually made a theatrical film, and by this I mean theatrical in the broadest sense possible…i.e. will your film actually find life in cinematic venues including top film festivals etc. Following the industry at large, film festivals around the globe are in hyper-drive to convert to DCP as their preferred or even exclusive format. Going into the film festival circuit in 2013 and forward in any mainstream/meaningful way without a DCP…especially for narrative features….will be challenging to say the least (although likely still doable if you are willing to forfeit some bookings and some quality controls). But if you aren’t sure yet if your film will actually command significant public exhibition at major festivals and theatrical venues, you probably shouldn’t dive into the pool just yet. 

Not surprisingly, the largest concern to independents is the issue of price. While nowhere near to the old cost of 35mm, DCP does represent a significant increase in mastering cost over HDCAM, Digibeta etc. In researching this article, most labs quoted me a rate of approx. $2,000 for a ninety minute feature, plus additional costs for the specialty hard drives and cables etc. that put the total closer to $2,500 +. As is the case with most digital products, however, it appears the costs are already headed downward as more and more independent labs get into the space, and it seems reasonable to assume that the price-conscious shopper should be able to find $1,500 and even $1,000 DCPs in the near future (especially with in-house lab deals working for specific distribution companies).

Following the initial mastering costs, the files can be replicated onto additional custom hard drives for prices in the range of $300 – $400, which is at least relatively commensurate with HDCAM replication. This replication process is controversial however — there is no doubt that one can decide to skirt this cost by transferring the files to standard over-the-counter hard drives that run in the range of $100 (we have already distributed one film theatrically and successfully using standard, low-price hard drives). But many labs and exhibitors will warn you against this, telling you that using non-custom hard drives and cables increase the chance that the server at the venue will not be able read the files, and therefore unable to ingest and project the film when it counts most.

In fact, to avoid these potential compatibility issues with differing hard drives, cables etc, some exhibitors (most notably Landmark) are requiring distributors and filmmakers to use specific labs who encode all their content, which perilously puts the modes of production in the hands of the few, and may ultimately keep the cost artificially high. And while indeed there are many reasons to fear compatibility issues between DCP and server (I have already heard of/attended numerous screenings cancelled or delayed in 2012 due to DCP compatibility issues), it is in fact this level of lab and exhibitor control over the product that makes me very nervous about the future of DCP in the independent distribution space.

The most dramatic example of the DCP “threat” to indie distribution is the emergence of the onerous VPF (Virtual Projection Fee) that is now being applied at many (if not most) mainstream theatrical venues (including art house chains like Landmark). The VPF is an $800 – $1,000 per screen fee that is added to the distributor or DIY filmmaker’s distribution costs, either leveraged against the film rental or added as a an additional cost to the four-wall. This fee may go down after 20 or so screens, or in a films 3rd or 4th week of adding cities, but otherwise it is largely a fixed fee tacked against the already low profits of most independent theatricals today.

The reason for the fee stems from the fact that the projection companies mentioned earlier (Sony, Christie Digital, etc.) in fact financed the introduction of the digital projectors into the theaters, so the VPF fees largely go towards the recoupment of their investments. But, even once these initial investments have been paid off, it is likely that the VPF will continue as a valuable money-maker for the tech companies, and is not likely to disappear any time soon. And in this age where the financial model of independent theatrical distribution hangs so perilously on a knife’s edge anyway, the VPF almost feels like a coup-de-grace dooming small theatrical releases from the get-go.

Another troublesome aspect of DCP distribution is the very encryption technology that was meant to make the product safer from piracy, but also adds an additional level of bureaucracy and cost that most independents cannot realistically afford. The encryption keys (known as KDMs) are controlled entirely by large labs like Technicolor, and are transferred directly from companies like Technicolor to specific theaters within specific venues for limited windows of time. Anyone who has been involved with the free-wheeling nature of independent distribution knows that relying on large labs for print trafficking and shepherding is expensive and time-consuming, and cuts deeply into already marginal profits. And if you are creating DCPs for film festival distribution, the very idea that a single theater in a far-flung locale must rely on a 3rd party lab to get a specific KDM code for its screenings seems akin to courting disaster to me. Indeed, I know several independent festivals that are not accepting DCPs at this point, simply because they refuse to subject themselves to the whims of the studio KDMs.

For the above reasons and more, I’ve encountered several Industry folks who have been so blunt as to tell me, “DCPs were invented to put independents out of business.”

While I’m not quite ready to go there, I will add that the most pernicious aspect of DCP introduction into the market in my opinion is the way that they are already creating a new two-tier distribution market between those larger festivals and venues that can afford DCP projection and those mid-sized and smaller than cannot and perhaps never will be (given the prohibitive cost of the projector technology). As such, DCP does not replace the HDCAMs, Digibetas etc of old, it is rather an additional format that independents must contend with – good in some situations, useless in others – and yet an additional cost to add to your contemporary distribution budget.

As a result of the emerging two-tiered system; with DCP for the better-funded venues and alternatives for the smaller, less-funded; there remains a gaping hole in the contemporary exhibition system which is increasingly filled by the most seductive and problematic format available to independent filmmakers today – and by that of course I mean the BluRay.

The bastard step-child, the BluRay.

Yes I used the word bastard deliberately and with purpose, because the BluRay is the most enticing and simultaneously cruel of the contemporary exhibition/delivery formats.

For independent filmmakers and exhibitors (including theaters, festivals, and other venues) alike, the BluRay seems at first glance an ideal option – inexpensive to produce and inexpensive to ship – to go along with inexpensive players and projectors that can be bought at consumer-level prices. And the quality of both image and sound is usually shockingly good – usually commensurate with the best HDCAM ever had to offer.

Back up DVD is often needed to replace a faulty BluRay.

Back up DVD is often needed to replace a faulty BluRay.

As such, the economics of film exhibition have lead to an explosion of BluRay use in 2012, with the format beginning the year as an enticing alternative but quickly emerging as the mainstay of mid-to small size venues in both North America and Europe. But just as quickly as BluRay has emerged, a truism about today’s BluRay technology has become painfully clear – it exists at consumer-level pricing because it is not a professional product – and its failure rate in live exhibition context is dangerously (if not outright unacceptably) high.

Consider the following: In recent years prior to 2012, it was nearly unheard of that a booking at a theater or festival should need to be cancelled or delayed due to exhibition format failure…because formats like 35mm or BetaSP or Digibeta or  HDCAM were nothing if not reliable. But suddenly in 2012, the cancelled screening, or the delay mid-screening, or the skipping and freezing of a disc mid-screening became commonplace. To our dismay, it has become normal in 2012 to stop a screening mid-stream for a few moments to switch to a back-up DVD to replace a faulty BluRay. In our haste to transform to the miracles that BluRays seemed to afford us, a variable of chaos and unreliability has been introduced…and as yet there are no easy answers to this conundrum anywhere in sight.

There are numerous factors that account for BluRay unreliability – too many in fact to list in their entirety in this posting. There are many compression issues – resulting in variable gigbyte-per-layer Blurays from 25GB per layer to dual layer to triple layer to quadruple layer discs etc. These are profoundly complicated by player-compatibilty issues – meaning that many BluRays that play perfectly in one player will not even load in another. There are also significant regional differences between BluRay formats – similar but even more complicated than the old PAL vs. NTSC coding schemes. Layer onto this the fact that BluRays are fragile and scratch easily and do not traffic well and are easily lost, and we have arrived upon a formula for delivery chaos, to say the least.

As of today, as we go to print on this post, an uneasy truce on the proper protocol of BluRay delivery seems to be emerging Industry wide…for the moment at least. If you are going to screen your film on BluRay, you must provide at least a DVD back-up in case something goes wrong. Ideally, you should provide 2 BluRays, each of which have been tested, and a DVD back up as well. You still might experience screenings where your film will be stopped mid-stream, and replaced by one of the back-ups, but at least you won’t likely face the humiliation of a fully cancelled screening.

It’s hard to call this progress….but for the moment this is the price we are paying for digital evolution. The irony is…if BluRays were just a little cheaper than they currently are (generally somewhere between $10 – $40 each following an initial $300 – $500 investment), we might all dispense with attempting to traffic them completely, and just provide pristine BluRays for each screening (with somewhat less propensity for failure). This might solve some of the trafficking and delicacy issues, but this does not seem realistic for most filmmakers just yet, especially as so many other factors still come to bear. To be clear, the issues of BluRay unreliability are far more complex than just scratches and trafficking issues, so providing pristine BluRays to each booking will not solve all the issues, and DVD backup will still be necessary for the foreseeable future.

The further irony here is that DVDs, long since seen as less reliable although in all other ways preferable over the old VHS format, have now become the stalwart back-up to the BluRay…for even the traditional 5% failure rate for the DVDR format have become models of reliability as compared with the mercurial nature of the contemporary BluRay. Thankfully, today’s DVDs rarely fail in a pinch…

Where do we go from here?

When finishing a film in early 2013, filmmakers are now faced with the question of what delivery formats to create to meet delivery and exhibition demands. However, given the volatility of the current delivery landscape, it may be actually best to NOT commit to any particular exhibition format, and instead finish your film in a digital (hard-drive) format that you can keep as a master at a trusted lab for future needs down the road. It is advisable to have your film in the most flexible format possible, until you are forced by circumstance to deliver a specific format for a specific purpose.

The most flexible and useful format to initiate most exhibition/delivery formats at the moment is the Apple ProRes 422 digital file. Apple ProRes is a line of intermediate codecs, which means they are intended for use during video editing, and not for practical end-user viewing. The benefit of an intermediate codec is that it retains higher quality than end-user codecs while still requiring much less expensive disk systems compared to uncompressed video. It is comparable to Avid’s DNxHD codec or CineForm who offer similar bitrates which are also intended to be used as intermediate codecs. ProRes 422 is a DCT based intra-frame-only codec and is therefore simpler to decode than distribution-oriented formats like H.264.

From your ProRes 422 file, you will be able to make any format you need for today’s distribution landscape….from DCPs and BluRays to HDCAMs and any digital files you may need for platform distribution worldwide. This makes it ideal as an intermediary format as you consider your next steps forward.

In 2013, the needs of your exhibition formats and delivery formats will likely be determined by how successful your film turns out to be. If your film turns out to be truly theatrical, you will likely need a combination of DCPs and HDCAMs and BluRays to meet the demands. But if your film turns out to have limited public exhibition applications, then perhaps a mix of BluRays, DVDs, and digital files may be all you need. Rather than make those decisions in advance, we recommend you pursue a delivery strategy that lets the marketplace make those decisions for you.

In 2013, these delivery strategies will be impacted by the rate of technological development, just as they were in 2012. For the time being, it seems to wisest to counsel that we not get ahead of ourselves, and deliver films as a ProRes 422 file available for quick turnaround at a trusted lab with multi-format output capacity. From there, we can be assured of the ability to take our opportunities whenever and wherever they may lead us.

January 7th, 2013

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, Theatrical

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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