John Sloss Talks Dire Need for Theatrical Distribution for Indie Films

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Independent cinema is in trouble.

That’s according to Bob Berney, CEO of Picturehouse, John Sloss, founder and CEO of Cinetic Media, and Eugene Hernandez, director of the Sundance Film Festival and head of public programming. During an Oct. 1 Woodstock Film Festival panel titled the “Current and Future State of Independent Cinema” the trio ruminated on the future of independent film distribution.

Sloss acknowledged that while Netflix heads Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos are progressive, their decision to withhold data from the industry at large “set the industry back 50 years.”

That said, Sloss admitted that he was immediately drawn to the streaming service when they began acquiring independently made films over two decades ago.

“I have 70 films in my office that pay overages, which is not an insignificant amount,” Sloss said. “Then Netflix came in and it was really a conflict because they were paying so much money. From everyone’s standpoint, it was like, ‘Do I stick up for the theatrical and all the media and the possibility of making money on the back end and betting on myself, or do I just take this windfall and give it to them for perpetuity?’”

The global-only rights policy Netflix implemented had repercussions on smaller, indie films, which included the loss of a theatrical release. That led to a decline of indie films in movies theaters, which was followed by the pandemic shutting down many independently run movie theaters. In recent years that has been coupled with Netflix and other streaming services cutting back on the amount of indie films they acquire, making it very difficult for indie fare to find homes.

“Netflix remains pretty solid in their religious attitude towards theatrical, on the other hand, the other streamers are mixed,” noted Berney, who was Amazon Studios‘ head of marketing and distribution for four years. “When I was at Amazon, we did theatrical and it was very successful. Then new management came in and they said, ‘First of all, we hate movies. It’s all streaming now.’ But now, there is new management at Amazon, and they’ve bought MGM and are going back to wide theatrical releases. So, it’s changing and swinging back. It’s great that MGM will do a wide release blockbuster films through Amazon, but what’s going to happen to the smaller, independent films? There’s no real streamer that really wants to buy all these smaller indie films. So, it’s really tough for those films.”

Hernandez also weighed in.

“Not to implicate my own festival in a certain way, but it was a hard year for sales at Sundance this past year, and it’s a hard market right now,” Hernandez said. “I was talking to a distributor the other night who told me that a sales agent came to him and basically said, ‘Hey, we’ve got like all these films that didn’t sell from the festivals this past year and we are literally going to give them to you for no guarantee up front so you can get them out into the theaters.’ And the distributor said, ‘I don’t want to to put the marketing money in, so we are not going do it.’ So there are these films being offered to distributors for no money whatsoever and the distributors are saying no. What does that say about rebuilding that theatrical marketplace for independent films?”

Despite the distributors lack of interest, Sloss said that the theatrical release is key to bringing life back to independent movies.

“It’s imperative for all of us to get behind reigniting the theatrical experience because I don’t think the streamers are ever going to be behind the new voices and independent films,” he said. “The only way to really get them out in the world is to put them in a theater where they can be reviewed and where they can sit long enough for word of mouth to really support them. That’s really the dangerous moment we are in, in terms of getting people back in the theaters.”

Sloss noted that Netflix’s recent decision to buy individual territory rights as opposed to global-only rights to Todd Haynes’ “May December” and Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man” is a breath of fresh air.

“Netflix bought [both films] for less than the entire world,” Sloss said. “Until about a year ago, if you were going to sell a film to Netflix and you had already sold to Danish TV, you basically had to go buy back the Danish TV [rights] because they needed to hoover up every medium in every territory around the world in perpetuity. So I think that aspect of them is moving in the right direction.”

Sloss added: “There’s an interesting sort of three dimensional chess game occurring with the platforms now where you see people like a Max licensing programming to Netflix. And it’s actually increasing its viewership on Max. There’s another related phenomenon, which is, even though it’s a reflex for the streamers to want to buy something in perpetuity, if you really press they will tell you that the practical value of it to them is at most 18 months, because they’re not really library players. To the extent the people who do what we do can take advantage of that and the willingness to license to their competitors then maybe the future is about selling films to someone like Netflix for 18 months instead of perpetuity. And then creating the aftermarket and the possibility for profits and, and just expanding, viewers around the world by taking it off that platform and licensing it in other places.”

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