IFC Films' Jonathan Sehring on 'Boyhood's' Oscar Campaign and 'Crouching Tiger 2' Backlash
The indie film veteran, who also runs Sundance Select, dishes on the joys of day-and-date, new distributors like A24 and Bleecker Street and how to react when a filmmaker calls you a "punk" and a "vampire"
This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The indie film business comes with big ups and downs these days. Just ask IFC Films/Sundance Selects president Jonathan Sehring, who experienced a career high in July with Richard Linklater's 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood, which has grossed $38 million worldwide (on IFC's $4 million investment) and remains 2014's best-reviewed film. On the flip side, mercurial director Abel Ferrara blasted Sehring in September as someone who doesn't "give a shit about movies or the people that make them" when IFC refused to release an NC-17 cut of his Welcome to New York.
For Sehring, 58, who joined what is now the AMC Networks film team in 1982 as part of the core group that launched The Independent Film Channel and later IFC Entertainment in 1997 (he added the Sundance Selects label in 2009), it's all in the line of duty. He releases about 50 films a year through three labels, many of which court controversy — Lars von Trier's Antichrist and Abdellatif Kechiche's lesbian love story Blue Is the Warmest Color were both his. In addition to being an active buyer on the festival circuit (he picked up Lone Scherfig's The Riot Club, among others, in Toronto), he's been a pioneer in releasing films simultaneously in theaters and on-demand.
The married father of three grown sons says he's hoping to bolster IFC's library of more than 700 titles that have earned 12 Oscar noms (Boyhood marks the lone film IFC has financed in the past several years and its first full-blown all-category Oscar push). The Midwest native invited THR to his Manhattan office to discuss why the industry is too focused on box office, the economics of day-and-date and why Boyhood is a David vs. Goliath in the Oscar race.
Netflix and The Weinstein Co. are getting slammed by theater owners for releasing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2 day-and-date, but you have been doing this for years. Why so much attention now?
We started it [with Alan Taylor's] Kill the Poor in 2006, and at that time we had [only] four movie theaters willing to participate. And now, it's 800, which is great. But why Crouching Tiger? Because of the size and scope. And exhibitors, rightly so, always feel threatened with their business. Some movies are appropriate for a day-and-date model, others aren't.
A gift from Linklater, who found it in a thrift shop. "I didn't go to Ohio State, but I sold Coca-Cola in the stadium when I was 9 years old. So it was a big part of my life being a Buckeye fan," says Sehring, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio.
Why did you start the day-and-date model?
Profitability on a movie can last 15, 20 years. We had a tough time trying to figure out economically how you could make just traditional theatrical distribution work on a consistent basis. We couldn't. It turned out most independents and in-studio specialty divisions couldn't at that time either, but they were slower to [change]. We had the ability to move a little quicker, and when we launched VOD, we thought the best way to look at the success of a film was not box office but taking a look at the whole pie, the whole revenue stream and the whole expense pie. We have sent participation checks out to our producers on somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of all the movies we released since we started our day-and-date model.
You think the industry still is too focused on box office. Why?
Because that's not where the majority of the revenue of any movie comes from. The revenue flows for 15 years. We're in a long-term business. We have a very substantial library, and I am a firm believer in that long tail theory. I started my professional career at Janus Films, which is now the Criterion Collection, and that's a library that is 75 years old, has films from the '20s and '30s that are still producing revenue.
A Maneki-neko, a Japanese "welcoming/fortune/lucky" cat, which was a gift from a fellow Boyhood producer and frequent collaborator John Sloss.
Some outlets are releasing VOD revenue numbers, but IFC doesn't. Why?
I would follow suit when there's some sort of uniform reporting. Everybody reports something differently. [TWC/Radius] reports its iTunes with everything else, and we treat that separately. There's just no uniformity.
Several new distributors have popped up —everyone from A24 to Bleecker Street and Saban Films. What do you think of these new players?
Everyone's a competitor. The studios are releasing fewer films, and everybody sees it as an opportunity to come into this space because there are still a lot of movies being made. But it's a challenging business. Everyone who's getting into it thinks they have a new formula, and they may.
A model dirigible from a photo shoot years ago.
Why do you keep so many "brands" — IFC Films, Sundance Selects and IFC Midnight?
Sundance Selects is our prestige label — though we like to feel that all of our movies are prestige films. But the documentary and foreign-language films go under Sundance Selects. IFC is more American indie. We felt that there was a need for us to be in the business of all three. IFC Midnight, our genre label, has been extremely successful, and that label has [horror film] Babadook coming. Boyhood's out under IFC Films. With Sundance Selects, we have the Dardenne brothers' Two Days, One Night with Marion Cotillard and Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria in the spring. Then we have Ethan Hawke's doc on Seymour Bernstein. So, they're all distinct.
What are the biggest changes in the business in the 12 years it took to make Boyhood?
A lot of people came in and out of the business. Digital technology exploded. Rick's solution as a filmmaker was really prescient. He wanted Boyhood to look the same, feel the same, which is why he chose to shoot on 35mm, knowing that if he had chosen digital, digital would change and look different [as the technology evolved]. Today, you can't find 35mm film to shoot on. And you can't find the cameras.
"It garnered headlines for all the right and wrong reasons," says Sehring of the controversial IFC Film that won the Palm d'Or in Cannes in 2013.
Did Boyhood turn out how you envisioned it?
It turned out how Rick envisioned it 13, 14 years ago. When he pitched it to me, that's what he pitched.
IFC often is the little guy in the Oscar race. How serious is your campaign?
We have a great team. But we are a David vs. Goliath. We're up against huge movie studios that do this for a living every year. We're not going to be spending tens of millions of dollars in an Academy campaign. That's not who we are. But we know the Academy has rewarded movies like 12 Years a Slave and The Hurt Locker, so we feel we'll be in the conversation. We'll be rereleasing the movie theatrically during the awards season.
"I'm just a big Simpsons fan," says Sehring, who most identifies with Homer.
Given your partnership with Linklater, why didn't you get his next movie, which went to Paramount?
It's a much bigger budget. We haven't been in the financing business in a while.
How would you describe the New York film scene these days?
It's incredibly vibrant, and for specialty films, it's the center of the universe. There are a lot of great producers here. And they're looking to do a lot of different things, be it film, television.
The viewfinder is a part of a limited-edition promotion created for the social media push on Boyhood.
What did you think when Abel Ferrara called you a punk and a vampire for not releasing an NC-17 version of Welcome to New York?
I've been called names before. I'd rather not comment that much on it other than to say we've been in business with Abel for a long time and are big fans of his. We got involved in this movie with our producers knowing that for the type of investment we were [making] what we had to do. But aside from that, I'm a big Abel fan. He's a great filmmaker.
We were in the mix until Paramount got in the mix. When it hit eight digits, I think everybody dropped out. But the bottom line is, everybody competes for quality movies. So when you ask, "Who's your competition?" It's everybody.