Art House Theaters Hit By Bankruptcies: "We Need a Serious Game-Changer"

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
'Personal Shopper'

As two major players in the international indie space go down in financial ruin (on the same day no less), insiders wonder how much longer edgy, midbudget releases can survive.

Just in time for the Toronto Film Festival, the twin bankruptcy filings, on Aug. 17, of Dutch-Asian sales outfit Fortissimo Films and U.K. distributor Metrodome Group have cast a shadow over the indie film industry. Fortissimo, originally set up in 1991 by Helen Loveridge and the late Wouter Barendrecht, was an indie film pioneer, particularly in Asia, where it discovered such talents as Wong Kar Wai and Tsui Hark. Metrodome and Fortissimo were tireless supporters of the sort of cinema fare — low-budget, cutting-edge, often foreign-language — that Toronto celebrates. Indeed, two of Metrodome's recent acquisitions, Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart, and Francois Ozon's Frantz are screening in Toronto. They were set to roll out in the U.K. via Metrodome this year. Now their fate is unclear.

"It's sad, it's really, really sad, but it's not a shock," says British producer Stephen Woolley (Carol) of the Metrodome collapse, pointing to the shift in the indie industry that has increased competition for theatrical releases while shrinking revenue on the backend. "The DVD market hasn't quite disappeared, but it's definitely not what it was, and people are finding it very hard to monetize downloads [for indie films]."

The rise of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon decimated the DVD sales that were a backbone of Fortissimo's business. It maintains a huge library of art house titles, but the SVOD giants have chosen to cherry pick mostly new films, often signing deals directly with filmmakers and eliminating world sales middlemen like the Amsterdam/Hong Kong-based company.

Rikke Ennis, CEO of Danish sales group TrustNordisk, compares losing Fortissimo "to losing an arm or a leg," given its standing in the art house sector as a champion of U.S. indie cinema in Europe and Asia.

"It just shows what a challenge the film business is facing," adds Ennis. "We need a serious game-changer soon if we are not to see more cases like these. The worst part is that there is a market out there for art house films. However, they are just not available for the people who want to see them, and it is too expensive to launch in a traditional way."

Fortissimo was hit hard by a shift in the market for classic art house cinema, with fewer buyers and lower prices for all but the small handful of big indie brand names. "There are fewer than, say, 20 to 30 art house films that can be released globally [and make money]," says Chinese director Diao Yinan, whose crime drama Black Coal, Thin Ice won the Golden Bear at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival and was sold by Fortissimo worldwide.

Instead of trying to get bigger to compete with the likes of Focus Features or Lionsgate, Diao believes indies should instead "be small and smart. ... Art house films will always exist, but we have to adjust and adapt [our business models]."

Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), whose early work was handled by Fortissimo, has a more philosophical take on its and Metrodome's collapse and the fallout for the industry. "It's very sad, but I guess in the business world sometimes bankruptcy allows a new beginning. I think the people of Fortissimo and Metrodome will persist."

Alex Ritman and Patrick Brzeski contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.