Inside the Orchard's Audacious Play to Become the Next Indie Film Heavyweight

The Overnight
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

With five high-profile buys at Sundance, the quiet giant of online music sales (they control 20 percent of iTunes content!) is making a serious play at movie distribution.

With last week's acquisition of the Kristen Wiig-starrer Nasty Baby, the Orchard -- a company previously known for distributing critically acclaimed docs like Point and Shoot  -- announced its fifth high-profile 2015 Sundance purchase.

The company’s Park City splash also included picking up Joe Swanberg’s star-driven ensemble Digging For Fire (starring Anna KendrickOrlando BloomBrie Larson) and winning a reported $4 million bidding war against A24 and Lionsgate for the rights to the swinger comedy The Overnight.

But the Orchard, a relatively new player on the film scene, is not another upstart company with an influx of cash to burn. Rather, it's an established music distributor with 18 years of experience that is now making a strategic play at the film business.

The nimble company has watched its music business grow as digital distribution has forced the industry to consolidate. Boasting a wide array of partnerships with indie labels, independent artists and the acquisition of key competitors, the Orchard has quietly grown into a giant of online music sales with a catalog of over 9 million songs, accounting for over 20 percent of the 43 million tracks for sale on iTunes. 

According to senior VP for film and TV Paul Davidson, the recent flurry of Sundance purchases is part of the company’s focused and aggressive plan to replicate their success in music distribution.

“Talk to anybody who has been in the music business for 20 years,” says Davidson, “they know there's going to be continued consolidation of the folks who are delivering content, especially on the indie side. What happened with music will happen with film.”

"From my experience,” says Davidson, who came to the Orchard last May after heading up Microsoft’s XBox Video service, “the last thing retailers want to do is sign more direct deals with a bunch of smaller companies. They much rather live in a world where three or four companies deliver everything to them.”

The Orchard’s aggressive growth plan is motivated by the desire to get ahead of this consolidation wave and become one of a handful of companies -- Radius, Magnolia and Lionsgate among them -- distributing the bulk of indie film content.

To get a jumpstart on its film business, Orchard leveraged its music distribution relationships with companies like Apple to get their foot in the door with smaller film titles and then leaned on the expertise of their 225-person music staff to help build an end-to-end film distribution team (currently consisting of 25 employees) capable of handling the business' dizzying array of technical, financial, legal and marketing aspects.

“There's a whole lot of film companies out there trying to distribute content,” reports Davidson, “but then [they] start to realize what an infrastructure you have to build and they soon disappear. We've seen that in every digital retail sector, not just film.”

According to Davidson, too many distributors are releasing films theatrically as way to qualify for the "now in theaters" folder on cable VOD, but dismiss those screenings as write-offs. Davidson sees them as a way to profit and promote a film.

Pointing to the Orchard's release of Harmontown -- a documentary about Community creator Dan Harmon’s comedy podcast road tour after being fired from the TV show -- Davidson believes the key is finding titles with the potential to turn their theatrical releases into events. "We want to sell out those screens," he explains. "We want to get Harmon and his celebrity friends out there."

Festival filmmakers are motivated by those big-screen dreams, but Davidson admits it’s still been an uphill battle competing with more established competition like IFC and Magnolia.

“When I came in last May,” explains Davidson, “when a filmmaker asked if we could get his movie on all the cable and digital platforms, we didn't have deals with all of them. And when I had meetings with those companies, they weren't seeing big names or narrative films on our slate.”

Their aggressive acquisition plan began with a few key purchases at the Toronto International Film Festival (like Jemaine Clement vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows) to build the kind of slate that would intrigue outlets.

"We then targeted Sundance 2015 as when we would take the next step," says Davidson, who made it clear the company came to Park City prepared to outbid its competitors for top titles. Before long, he says, "the remaining holdouts still giving us the Heisman started calling within ten minutes of our acquisitions at Sundance.”