LAFF 2012: Cinedigm's Chris McGurk Predicts a Digital-Driven Indie Film Renaissance

Chris McGurk Cinedigm LAFF 2012

As the festival's keynote speaker, he also calls on exhibitors to allow shorter theatrical windows for smaller movies.

In contrast to previous keynote speakers at the Los Angeles Film Festival who focused on the problems threatening the independent film business, Chris McGurk, chairman and CEO of Cinedigm Entertainment Group, offered an upbeat, sunny assessment Saturday as he predicted a renaissance of independent filmmaking, comparable to that of the late ‘60s and late ‘80s.

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He also called upon exhibitors to be more flexible about theatrical windows when it comes to smaller, indie movies. “It is actually in the interests of exhibitors to now allow shorter windows for those indie films that are released on only, say, 250 screens. These films need quicker transition to ancillary markets in order to survive,” he said. “Exhibitors have a choice: They can either stick to their current policies and, as a result, not get these smaller films at all because most will go straight to DVD or they can adopt a more flexible approach and open up their doors to a whole new stream of independent content.”

Speaking at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the keynote also was part of the AFCI Locations Show, McGurk hailed digital filmmaking and distribution for bringing down production and release costs, argued that theater owners need independent films to fill their theaters and predicted that targeted release strategies and social marketing campaigns will help indie filmmakers connect with audiences.

Depicting himself as a former “numbers guy” – he once served as CFO of Disney – who got that old-time indie religion when Disney acquired Miramax and he started working with Bob and Harvey Weinstein, McGurk testified, “Independent films challenge us, they make us think … and sometimes they change the world.”

The major studios, he argued, “suffer from a great deal of inertia,” gravitating toward the “safe and predictable,” and so they need indie film to rethink old genres just as Reservoir Dogs did with the heist film and to groom new talent like Matt Damon, Jon Favreau and Christopher Nolan.

“Indie films remain the creative lifeblood of the business, and without regular infusions, the entire industry’s health and vitality will suffer terribly,” he said.

To those indie filmmakers who view digital distribution as the enemy of the theater-going experience, he said, “digital distribution now includes cinema. It is estimated that by the end of this year over 80 percent of theaters in the U.S., and over 60 percent of theaters in the world will be digital.” Digital distribution has not only meant an end to scratchy-looking prints, McGurk said, it “goes way beyond the look of films. It will soon be key to delivering a far greater and more vibrant variety of content into theaters.”

Citing what he called “signs of the indie renaissance,” McGurk first pointed to technology like the Red camera that has brought down the cost of production. “One of the great oddities about the film industry today is that as production costs of major studio films have skyrocketed, the actual threshold cost to make a theatrical-quality movie has plummeted,” he said.

He noted “the exploding demand” for film entertainment,” coming not just from exhibitors, whose theaters sit empty 85% of the time, but also from home and mobile digital platforms.

He applauded the fact that name talent, both stars and directors, are looking to work in lower-budget, indie films. In part, he said, that is because fewer films are being made – in 2010, about 100 fewer movies with budgets above $1 million were produced than in 2008, he said – and also because stars aren’t always needed for big-budget tentpoles. “When you’re counting on Thor to open a movie, you don’t need Tom Cruise,” McGurk said.

All those factors have created opportunities, he contended.

McGurk, whose Cinedigm offers alternative programming to theater owners, argued that “narrowcasting” is part of the solution. And instead of holding out for a 500-theater wide release, he suggested, filmmakers should follow the example of a film like Margin Call, which combined a VOD release with a more limited theatrical roll-out.

McGurk also recommended that filmmakers look to targeted social marketing to promote their movies.