Niche Distributors Fill Gap Left by the Demise of Weinstein

Hereditary Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Sundance

In an indie space once dominated by mini-majors, upstarts like A24 and Neon are thriving with offbeat projects and savvy marketing: "They have an offbeat taste, they read the zeitgeist, they have a certain coolness."

For years, it seemed everyone in the indie film business wanted to be the next Summit Entertainment. 

?The production and distribution group, founded in 1991 and acquired by Lionsgate in 2012, perfected the art of doing studio-sized independent movies — epitomized by the Twilight franchise — that were rolled out with blockbuster-style marketing campaigns and wide releases in the U.S. and around the world.

The Summit strategy — making tentpole-level movies that play to the broadest possible audience — was the go-to model for many in the independent business, and the company, and its imitators, dominated the conversation at industry events like AFM.

But three days into this year's market, it's clear that it's now a post-Summit world. The past 12 months have seen two high-profile indie distributors go belly up. The scandal-ridden collapse of The Weinstein Co., following multiple sexual harassment allegations against TWC boss Harvey Weinstein, was followed by the rapid rise and near-instant implosion of Donald Tang's would-be studio Global Road. 

STX Entertainment, perhaps the nearest equivalent in today's market to the pre-Lionsgate Summit, has had a mixed record with its recent releases — hits like the Bad Moms franchise alongside such painful flops as The Happytime Murders.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, ex-Summit and Lionsgate boss Patrick Wachsberger admits it would be "very difficult under current market conditions" to create a mini-major on the Summit model. "You'd need a lot of money, and you'd need to really have a hit out of the gate," he said, "otherwise you'd be done."

So at this year's AFM, instead of empire building, the focus has shifted to more niche distributors, to the likes of recent upstarts A24, Neon and Annapurna, with established boutique firms like Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features also enjoying a revival. This year's indie hits — films like A24's Hereditary ($44 million U.S. gross), Annapurna's Sorry to Bother You ($17.5 million) and Neon's documentary Three Identical Strangers ($12.3 million) — don't fit into any simple model but succeed by targeting audiences outside the traditional theatrical mainstream. 

It's telling that two of the higher-profile deals to come out of AFM 2018 thus far have been from these artisanal distributors: A24 picked up North American rights to the military drama The Kill Team, starring Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgard, and Neon nabbed domestic rights for Parasite, the new film from Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-Ho.

"They have an offbeat taste, they read the zeitgeist, they have a certain coolness,” Fabien Westerhoff of U.K.-based Film Constellation says of the new niche crowd. "Most importantly, they understand how to make a film profitable theatrically: by targeting an audience through social media and word-of-mouth and not by spending huge amounts of P&A."

It's too early to say whether this trend of "small, better films with targeted audiences," as one indie distributor put it, is here to stay. But for the moment at least, at this year's AFM, big is out. And niche is in. 

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 2 daily issue at the American Film Market.