With 'Boyhood,' indie player IFC crashes the big shots' party

IFC Films has remained an underdog even in a business that prides itself on backing long shots

IFC Films has long been a player in the indie film business, releasing critical darlings such as "In the Loop" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

The small New York film distribution company has remained an underdog even in a business that prides itself on backing long shots, and competes against deep-pocketed rivals such as Fox Searchlight Pictures and Weinstein Co.

But with "Boyhood," its first best picture Oscar nominee and a top contender for the big accolade Sunday, IFC's star is shining bright and could catapult the company to a higher profile in Hollywood.

"They brought it out to great box-office success and to become the possible leader for best picture, which is a huge feat for any company, period," said independent producer Anthony Bregman, whose "Foxcatcher" is up for five Oscars this year. "You're always asking, 'Can they take it the full length?' IFC has shown they can, and I'm sure they will be able to leverage that in the future."

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Led by Jonathan Sehring, IFC Films usually acts as a distributor for indie movies, buying them at festivals and getting them into theaters and onto home entertainment platforms. It is owned by AMC Networks, the cable giant behind its namesake channel, Sundance TV and the IFC network.

But in the case of "Boyhood," IFC both bankrolled the movie and distributed it. A distributor's duties often include running a savvy marketing campaign to promote the film during awards season, this year competing with Hollywood heavyweights.

The movie, a coming-of-age story about a boy and his family that was shot over a dozen years, made its debut at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival to wide critical acclaim. It has since garnered a string of coveted honors, including top prizes at the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards.

Besides best picture, "Boyhood" is up for five other Oscars, including best director and screenplay for Richard Linklater and best supporting roles for actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke.

"We're crashing this party," said Hawke, who plays the father of the title character in "Boyhood." "The fact that we're even there and in the conversation with companies that spend millions on advertising is beyond my wildest imagination. You can bet the people at Warner Bros. aren't loving this."

IFC will be competing against Warner Bros. ("American Sniper"), Weinstein Co. ("The Imitation Game"), Paramount ("Selma"), Sony Pictures Classics ("Whiplash"), Universal Pictures' Focus Features ("The Theory of Everything"), and Fox Searchlight ("Birdman" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel").

And it's not IFC's only Oscar contender. Marion Cotillard is up for best actress for her performance in "Two Days, One Night," and "Finding Vivian Maier" is up for best documentary feature.

The company's bets have paid off. "Boyhood's" domestic box-office take as of Friday was $25.2 million, according to Box Office Mojo. It had a production budget of $5 million.

AMC Networks does not break out IFC Films' revenue in its quarterly financial reports. But it did report that the unit's revenue increased $11.2 million compared with the same period a year earlier, primarily because of the performance of "Boyhood." By comparison, distribution revenue for all of AMC's "international and other" segment (including IFC Films) was $14.2 million in the prior-year quarter.

"'Boyhood' is great wind behind the notion that providing a platform to great, creative people is smart business," said AMC Networks President and Chief Executive Josh Sapan.

He suggested that backing "Boyhood" helped influence AMC's appetite for high-concept television shows that have helped attract top creative talent. The network is behind some critically acclaimed series such as "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," both of which debuted well after "Boyhood" went into production.

The company is already seeing the buzz about the movie pay off. Coming out of this year's Sundance Film Festival, IFC has picked up movies including the Jack Black comedy "The D Train," followed by "Sleeping With Other People," a raunchy romantic comedy starring Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis.

IFC approached the "Sleeping With Other People" filmmakers after the movie's Sundance debut and closed a deal days later. The producers, including Jessica Elbaum, admired IFC's marketing smarts and willingness to take on risky material, both traits evidenced by its work on "Boyhood."

"Who doesn't want to have their film be one of the company's follow-ups to 'Boyhood'?" Elbaum said. "It's kind of a dream.''

It almost wasn't IFC's Oscar campaign to run.

AMC had initially launched the film unit in 1997, with Sehring as its president, as a way to produce and finance independent movies such as "Boys Don't Cry," "Monsoon Wedding" and "Pieces of April." And "Boyhood" was among his early picks.

But with building anticipation for "Boyhood," Sehring, at last year's Sundance festival, tried to find a bigger distributor with more marketing clout. Sehring wanted to see if he could get a lucrative deal with another company that also might be in a strong position to promote the film during awards season.

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IFC had limited experience mounting awards campaigns, despite having hits like the Oscar-nominated "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." It even shopped the movie to rival Fox Searchlight, which passed on it. With no buyers, Sehring ultimately decided to take on distribution and marketing for the film he'd been involved with for a third of his career.

"I had a financial responsibility to [Linklater] to seek out the best deal for the movie," Sehring said. "We took it to everybody, and I'm very happy we ended up with it. A year later, everybody's asking, 'Where's the next "Boyhood'?'"

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