Word of Mouth: 21 new films jostle for box-office success

Moviegoers can’t complain there’s nothing to see this weekend — 18 new independent productions and three studio works arrive simultaneously in local theaters. But what may be great for consumers has the people behind these movies losing sleep, worried that the intense competition could sink everyone’s chances for box-office success.

Although not all of the movies will open nationally, the 21 titles represent an anomalous uptick from even the most crowded release calendars. Last Christmas, one of 2011’s busiest weekends for new releases, saw just 10 films open.

Part of the reason for the mid-April bottleneck is that the number of independent films released in theaters has surged over the last five years. Despite the fierce competition this weekend, though, distributors — many of them small, shoestring operations — have hesitated to change their release plans, believing that the risks of box-office failure are outweighed by the potential rewards of favorable buzz that can boost DVD and video-on-demand revenue and the possibility of collecting some small windfall at the ticket window.

“I’d like to think that the sheer volume week in and week out has plateaued, but that doesn’t seem to be the case,” said Jeff Lipsky, whose Adopt Films is releasing the performance art documentary"The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye.”


Jeff Clanagan, whose Codeblack Entertainment financed and is distributing the Blair Underwood thriller"Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day,” said when he dated his film in November the schedule looked wide open. “When we picked the release date, there wasn’t a lot of competition there,” he said.

Three movies will open in wide release: 20th Century Fox’s"The Three Stooges,” the outer-space thriller"Lockout” from FilmDistrict and Lionsgate’s horror tale"The Cabin in the Woods.”

Several of the 18 independent films have proper distribution deals, but the makers of a number of the new movies are financing their releases themselves. The do-it-yourself slate includes the Sept. 11 documentary “The Woman Who Wasn’t There,” the romantic comedy “Life Happens” and the unsolved murder drama “Deadline.”

In some cases, the theatrical openings are intended largely to publicize an upcoming (or even concurrent) video-on-demand release, where the lion’s share of revenues are expected. (Although the major theater chains typically won’t play movies that simultaneously are released on the Internet or cable and satellite television, a number of smaller circuits will.) The documentary “All In: The Poker Movie,” the crime drama"Bad Ass"and the mercenary story"The Hunter"are already available on VOD channels or will be very soon.

By releasing their films theatrically, even for one weekend, producers and distributors believe they can elevate their movies from so much VOD flotsam.

“They get treated with more respect. You just get more attention,” said Eamonn Bowles, whose Magnolia Pictures is releasing “The Hunter,” which stars Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill and was shot on location in Tasmania, Australia.

“We want these films to get reviewed,” he added. “These are not cheapie cable movies.”

Added Douglas Tirola, who produced and directed"All In”: “The theatrical release tells a certain segment of the moviegoing audience that the film is made at a certain level. And there are certain outlets that won’t write about you at the DVD or VOD stage if you haven’t had a theatrical release.”

As the major studios steer more production resources into fewer big-budget productions, the quantity of independent films has risen, moved in the opposite direction, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. In 2011, 104 studio movies were released theatrically, a decline of about 16% from 2006’s 124 titles. But 469 independent films showed in theaters last year, an increase of more than 20% from 2006’s 390 movies.

With so many works competing for the same number of ticket buyers — even though 2012 box office is off to a strong start, North American movie admissions have hovered around or been below 1.4 billion annually the last five years — the films’ producers are forced to cook up unusual marketing gimmicks to establish a toehold.

Joseph Kahn, the writer, director and producer of the comedy horror movie “Detention,” said he timed the film’s release to ride the coattails of “The Hunger Games."Kahn’s film costars Josh Hutcherson, and the “Hunger Games” actor — who served as an executive producer on “Detention” — has been talking up the film in some of his “Hunger Games” interviews.

Kahn is supplementing a limited marketing effort by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions with his own money, buying local television ads and radio spots. “But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is spending,” Kahn said.

Marian Koltai-Levine, whose PMK/BNC Films is helping market “Life Happens,” similarly is benefiting from the publicity for the film’s star Krysten Ritter, whose well-reviewed television series “Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23" premieres this week. To generate buzz among the core audience of middle-age women, Koltai-Levine hosted a recent screening for “Life Happens,” a look at three women roommates and an unexpected pregnancy, for 40 mommy bloggers in New York.

“We’re obviously a smaller film, and no one is pretending we are not,” Koltai-Levine said. “We need to be as resourceful and organic as possible because we are not buying our way in.”

Sandy Moore, whose House Lights Media is distributing the romantic comedy “Losing Control,” is organizing promotional events at bars near where the film is premiering, with shot glasses shaped like test tubes (the movie has a scientific subplot). “It’s unbelievably hard” to generate attention, Moore said. “We’re opening in whatever markets will have us — that’s the reality of the business.”

Almost all of the 18 independent films are pursuing distinct niches. Roadside Attractions, which is distributing “Blue Like Jazz,” is pitching the Christian-themed comedy toward younger religious moviegoers. Clanagan’s Codeblack is pitching “Woman Thou Art Loosed” toward African American ticket buyers, the same audience sought by Noel Calloway, the writer and director of the self-distributed family drama “Life, Love, Soul.”

But perhaps the narrowest pitch is Tirola’s campaign for the self-distributed “All In.” The filmmaker is courting gamblers, with ticket giveaways at poker clubs and a word-of-mouth screening at the Commerce Casino. And he has booked theaters where he feels there are plenty of card sharps — Belfast, Maine, and Durango, Colo., among them.

Said Tirola: “The poker players probably weren’t going to those 17 other movies anyway.”