IndieWire and Variety (and others) report today that IFC is abandoning its plans to release bigger budget indie features and focus instead on IFC First Take. IFC touts this as a simple strategic shift with IFC Entertainment Pres Jonathan Sehring telling IndieWire that IFC is "sticking to its core" by "focusing on niche titles or, 'providing independent films with the strongest vehicle and the broadest reach possible.'" IndieWire essentially reports this matter of factly, and fellow blogger Sujewa even asks " are such initiatives the revenue & awareness future for real indie filmmakers?
Dear God, let's hope not. With all due respect to my friends Sujewa and IndieWire (and even those I know at IFC), I think its time to call bullshit on all of this IFC malarkey. First, IFC is essentially announcing a failure - they're either not capable of releasing these larger films or someone at the company, probably above Mr. Sehring, has pulled the plug because these films aren't profitable or don't fit the company's overall strategy, which is cable. IndieWire notes that You Kill Me has pulled in about 2.4 million at the box office - ahem, subtract marketing costs, etc and that there is a failure. A marketing campaign, sure, but not a success.
IndieWire reports further:
"There are more distributors for films in the 5, 15, 20 million budget range," noted Sehring in today's conversation with indieWIRE, adding that competition for those films has become more intense, while "truly independent films are left without a sustained distribution mechanism."
Read: We can't compete, and might as well use this as a way to spin IFC First Take as some smart strategic move. Sorry, but I'm not buying that they feel so bad for "truly independent films" that they decided to stick to their core and work only with those films. More likley, First Take allows them to convince producers to sign over their film to them, getting it on VOD, which the cable operators want. Cable operators are telling places like IFC and Sundance (and others) that they want VOD offerings. And Yesterday. This doesn't mean anyone's making much money off of VOD, but the cable operators (Time Warner, etc) need to be able to tell consumers about all the great VOD offerings they have so that consumers bother to pay their hefty cable bills each month.
Note the word-parsing IFC must use to make IFC First Take sound like a success. IndieWire reports:
Meanwhile IFC First Take is flourishing, according to those at IFC and Rainbow. According to the company, the bi-monthly releases are available for download by some 40 million national cable TV subscribers when those titles are simultaneously relased in movie theaters.
Excuse me, but "available" to 40 million subscribers is a worthless figure. IFC keeps spinning, as if their life depended on it (hint hint):
"The growth of this service [known as IFC In Theaters on national cable systems] from zero to forty million in about a year is pretty much unparalleled," Rainbow spokesperson Matthew Frankel told indieWIRE this afternoon, citing the widespread availability of IFC First Take's films to subscribers of DirecTV, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable, beyond just Rainbow parent Cablevision. While not releasing specific download numbers for the First Take films, he noted, "And in regard to the films, we are very pleased with the kind of demand for this small independent film -- not only are these films available in Des Moines, Iowa but people are actually buying them in Des Moines, Iowa."
All this means is that four cable systems wanted to offer VOD, and IFC needed to suck up to them all in order to remain being carried on these services. IFC needs the cable operators more than they need IFC, and while a kid renting a film in Des Moines via VOD is great for Des Moines, its not ground breaking news. If Frankel was so happy with the numbers, perhaps he would have shared a few of them with us!
If you look at The Numbers (the website), you find First Take having a total gross from 1995-2007 of just $1.14 million, from 17 films for an average gross of $67,000. For comparison, much-less well known First Run Features has had a collected gross in the same time of $3.32 million (but with an average $46K per film) and Koch Lorber has averaged over $100K on their films in this same time. Parsing the numbers is never easy, and I can't vouch that The Numbers has these right, but IFC First Take has definitely gotten more press than it deserves for "helping" indie filmmakers. While none of these numbers include DVD or VOD sales, no one is reporting them to us in any easily decipherable manner. Bottom line - no one is making much money, but IFC can't call First Take a success without backing it up better than they have thus far.
Indies shouldn't look at First Take as a model for anything other than what it is - a strategy for a small cable channel to keep getting carriage on big cable systems. While VOD will impact the business, and indies should keep it in mind, my money says this isn't the player to watch. I'd love to see a better analysis of these numbers and the entire marketplace for smaller film distribution than I can offer here. I'm not picking on IndieWire or Sujewa - both are also small players trying to make sense of this - but someone needs to look further into this than they, or I, have been able to do. It's about time indies start getting some real numbers, solid advice and possible solutions instead of pr spin, party photos and bad distribution contracts.
[UPDATE: I stand by this info overall, but a friend pointed out that The Numbers doesn't list everything. See IMDB, for example. There's probably some overlap with the IFC Films numbers, but I can't be sure. Overall point stays the same]