It’s been a painful year for independent movies. Both Sundance and the Cannes Film Festival were bleak affairs with few success stories. In the last six months, just two limited-release films — the Spanish-language drama Under the Same Moon and the Amy Adams lark Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day — have made inroads at the box office, and neither of those reached $15 million. In May, Warner Bros. announced that it was shutting down both Warner Independent Pictures (which released the $77 million sleeper March of the Penguins) and Picturehouse, home of award magnets La Vie en Rose and Pan’s Labyrinth. And news recently broke that Paramount Vantage — the two-year-old division that joined forces with Miramax to produce this year’s Oscar darlings There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men — will merge marketing, distribution, and physical production operations with its parent studio.
The world of indie film was once a nimble, low-cost success story. But after years of growth, it’s beleaguered by bloated infrastructures, high-priced shoots, and soaring marketing costs. ”It’s getting more expensive,” says Mark Gill, former head of Warner Independent. ”It’s beyond a mature market. It’s a shrinking market.” And it’s one that’s been hampered by its own success. According to Gill, Wall Street has infused the film industry with $18 billion in the last five years. Much of that money has been used to fund smaller new studios, meaning that the number of movies hitting theaters is now at 600 per year, versus about 400 in 2006.
That’s bad news for little films, which at one time could open in a couple of cities and be propelled by word of mouth. ”The art houses are churning through movies,” says Stephen Gilula, chief operating officer at Fox Searchlight. ”If your grosses aren’t in the top tier, you’re out. Only the strong survive.” And to be strong you must spend money — lots of it: No Country and Blood, for instance, each cost around $30 million to produce and an additional $40 million to market. Given that indie films were never supposed to boast $70 million price tags, some think there’s a silver lining in this latest round of housecleaning — sort of. ”It could easily turn around,” says Picturehouse president Bob Berney, who’ll be out of a job come October. ”Once it thins out, even the bad movies will do well, because audiences will be hungry.” Let’s just hope there’s actually something good to eat.