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Why Studios Don’t Care if Hollywood Movies Tank and How Grassroots Exhibition Could Rescue Independent Film


Why Studios Don’t Care if Hollywood Movies Tank and How Grassroots Exhibition Could Rescue Independent Film

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn


My name is Carl Kriss, and I have been working as a research associate for Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald’s CRI fellowship on grassroots distribution.  Like Michael and Josh, I worked on the Obama campaign for both the 2008 and 2012 cycles and have been fascinated by how grassroots models from the campaign world shed light on new ways to distribute independent film. In fact, I've noticed a connection in the current struggle between independent filmmakers and Hollywood studios and the challenge Obama faced in the 2007 primary when he was running against the establishment-backed candidate, Hillary Clinton. In the early days, Obama and his team were at a major disadvantage in fundraising and name recognition, but the campaign was able to employ a historic grassroots operation on the ground and online that empowered volunteers to get out the vote and set records in fundraising by reaching out to small donors. This made me wonder whether a film collective could use grassroots organizing methods to distribute a slate of independent films that would normally not be seen in traditional movie theaters. The first step towards answering this question may be to figure out why studios are so interested in funding blockbuster movies over independent films in the first place, especially when many big budget flicks like Disney’s Lone Ranger and Sony’s After Earth continue to tank.

A recent article in the New York Times titled “Studios Unfazed by Colossal Wrecks” sheds light on why studios continue to spend more resources to distribute blockbuster movies instead of indies. In the article, Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School observed that even though more films are failing at the box office than before, it still “turns out to be a winning strategy.  It makes sense for the studios to spend disproportionately on a select group of the most likely winners. And they are the big budget franchise films with identifiable characters and global appeal.”

So studios seem to be intent on saturating the box office with blockbusters and sequels.  The article notes,"The studios collectively released 17 blockbusters between May and the beginning of August.  The summer season has rarely supported more than nine hits, according to Doug Creutz, senior media and entertainment analyst for Cowen & Company, who predicted this summer would generate numerous box-office flops."

Mr. Creutz adds that,

“The major media companies are so big that nothing but a blockbuster really makes sense. Say you make a low-budget comedy and it brings in $150 million. So what? That doesn’t move the needle. You make a blockbuster, you market and promote it, and it plays around the world. You can do the sequel and the consumer products and a theme park attraction. The movie itself is almost beside the point. All Disney is going to be doing is Marvel, Star Wars and animation.”


This is where grassroots distribution can rescue independent film.  With the advent of digital distribution, it has never been easier to screen movies at a low cost. A collective group of filmmakers and community organizers could distribute a slate of films at venues like drive-in's, union halls and school auditoriums for low costs and help prove to studios that there is a demand for independent films at the local level. We plan to explore this idea further in our next post for our 3rd Concluding Idea Series.