LOS ANGELES — Film financier Jason Cloth has taken some gambles during his Hollywood career. For starters, he backed Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation.”
The movie, which premiered at 2016’s Sundance Film Festival, sold to Fox Searchlight for a then-record of $17.5 million. It bombed at the box office after a 1999 rape allegation against Parker resurfaced (Parker was aquitted). Cloth made money on the sale, but Searchlight took a hit.
Years later, producers, agents and distributors have again convened, albeit virtually, for the latest Sundance. But Cloth, the Toronto-based chief executive of Creative Wealth Media, which works closely with Canadian production company Bron Studios, is now convinced that making small indie dramas for movie theaters is a sucker’s game.
The right kind of feature can draw audiences to the multiplex, said Cloth, who provided financing for “House of Gucci,” “Licorice Pizza” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” That’s as long as it can be “eventized” through its intellectual property and cast, and has a studio willing to spend the needed marketing cash.
But for the little art-house films that dominate the scene at Sundance, the theatrical model is no longer viable.
“I don’t think producers can look at these films as being theatrically released,” Cloth said. “Going forward, you’re going to have to look at these films as being produced for the streaming market. That’s the only market for them.”
Independent cinema has always been a casino. Festivals like Sundance, which kicked off last week, are famous for whipping up hype for obscure movies that sell to distributors for millions of dollars in the hope that they’ll become the next “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Brooklyn.” For every hit, there’s a flop, like “Patti Cake$” and “Hamlet 2.”
But the chances of success at the multiplex are now slimmer than ever.
“I need to understand what everyone’s thinking in terms of exit before I’m comfortable putting up money,” Cloth said. “And now, I’m not all that comfortable seeing independent film pitched to me with a theatrical exit, and I’m quite vocal to people, telling them, ‘I think you’re delusional.’ And then they pull out films from three, four years ago, and say ‘Look at how they did.’ I’m like, ‘That was three, four years ago. This is a new world.'”
The unpredictable COVID-19 situation is only partly to blame for struggles. Producers and studios are reckoning with long-term trends in audience behavior that were turbocharged by the pandemic. Moviegoers over 35 — the prime demographic for festival selections — are the most reluctant to return to theaters, especially older women, according to industry data.
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