Time for a quarterly check-in with the land of Indie.

Through the last weekend of September 2009, we’re seeing some pretty interesting results for the year to date.

308 specialty films were released into the domestic market. That is, 308 films opened at 1,000 theatrical venues or fewer during their first weekend in the U.S. and Canada.

Only 29 of these (or less than 10%) were financed in some part by one of the six major studios, Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal, or Warner Bros. The other 90+% were born outside of the studio system. Remember, just because a project was not financed by a studio does not mean it could not have been released by one. In fact, 33 specialty films were released by studios.

Moving back to financing sources, the following year-to-date results have become apparent through Quarter 3 (Q3) of this year:

—38% of specialty films were backed by private equity (over 70% of the budget).

—16% were financed by a single domestic or foreign distributor (over 30% of the budget).

—13% were private equity driven (30%-60% of the budget).

—10% were European government supported as part of an international coproduction.

Note that there is no overlap among the above four categories and that the remaining 23% of the films were financed via other funding combinations.

What can we take away from this? It seems the most common starting point for funding an independent film is with those individuals who can supply cash in exchange for an equity stake in the project.

Let’s leave the arcane world of film finance and turn to film festivals. Festival-wise, through Q3, 259 specialty films (84%) debuted at a film festival prior to their domestic theatrical release. 50 of these debuts were at Sundance, 30 at Toronto, 26 at Cannes, 15 at Tribeca, 14 at Berlin, and 13 at Venice. Peeking into the Sundance numbers, 20 features were from Sundance 2008, while 30 opted for a quick turnaround having debuted at Sundance 2009. Corporate bent or not, Sundance helps indie films. Overall, if a top festival accepts a project for screening, a certain level of quality control has been passed, as far as distributors are concerned.

What about producer’s reps?

79 films (26%) hired producer’s reps to help secure domestic distribution. These reps, by definition, did not represent their films in foreign markets. CAA and Cinetic Media were the big dogs in the house, repping 16 pictures and 15 pictures respectively. Cinetic, in fact, has recently opened a foreign sales division and will be repping some titles both domestically and internationally – it did so for one title not included in its 15-title total. Submarine Entertainment followed closely behind with 13 titles, next chased by William Morris (9 projects), Endeavor (7), and ICM (6). Of course, William Morris and Endeavor are now joined together in holy matrimony under William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. This should prove a major challenge to the hegemony of Cinetic and CAA.

Turning to distributors, the most prolific were Magnolia Pictures, IFC Films, and Sony. In Q1-Q3, Magnolia released 21 new specialty titles, followed by IFC with 19, and Sony with 17, mostly through Sony Pictures Classics. The next closest was Here Films with 11. Signifying the rise of video-on-demand (VOD), all of IFC’s releases, and nearly half of Magnolia’s, were released in tandem with a VOD release.

Finally, let’s take a look at box office performance. For this we need to stick to films released in Q1 and Q2, since many specialty films from Q3 have a ways to go in their theatrical run. Among these 198 Q1 and Q2 titles, approximately 10% of them earned 80% of the group’s total midyear box office revenues. This points to the nature of box office results: mostly losers with the winners taking all – not a business for the faint of heart.

If we divide Q1/Q2 films into those with stars and those without, we find that, contrary to some statistical studies out there, stars seem to have a fairly significant impact on box office results. 133 projects (67%) had no stars, and the average box office for this group was $0.4M (M = million).  The average for the group of films with stars was $1.6M. A more rigorous statistical examination is needed to confirm the cause of this difference in average box offices.

The raw data for this article can be found here.

Jeremy Juuso is the author of Getting the Money: A Step-by-Step Guide for Writing Business Plans for Film. He is also the founder of Jeremy Juuso Consulting (www.jeremyjuuso.com), a firm specializing in the writing of film business proposals, analysis of film data, and education of investors on the basics of the movie business. He may be reached at consulting@jeremyjuuso.com. This article contains data compiled and analyzed by the author. As such, it is subject to human error and may contain inaccuracies. 

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