Opinion: In the Age of Streaming, Indie Films Need a Fair Shot at Awards

May 30, 2017
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“The direct-to-digital marketplace has changed in the last two years drastically. Sometimes the stories are a little more experimental or less mainstream, but those films are actually elevated in contrast to what we’re seeing in the theaters.”

‍I understand that by nature, culture is fickle, ephemeral, and has a tendency to crowd around one thing and raise it high overhead. I’m also aware that I’m deep into Chuck Klosterman’s book “But What If We’re Wrong?” and consequently have been thinking about what really lasts when we get some distance from the present. What film, art, stories and people come back into our consciousness long after we experience them for the first time?

Well, fear not, dear audience, because AWARDS SEASON is here to tell you which art is the very best! And you’re about to hear it over and over again.

Semi-officially beginning in about three months, awards season is long and tedious, typically including hundreds of nominations and awards within a six-month period. IMDb lists La La Land as having a total of 239 wins and 168 nominations. The “NOW THIS IS THE BEST RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW, I SAID IT FIRST, OR AT LEAST I SAID IT THE LOUDEST” declarations all seemingly anoint the same honors to the same stories with little variance. Not to mention we’re told time and time again that any film receiving a nomination is worthy - both in terms of business and artistic merit.

‍Cast of Moonlight at the 2017 Spirit Awards

The ‘Cultural Whirlpool’

My own existential train of thought aside, is no one else exhausted by the same movies being talked about for half a year? And the other half of the year is spent supposing what this year’s awards season will crowd around. The chatter of the season ceases very quickly to be about the films themselves, and becomes only about perpetuating ‘the cultural whirlpool’ – a phrase I use to denote how critics/filmmakers/nomination committees just want to be a part of the conversation, even if the conversation is about the same ten films or filmmakers, and not necessarily the most innovative or exceptional films or filmmakers of the year.

Critics want to be relevant. The trades want to drive advertising. Billboard companies in NY and LA need to fill slots. So what are some reasons award committees are participating in this? For one, some award shows are ostensibly fundraisers. Fundraisers desire attention, clout and celebrity attendance like any other money-raising endeavor. Additionally, if you, the awards giver, award Moonlight best picture of the year, and then Moonlight wins Best Picture at the Oscars, your award becomes an ‘Oscar predictor’ – a very prestigious title any of these committees would die for. This is a mutually beneficial exchange of clout. The Independent Spirit Awards, for example, have become more and more of an Oscar predictor, even though the budget ceiling for eligible films is capped at $20 million dollars. They’ve awarded their Best Picture prize to the same film that won Best Picture at the Oscars five of the last seven years.

‍Cannes Film Festival

Nomination Requirements Need a Revamp

Now, let’s talk about the (outdated) theatrical requirements that almost every awards committee won’t seem to shed. In short, most high-profile awards (the Oscars, Golden Globes, Gotham Independents, Independent Spirit Awards, among others) require that any film considered in the varying categories be released into a theater of some kind.

Regardless of budget, the main hurdle facing independent film right now is over saturation of the marketplace. Too many moving pictures, not enough eyeballs and wallets. We’re fighting for spots at a limited number of serious/respected film festivals. We’re trying to get our film bought by distributors who have their pick of strong content. We’re trying to get seen by prestigious critics in the hopes of getting a good review. We’re trying to use the elements you do have to engage people online via social media. We’re trying to get the money to hire a publicist who actually cares about the film and will get it on the radar of the press and awards committees.

And if we’re lucky enough to finally be in a position to apply for any kind of award nomination, and thus increase visibility, we’re then required to release the film in a theater at a huge additional expense.

It Happened to Me

‍My experience producing an independent feature that was released last year, Hunter Gatherer, ended up in “best-case-scenario land,” especially thanks to the support of our publicist, investors, sales team, and everyone on our creative team who cared about getting the movie to audiences. We played the game and walked away in the end with an Indie Spirit award nomination – specifically for the John Cassavetes Award, given to the best feature made for under $500,000. That nomination absolutely helped get us a better deal when we sold to a streaming service, and being included in the conversation of visible and well-reviewed independent films released in 2016 was the most obvious benefit.

Hunter Gatherer, 2016

The ‘“game” went something like this: Alongside our publicist, Adam Kersh of Brigade Marketing, we initially targeted a Best Actor nomination for our lead actor Andre Royo, not only because of his strong performance, but because he was awarded a Special Jury Prize for Best Actor at SXSW 2016. We felt we had a real chance with the Indie Spirit Awards (an awards show put on by the non-profit organization Film Independent) committee. At the time we submitted to be considered for an award, we did not have a distributor onboard who planned to release our film. Because we did not have an upcoming release set with a traditional distributor, we spent money (about 10% of our production budget) to self-release in theaters for one week in order to comply with the award requirements. It didn’t matter if we wanted to release in theaters (we did), but we had no choice if we wanted to be a part of the awards conversation.

By the way, I have zero interest in stringing up Film Independent (Spirit Awards) – far from it. They are one of the biggest champions of small films, raise a huge amount of awareness, and do incredible work one-on-one with filmmakers, full-stop. I’m using them as one example of how even an extremely inclusive awards committee is limiting itself by being married to a theatrical release as a barometer of quality.

To note, Film Independent allows films to waive the theatrical release if they’ve played at six festivals (their own list: “Los Angeles Film Festival, New Directors/New Films, New York Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival or Toronto International Film Festival”). The ‘sister’ indie awards in New York, the Gotham Independent Film Awards, has the same stipulation, but have made somewhat of an effort to include digital as an acceptable distribution platform - with the caveat that the film would still need to have also played at “one of the following qualifying festivals: Berlin, Cannes, Los Angeles Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto International Film Festival, or Tribeca Film Festival.”

Streaming Services Are Changing The Industry

The film “Tramps” (dir. Adam Leon) was bought by Netflix last year after it played well at the Toronto Film Festival. Leon reinforces the notion that traditional theatrical runs are becoming more and more of a thing of the past in independent film: “…Leon cried with relief that he could make his investors whole, and that the pressure of filling theaters was lifted. Despite his confidence in the film, Leon observed, 'It's far from a slam dunk. There are no known quantities, it's not a horror movie, it doesn't feature The Rock. There are no TV actresses taking off their clothes. But on VOD, someone will buy it.'" So, if you’ve got new, talented, bold filmmakers happy with being on a streaming service because it means that people have access to their films and they pay their investors back – then isn’t the only reason Netflix would release “Tramps” into theaters for one week is to qualify for higher-profile awards that will then help drive views of the film on their WEBSITE? 

A movie is a movie is a movie, right?

Quality Isn’t Confined to Theaters

A friend who works in film sales agrees that times have definitely changed: “You have to speak about the quality of films that aren’t necessarily getting a theatrical release. The direct-to-digital marketplace has changed in the last two years drastically. Sometimes the stories are a little more experimental or less mainstream, but those films are actually elevated in contrast to what we’re seeing in the theaters.”

With all the competing priorities of publicizing a film, something has to give. As my friend points out: “You may not have the time to qualify for festivals alongside your required theatrical. Does that just mean you’re eliminated [from awards nominations] if you take a million dollar deal from a streaming company?”

To what end are we continuing to pump unnecessary funds into an outdated system for films that don’t necessarily need to be released in theaters? Now that a 75-inch HD TV costs under $3000, and theater screens are smaller in vast multiplexes, does a theatrical release mean anything for a movie that probably cost less than $2M and doesn't have the scope of a big budget extravaganza?

‍Idris Elba in 'Beasts of No Nation'

Forbes notes that when forced to release, the numbers don’t necessarily come out in anyone’s favor: “Netflix tried its hand at feature films when it purchased the rights to ‘Beasts of No Nation,’ a war drama about a child soldier, at 2015's Toronto Film Festival for about $12 million. Rather than a traditional release, Netflix only put it out for a two-week theatrical run so it qualified for awards. ‘Beasts’ was released online simultaneously, leading to a paltry $91,000 at the box office.” Ultimately, the poor box office performance may have actually hurt the film’s run at the Oscars, since the film appeared to be a commercial failure.

Netflix’s goal, of course, is gaining more subscribers. The company buys films and shows on that basis. But “Beasts of No Nation” was a high dollar deal, and Netflix wanted (or possibly even guaranteed) an awards push. The theatrical release was never a priority. But they did it anyway. If Netflix had earmarked more money for publicity instead of putting the film into theaters, it might have gathered more attention - and may have actually gotten Idris Elba a nomination. (His exclusion caused an uproar).

Just look at the awards chatter surrounding Noah Baumbach’s, “The Meyerowitz Stories,” which debuted this year at Cannes and is being released by Netflix. It got rave reviews and was a front-runner for Cannes’ highest award, but Netflix “hasn’t yet figured out its release plan; they often book their pictures via their iPics chain, but could pact with another theatrical distributor.” It perhaps may go the same route as ‘Beast of No Nation’ in order to get Adam Sandler an Oscar nomination.

Isn’t it possible to change awards season to be more inclusive and consequently, more interesting to a wider group of people -- the actual audience who is consuming independent film from their couches?

The even harder question that we’re all still bumping up against, though: How can we be more inclusive when the task of watching every single film produced on a yearly basis is profoundly unrealistic?

Counterpoint

When speaking about this issue in particular, (Hunter Gatherer’s publicist) Adam Kersh countered that without a theatrical component to the release of our film, his firm wouldn’t have taken on the campaign in the first place. Said Kersh, “Unfortunately, films without a theatrical release simply are not covered in the same way by the media. Certain films that are star-driven or more genre-oriented material can avoid a theatrical. The reality is that ‘Hunter Gatherer’ would have had a much tougher road without it. The level of coverage we received, including strong reviews and features (the NY Times alone wrote two pieces on Royo), would have been significantly minimized without runs in NYC and LA.”

In general, he is not in favor of awards committees changing this requirement. He believes that the boundaries between film and television become too blurred without a theatrical release. He continued: “I would argue, though, that exhibitors should figure out a way to bring four-wall costs down so films that are self-distributed can get into theaters more easily. Not everyone can afford the cost to self-distribute.”

Netflix and Kill

Inevitably, it seems likely these theatrical requirements are going to die a slow and painful death, especially if Ted Sarandos (the Chief Content Officer for Netflix) has anything to do with it. You don’t have to look far in the news in the last few weeks to see two distinct examples of this. The first instance is the new requirement that beginning next year, films without the intention of a theatrical release in France won’t be eligible for the Palme d’Or competition at Cannes. According toThe Hollywood Reporter, the move effectively bars Netflix releases from Europe's answer to an Oscar race. Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings bitterly called it "the establishment closing ranks against us." Sarandos said the organizers should judge films on merit: “Cannes should live up to its core mission of ‘celebrating arts’ regardless of platform.”

‍Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images: Netflix's content chief Ted Sarandos (left) and Cannes director, Thierry Fremau

Secondly, current president of the Academy of the Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, is departing in August and Sarandos has quickly responded by implementing a quest for a board seat. This is unlikely, but the fact that he’s so transparent about wanting it gives a face to the issue. According to IndieWire, “While the Academy is fighting to save the theatrical motion picture model against online streaming, Sarandos doesn’t want to book movies in theaters at all.”

My friend and prolific producer Gavin Polone brought up the most apt example of the last few years in this regard: “The music industry first tried to fight streaming and then realized that the marketplace makes the decision, no matter how much they resisted.  Now revenue from streaming is increasing and so are music company profits."

Is Netflix our Napster?

Steering a Big Old Boat

The other prevailing thought is if you award films that are NOT available to “wide audiences” (and releasing theatrically, by the way, for a week in LA does not mean you’ve reached a wide audience), then it’s assumed the audience will feel isolated and excluded when those awards are given to films they don’t have an easy and available viewing experience with.

Audiences truly aren’t interested in the same old thing or favoritism – and again, they’re watching films inside the walls of their homes. There’s a balance to be struck between getting celebrities to attend your awards show to help shine a light on the smaller films and nominees, and actually profiling films, performances, and technical achievements of value. Not only that, viewership is down year after year. The Oscars ratings are at a 9-year low, so the audience they’re seeking is slowly diminishing.

Wouldn’t awards season in general be so much more exciting if the contenders were a simple remote click away? If half the nominees are streaming, no one is actually skipping the ceremony because they missed the movies that year. They would have even more of a reason to watch. Changing this roadblock not only would make complete sense given the current climate of indie distribution, but could have the added benefit of addressing the overbearing monotony that is awards’ season. 

As Kersh puts it, “Awards season is monotonous because of the ‘group think’ that tends to happen. Award-giving bodies are not daring enough, and there should absolutely be a more diverse group of honorees across the board. In general, there is way too much money spent on awards campaigns. I personally would love to see some sort of campaign finance reform so indies from companies (like IFC or Magnolia) can compete alongside studio films.”

For the indie film world, it should be about making incremental changes, not extremes. Obviously we should include streaming as a viable release in addition to theatrical. Let’s become more creative and add new categories (hey, Indie Spirits and Gothams, want to add a Best Composer or Best Score category?) or let’s make categories more specific. I can’t believe I’m defending the biggest star-chaser of them all, but at least the Golden Globes have separated drama from comedy/musical in an effort to expand their nominees. If you do that, Amy Adams will still come to your award show, but so might Amari Cheatom, who was superb in a supporting role in Joel Potrykus’ "The Alchemist’s Cookbook" distributed last summer by Oscilloscope.

Award committees in particular are in the unique position of creating dialogue, not just existing in an echo chamber. You could place just about anything in the creative field at the start of that sentence and it’d be true, but let’s take baby steps as a community. If independent film has to gravitate toward streaming deals and leveraging visibility from prestige festivals, shouldn’t those outlets be on the same playing field as a theatrically released film?

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April Lamb

I am an independent producer out of Los Angeles. I was a director's assistant for the better part of ten years, and am currently working as a script consultant and creative life coach. My website is aprillamb.com.

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