Independent filmmakers have found ways to navigate the pandemic and get audiences to films

Ethan Sacks
·6 min read

In a global pandemic that has devastated most of the film industry and the movie theater business, there is still room for the occasional Hollywood ending.

The economic toll from Covid-19 has been dramatic: Just under half of the movie theaters across North America are closed, and strict social distancing guidelines restrict the seats available in the ones that are open. Theater owners haven't been helped by having few new films to show on their screens. Studios have been forced to push back the releases of their highest-profile movies to next year or skip theatrical releases entirely, punting some movies straight to streaming services, leading to a box office 77.2 percent worse than at this time last year, according to the media analytics company Comscore.

That has left an opening for enterprising independent filmmakers and distributors to find their own paths to the big screen and to success via brick-and-mortar theaters, drive-ins or virtual cinemas.

And it's working for some of them.

Producer/distributor Manny Halley is banking that his latest crime thriller, "True to the Game 2," which opened in theaters nationwide last Friday, can help fill the void left by the studios that abandoned multiplexes this fall.

"It's created a lane for independent filmmakers to be able to come out, because a lot of the big studios normally take all the theaters," Halley said.

Halley said independent distributors like him can thrive under those conditions because their production and marketing costs are so much lower than those of the big studios.

"I'm just trying to give our culture what they need," said Halley, who is targeting a predominantly urban, Black audience for his tale of a journalist targeted by the criminal who killed her fiancé.

"We're in Black Lives Matter. We focus on the culture, our culture, right now. The demographic of this movie is ages from 18 to 42, so I think we're going to hit our mark," he said.

Vivica A. Fox stars in 'True to the Game 2.' (Imani Media Group)
Vivica A. Fox stars in 'True to the Game 2.' (Imani Media Group)

On a weekend that was supposed to have been dominated by Marvel's "Black Widow" — before Disney shunted the superhero film from theatrical release back to coming attractions — Halley's sequel to the 2017 film "True to the Game" earned an average of $1,234 on 247 screens, the second best box office average of the three-day span.

Finishing in first place at the box office last weekend, with $4 million, was the Kevin Costner thriller "Let Him Go" — the type of movie that might have gone straight to video on demand in a different year.

There is apparently still some appetite left for popcorn.

"The pandemic has changed the types of movies that are being released, because the bigger movies either moved to streaming or moved to next year, waiting for theaters to open up," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior box office analyst for Comscore.

The only studio tentpole released during the Covid-19 era was Warner Bros.' "Tenet," with the industry hoping that a Christopher Nolan-directed action film would bring in moviegoers despite concerns about sitting in an indoor theater for more than two hours. But its $54.3 million domestic haul since Labor Day weekend was far below what a film of that scale would be expected to make in North America if there weren't a deadly pathogen going around.

A much smaller entry, the Russell Crowe vehicle "Unhinged," may well be the biggest success, earning $19.6 million over its domestic run, solid numbers considering the scale of production and marketing costs.

Next year,however, major studios will have an onslaught of films to release, including the big anticipated hits delayed from 2020, starting with "Wonder Woman 1984," now scheduled as a Christmas Day present for beleaguered theaters. The next "Black Widow," "Fast & Furious 9," "Dune" and the next James Bond installment, "No Time to Die," are among the films now due out in 2021. There won't be a lot of screens left to go around once that happens, especially as the National Association of Theatre Owners warned Congress in September that 69 percent of small and midsize movie theater companies will be forced to close or file for bankruptcy without federal relief.

"This may be a window of opportunity that doesn't come around again for independent films," Dergarabedian said.

In the meantime, art house cinema has been forced into a rewrite of its own, as most of the theaters that curate those critically acclaimed films have remained closed.

Several independent distributors have used a hybrid model, opting for limited runs in drive-in theaters while screening those films through "virtual cinemas." Independent mainstays, such as Kino Lorber, Magnolia and Oscilloscope, have put their films online while giving a cut to theaters in exchange for help publicizing the releases with their loyal patrons, said Ira Deutchman, a longtime independent film producer, distributor and marketer.

"Those people count on a certain level of taste and have become really loyal supporters," said Deutchman, who teaches in the film program at Columbia University. "And even in this Covid age when they can't sell tickets, the not-for-profit art houses are doing really well in terms of donor support.

"The fact [is] that they quickly opened up these virtual cinema sites, where it may not be a huge amount of income, but they do have some income to survive," he said.

Drive-ins have also made a resurgence in the past few months, in large part because of the ease of social distancing inside vehicles compared to indoor auditoriums.

That wasn't the road producer Tricia Grashaw and her creative partner, writer/director Todd Theman, had originally planned to take after toiling for eight years to make their film, "Little Black Lie." The drama — about a woman who lies to her fiancé about being raped to hide an affair, setting in motion a dark chain of events as a consequence — had been intended to debut in a rented theater in the spring.

Then California locked down in March.

"This year was our time to kind of finish up on the festival circuit and try to get out there to distributors," Grashaw said. "Then Covid happened. So it kind of changed our plans a little bit."

At first, Grashaw eyed streaming services, but she said it would be impossible to compete for attention on Amazon or Netflix because of all the bigger films that were opting for that route. So they opted for a less modern approach.

The budding filmmakers are now getting their chance to see their labor of love projected on a 50-foot inflatable screen at a pop-up theater, the New Van Nuys Drive-In near Los Angeles, on Friday night.

Drive-ins have been thriving despite having few original movies to showcase. From May 1 through Labor Day, the traditional summer season for the movie biz, drive-ins accounted for $101.1 million of the industry's $175 million total ticket sales, according to Comscore.

"Independent filmmakers have the drive to just continue to push forward and not be discouraged by what life throws at you, because that's always been the case for us," Grashaw said.

"We've always taken every setback and tried to find a way to make it work, no matter what. So this is just another one of those things where it's like 'OK, well, theaters are closed, so we're going to do this now. We're going to make the best of it.'"