Emerging digital and bespoke theatrical platforms give filmmakers and distributors a fighting chance of success in the new era, attendees at the AFM’s distribution panel heard on Tuesday (November 11).

Moderator Russell Schwartz, president of domestic marketing at Relativity Europa Distribution, and five panellists discussed the opportunities that await those who embrace new paradigms and warned of over-reliance on the old model for those outside the studio system.

“I’m not looking to compete with studio films,” said Abramorama president Richard Abramowitz. “I’m looking for well defined films that can find a core audience.”

Abramowitz spoke of the success of the documentary Awake (pictured), a documentary about the life of the guru Yoganada.

“Very little money is being spent but because it has a defined audiences people are showing up in record numbers and we will ultimately have a theatrical gross of over $1m. It’s at half a million now, it has been out five weeks and it’s only in 20 markets.”

The executive stoked the fires when he spoke of the need to accept young audience behaviour at face value in the quest to engage theatrical crowds.

“I’m asking theatres to set up a texting section,” he said. “We need to find ways to continue to engender [young audiences’] support.”

Adam Leipzig, CEO of Entertainment Media Partners, joined his fellow speakers in urging filmmakers to identify their core audiences and recognise the value of what they can build by themselves.

“Building an audience is the real value of crowdfunding,” said Leipzig, adding later: “It’s about having constituents and incentivising them to be your advocates and evangelists.”

The executive counselled the audience at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica to think holistically and be mindful of the international market.

He painted a scenario that illustrated the pitfalls for a smaller distributor in qualifying for a theatrical release via the quota system in France.

“Your movie is competing for this quota slot with Interstellar, so you might find that rather than doing your one-night vanity theatrical release you let it go entirely on Vimeo On Demand or another platform.”

“The issue now is one of simple supply and demand,” said Vimeo vice-president of content acquisitions Sam Toles. “Costco switches out one-third of their inventory every six week. Why? Because they’re trying to incentivise their customers into action because their customers come once every six weeks.

“When you look at the theatrical companies or TV, there are 11 films finishing post every day in the US and Canada – that’s 4,000 films a year. There’s an infinite amount of content and people have access to studio libraries through Netflix and Amazon.

“So you’re not only dealing with other films completing post, but the entire weight of history. So that’s the essence of the problem – an over-supply an inability to find content for that consumer.”

Turning to event cinema, Tugg CEO Nicolas Gonda said theatrical distribution must be about creating an event. He cited the example of Under The Electric Sky, the documentary about the Electric Daisy Carnival on which Tugg is working with Focus Features.

In some Los Angeles theatres tickets have been priced at $25 and for that price consumers also get entry to a nightclub after the screening.

“The ticket is the handshake,” said Gonda, “and once you have that you have the relationship.”

There appeared to be consensus that blind faith in the theatrical model is flawed thinking. “Thirty to fifty percent of people don’t decide what movie they will see until they’re in line,” said Schwartz. “All those millions of dollars on marketing – what good is it?

Wiley, an independent film marketing distribution executive and former svp and general manager at eOne Films US, used two case studies that demonstrate the shifting sands of theatrical deployment.

Banking on the name of director Brian De Palma and “Rachel McAdams sexing it up”, eOne planned a 100-print run followed by digital launch for its Toronto 2012 pick-up Passion in August 2013.

“It didn’t play theatrically and the revenues were bad. It hurt the additional revenues, so to be able to talk to the filmmaker beforehand is important.” The film grossed $92,181 in theatres.

On the other hand Knights Of Badassdom, an action comedy about live-action role players who summon a demon, was a good bet.

“We wanted to create this path that would allow everybody to have it when they wanted it and adjust the price-point and allow the filmmakers to make some money too,” said Wiley.

“The Tugg screenings were so successful that exhibitors started calling, so we ended up staying in theatres for a period of about two months.” The film, never in more than 13 theatres, over-performed on $123,854 from six weeks in theatres.

In a landscape of bountiful options, filmmakers and distributors need to be nimble and find the right platform at the right time, said Toles.

“Windowing the wrong way leads to piracy. If you start to see deceleration of sales it might be time to think about putting it on iTunes or take a Netflix deal.”