The Big Pivot: Indie Films Shake-Up Sales Strategies as Streaming Giants Change Course

No feature film has it easy in the modern theatrical and digital landscape, but 2022 has been particularly fraught. Warner Bros. is outright shelving pricey titles like “Batgirl,” Netflix has gone back to the drawing board thanks to its stock stumble and Amazon is focusing its resources on the almost-billion-dollar rollout of its “Lord of the Rings” TV series.  

For fledgling indie movies that come to film markets, like the one currently underway in Toronto, the streamers used to be a safe and lucrative bets for distribution. As these now-legacy companies scramble to cut costs and boost subscriptions to please stockholders, the indie film industrial complex has once again been forced to pivot.  

“It feels like we’re at the tail end of a wait-and-see period,” said John Sloss, founder and CEO of the sales agency Cinetic. “I think there was a reset this summer, and we’re all waiting for the fall season to see what the future looks like.”  

Roeg Sutherland, CAA Media Finance co-head, said the market “consistently changes. What we saw in Cannes was the foreign sales market showed up in a huge way. We sold two movies to streamers, otherwise every other movie — close to 25 — was set up with international financing and some equity. There’s no lack of money out there. Owning IP is the way to success.”  

Indeed, the old guard has stepped up in the form of international territory sales to help finance incomplete movies as well as bolster finished product. Completed films looking for distribution at TIFF this year include the Venice hit “Other People’s Children,” “Saint Omer” and the queer coming-of-age tale “Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.”  

“It’s so easy to fall into the negativity of what could be. I think the weather in Los Angeles is much more worrisome than what’s going on with the indie film market right now,” said Sutherland, referring to the grid-snapping heat back home in Hollywood.  

In addition to foreign territory sales, equity financiers are still opening their wallets to help make smaller movies. Sloss said, however, some are “skittish because that’s tied to theatrical” — meaning the ongoing pandemic and threats of recession may hurt movies in cineplexes (mostly ones not made by Marvel). Yet another top film broker optimistically pointed to smaller digital players that are becoming more aggressive, like the Criterion Channel streaming service launched in 2019, and Roku (which has the delirious Weird Al Yankovic movie playing at TIFF).   

The eternal silver lining, said CAA Media Finance co-head Benjamin Kramer, is that the right film can be transformative.  

“One notable movie can come from anywhere and entirely brand, or rebrand, a company. When a film delivers for its audience — whether theatrical or streaming — the film is as valuable as it ever has been,” he said.  

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