With an annual production budget that exceeds $3 billion, independent movies rival the major studios’ spend on filmmaking, even as indies vastly outstrip the studios in sheer volume.
That’s a key finding of our exploration of Sundance by the numbers, which we’ve rendered in our 2014 Sundance Infographic below. There are seven major movie studios: Warner Bros., Disney, Universal, Sony/Columbia, Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount. Can we now reasonably call independent filmmakers the Eighth Studio, because their aggregate production expenses clearly put them in the major studio league?
I don’t believe anyone has ever attempted to quantify the amount of money spent on independent films before. To do this, we decided to use Sundance as a bellwether of the entire independent film sector; with more than 4,000 feature-length films submitted each year, Sundance certainly represents a healthy sample of the industry. While absolutely every indie movie isn’t submitted to Sundance, the highest-profile ones generally are. So the Sundance submission numbers represent a good statistical estimate of the most viable indie movies produced each year.
Then we needed to make an estimate of how much money had been spent on each film. After speaking to a dozen producers, sales agents and indie financiers, we settled on $750,000 per movie, as a blended average number. A few people urged us to estimate a higher number. Even though some movies are made for less, many are made for far, far more, which would put the average cost over $1 million. We decided to keep our estimate at $750,000 to stay on the conservative side.
We also estimate that more than 400,000 people work on indie movies each year, assuming that an average of 100 people work on each film, through all phases of production and post-production.
Opening Night Curse?
In other findings, we took a look at what many distributors call the “Sundance opening night curse”–their belief that if a movie is chosen for Sundance’s opening night, it won’t do well at the box office. Here we found mixed results, which means the “curse” is often true, but not always. Since 2010, 10 films have screened on opening night. Two of them, Twenty Feet From Stardom and Searching for Sugar Man were indie box office success stories; the rest were not.
We also discovered:
Distribution: 2011 was the pivot year; since that year, more than half the films screened at Sundance have achieved distribution deals. That’s because of the explosion of streaming and digital delivery systems. Of course, many of those deals are non-theatrical, and some are for acquisition prices as low as nothing (or nearly nothing–$25,000), which means that most independent financiers won’t recoup their investments.
Biggest sales: Since 2010, the movies that are sold for the most money usually have not been worth it. The winner of this game are Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, which bought well and had theatrical success with The Way Way Back and The Kids Are All Right.
The 8th Studio’s Balance Sheet
Still, the overall picture is far from pretty, and if we were to do a balance sheet for the Eighth Studio, the indie film industry, it would be bleeding more red than a Nicolas Winding Refn movie. In that way, the Sundance Infographic is also a cautionary tale. Fewer than 2% of the fully-finished, feature-length films submitted to the Festival will get any kind of distribution whatsoever. Of the more than $3 billion invested annually, less than 2% will ever be recouped.
Does that mean investors shouldn’t bankroll indie movies, and filmmakers should stop making them? Of course not. But I do wish financiers would invest more wisely, with seasoned guidance and a clear plan for distribution beforehand, and that filmmakers would concentrate on crafting far better movies. Creators and audiences alike would be better served with higher quality and lower quantity. The numbers make that abundantly clear.
Sundance Infographic 2014: The Festival by the Numbers
Click on infographic to enlarge.
Update: Since this infographic was prepared, Sundance added 2 additional films; 121 films will now be screened this year.