Fewer indie films are opening in theaters, and filmmakers are fine with that

  • Charlie Hunnam stars in "The Lost City of Z."

    Charlie Hunnam stars in "The Lost City of Z." Courtesy of Aidan Monaghan, Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street

  • Grace Van Patten and Callum Turner star in "Tramps."

    Grace Van Patten and Callum Turner star in "Tramps." Courtesy of Netflix

By Ann Hornaday
The Washington Post
Posted4/21/2017 4:10 PM

Show of hands: Who's planning to see this weekend's big movie?

That was a trick question. Because with screens getting smaller, choices getting wider and audiences getting narrower, the entire notion of "big movie" has become exponentially more difficult to define.


No doubt, such worldwide behemoths as "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Fate of the Furious" count as big movies, if only in deference to their budgets, spectacle and wide-ranging appeal. But a glance at some of this weekend's new releases reveals how, with Hollywood depending ever more heavily on remakes and sequels, and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon becoming players in the art-house space, the proportions of modern films -- the ambition with which they're made and their ultimate size and scale on the screen -- have become increasingly fluid.

There was a time when "Unforgettable," the psychological thriller starring Katherine Heigl and Rosario Dawson, would easily count as this weekend's big movie. But, from concept to execution, the tale of a jealous ex-wife and the new bride she terrorizes is puny indeed -- a grim, hopelessly retrograde portrait of toxic femininity and neurotic sexual jealousy. Although a few curious onlookers might want to see how Heigl is faring in her attempt to reinvent herself as a post-romcom heroine (hint: not well), early tracking suggests that filmgoers will most likely reject "Unforgettable," despite the name recognition of its actors.

Meanwhile, a "smaller" movie with far greater artistic aspirations is opening, not in theaters, but on Netflix, which has aggressively been scooping up independent films to produce and distribute. Along with "Rodney King," Spike Lee's film of Roger Guenveur Smith's one-man show, and the Iraq War drama "Sand Castle," Friday the service will start streaming "Tramps," a playful love-on-the-lam romance by Adam Leon.

With its nods to the likes of the French New Wave, its bravura camerawork and fleet, assured editing, "Tramps" is a lively, high-spirited crowd-pleaser. It played well at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it made its debut and where Netflix purchased it for a reported $2 million. But despite Leon's cinematic sensibility and high-minded aspirations, he's fine with his film not being seen in theaters. What was once the holy grail for young filmmakers -- having their work shown on the big screen -- has now given way to platform-neutral realism.

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Leon, who grew up in New York, admits that he harbored the theatrical dreams for his first film, the 2012 caper comedy "Gimme the Loot." And those dreams came true: The film wound up playing in more than 50 theaters throughout the country. But for "Tramps," he said in a recent telephone conversation, "it was going to be a major challenge to get crowds into the theater. And the reality is that most people would end up seeing it on a streaming service anyway."

When Netflix bought "Tramps" in September, 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."

Leon's sentiments were echoed by Macon Blair, whose movie "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore" opened the Sundance Film Festival in January before going directly to Netflix. Blair had tried to get financing for the serio-comic thriller for about a year, but was unable to coax famous-enough actors to satisfy studios and investors. When he made the deal with Netflix, he said, the company supported his choice of Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood for the lead roles, and completely left him alone while filming.

"Yeah, it would be rad to get your movie into theaters, but either the movie happens or it doesn't happen," Blair said philosophically. "And, if it does happen, not only does it happen, it gets to happen with this huge amount of creative control with the actors you want, and they totally stay out of your hair."


Thanks to recommendation algorithms and subscriber data, Netflix is able to make sure that films such as "Tramps" and "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore" get in front of viewers who are likely to enjoy them -- and, more crucially, to tell their friends that they enjoyed them. (The company doesn't make its viewing statistics public.) It's the same model used by Amazon's Video Direct service, on which such direct-to-streaming movies as "The Break-In" and "Black Field" have found impressive audiences, purely on the basis of the site's if-you-liked-this-you'll-like-that user interface.

These are all films that, had they embarked on traditional theatrical runs, most likely would have ultimately lost money. For them, a streaming-only run isn't a matter of foreclosed expectations, but right sizing. As Joe Swanberg, whose movie "Win It All" is on Netflix, put it, "No filmmaker dreams of a half-empty theater on a Wednesday night."

There are still films that demand to be seen in theaters -- films like "The Lost City of Z," which opens throughout the country on Friday. A sprawling, visually lush epic about the British explorer Percy Fawcett and his attempts to uncover a lost civilization in the Bolivian jungle, "The Lost City of Z" is the kind of sensitive, sweeping adventure tale that evokes such names as David Lean, Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog. It was even made on old-fashioned 35 mm film.

Thankfully, "Lost City of Z's" parent studio, Amazon, is giving it a strong theatrical run before streaming it later this year. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) As Gray observed at the New York Film Festival premiere, this is precisely the kind of film that studios used to make and should still be making. Now addicted to sequels and dubious star vehicles like "Unforgettable," they've handed the baton to smaller outlets and streaming services adept at knowing which movies are meant to be seen on the big screen, and which are just as well-served by bypassing theaters entirely, and meeting audiences where they are. It's an ethic that a new generation of filmmakers is embracing without complaining.

"I had a profound moment about a year ago," Swanberg recalled. "Suddenly the idea that we booked a room with seats fixed to the floor and set screenings at Tuesday at 6:15 p.m. and expected people to come to this room and pay money and sit down seemed so archaic to me. I had this shocking moment of, 'Oh my God, this doesn't make sense.'"

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