Many distributors have expressed their commitment to filmmaking, but few have put their money where their mouth is the way IFC Films President Arianna Bocco has.
The executive helps save a century-old movie theater (Jack Nicholson was an usher!) in Bradley Beach, New Jersey, where Bocco moved from New York during the coronavirus pandemic.
Bocco partnered with a group of people, including New Jersey native actor Patrick Wilson, who wanted to bring the space to life. The group of investors have bought the building and are raising money for renovations, with plans to reopen it as a three-screen movie theater known as The Bradley.
As for his day job, Bocco helped oversee increased buying at the independent distributor, which picked up seven titles from this year’s Sundance Film Festival and SXSW, including starring Thandiwe Newton. God’s country and comedy Spin me around led by Aubrey Plaza and Alison Brie.
Before Cannes, Bocco spoke with THR on the management of IFC Films, changing sentiment around daily releases, and acquiring titles with AMC Networks sister companies such as Shudder, RLJE, and AMC+.
Do you think Zoom dealmaking is here to stay?
We got used to the efficiency of market meetings on Zoom, but what I really missed was the face-to-face meeting [element]. It’s the same concept of going to see a film in a cinema, which was also part of Cannes, although there is no air conditioning, which is really difficult, but you cannot replace the meeting in face to face. It was really going to Cannes last year that reinforced that not only do I think he will come back, but he will come back strong.
Has COVID changed your strategy in what you bought?
COVID has shaped our strategy in multiple ways. This is partly what we bought due to the better performance of a strategy that pivoted to digital. And part of that was also what was available in the market, and a lot of what was made during COVID was genre movies. They’re more contained, and they’re generally not super expensive to make. Our business strategy also changed during COVID in the way we shopped. Now I’m looking at strong divisions, like Shudder and like RLJE, that allow us to use our collective buying power in the marketplace rather than operating separately, working against each other.
How do you decide when to partner with RLJE or Shudder for an acquisition?
[Shudder] has a very specific audience. They have a very clear idea of the types of films they acquire that best suit their audience. Over the years, we have often overlapped in this space. Now it’s more beneficial to elevate our two brands to do what we do best, which is to position the film and the filmmaker from a marketing PR perspective in the theatrical window and create awareness for the movie and then partner with Shudder on the first payment window. So when it comes to them, we created that awareness for the film. We worked together on marketing materials and PR to make sure it works for both of our platforms and both of our windows.
How has it been seeing major studios in the pandemic move more regularly to day and date?
I read recently that (former WarnerMedia CEO) Jason Kilar said they invented the day and date. They started it. My friends at Magnolia and even Tom Quinn who started out at Radius, we all laugh because we have 15 years of day-to-day filmmaking experience. I think it’s amazing that the industry has finally moved to where we knew it would always go. Once that wall with exposure crumbled a bit in terms of windowing, it really opened the door for big companies and studios to experiment with something that we already knew. That is, you’re not losing your audience, but using dual feeds to grow your audience – to get the most out of your marketing dollars. When we started the day and date 15 years ago, I remember people saying, “You are killing cinema. How can you do that?” We’ve always taken the approach that our goal was to get as many people as possible to see a movie. We can’t release movies the same way we did a while ago. is 20. Audiences have changed. Generations are different. Teenagers are now going to have different habits as adults than we had when we were that age.
How vital is theater to your business model?
It is still very vital. It’s still the way we can really get our press, advertising and marketing out there. And you can never place that magical in-person experience of seeing a movie in a dark theater. Once we as distributors are able to ensure that we are providing the best experience to the public, they will keep coming back. It’s still the cheapest form of entertainment. When it comes to going out at night for entertainment, it really is. I just don’t see that kind of experience going away anytime soon.
Do you think the art house market has fundamentally changed after the pandemic?
It’s fundamentally changed, but I’m not sure that’s a negative thing yet. There’s a certain aspect of the audience that we’ve definitely lost, probably the older arthouse audience. But I think what we’re seeing is younger audiences engaging more than they did. It’s a bit of a trade-off, and it could potentially shape what’s earned and what’s released to theaters. If a younger audience is coming to theaters, then, as distributors, our job is to cultivate that audience and engage with that audience. [But also] not to leave out our core arthouse audience, made up of older arthouse fans – to make sure they get movies they engage with. But trying to get them back? I’m not so sure. The general feeling is that we have lost a certain percentage of this audience.
The filmmakers have been shaken up a lot during the pandemic and after the cast. What do you say to filmmakers who might feel discouraged by the current distribution process?
I felt for so many filmmakers that they never had the opportunity to have a festival experience or that their film was sold to another company. We tried to be very, very transparent with our filmmakers. I would say, you know, filmmakers to try to have a really amazing support system that walks you through these processes and for transparency. But also try to understand the market and not just the first 30 days, but what the big picture is. What does film life look like?
Big streamers pick up packages earlier, leaving smaller movies in the market. Have you noticed this trend?
We noticed it and we also participated in it. We get involved at earlier stages, in pre-purchased script packages. Competitively, it has become a necessity. Our catalog of films for the year was 95% acquired on the open market. It’s getting harder and harder to do that these days when you have people like Netflix or Amazon that we can’t compete with in an open market on a finished movie, but we can, when we step in at higher stages early. It’s easier when those conversations start earlier. COVID shut down production, so there was less to buy, and that forced us to go where we needed to. The market did not offer finished films.
During the pandemic, you started working on reopening an old movie theater in a small town in New Jersey. How did it happen?
It happened at the very beginning of 2020. I have a beach house in this city, and in March 2020, when everything was closed, I just decided to move there. It’s a very small town in New Jersey, and I found myself loving it. I heard that the movie theater, which is a century-old movie theater, started out as a vaudeville theater, and Jack Nicholson was an usher there. I heard an evangelical church made an offer and my heart broke because it’s part of our main street, and it’s created a culture in the area. So, I just called the mayor and said, “How can I help?” And that was it. I was done for. [Laughs]