Tom diCillo Interviews Roger Ebert

In an attempt to figure out why his well-reviewed film, Delirious, grossed only $200,000 at the box office–or rather, to figure out why a small, independent film is subjected to the same make-or-break Opening Weekend metrics as a studio blockbuster–Tom diCillo emailed Roger Ebert some questions:

5. Does independent film exist anymore?
Yes, barely. The irony is that indies are embraced at film festivals, which have almost become an alternative distribution channel. “Delirious,” for example, was invited by San Sebastian, Sundance, San Francisco, Seattle, Avignon, Munich and Karlovy Vary. All major festivals. But you didn’t make “Delirious” to sell tickets for festivals. I frankly think it’s time for festivals to give their entries a cut of the box office.

With the acknowledgement that festivals are a business–or at least have an economic, not just a cultural, value proposition–and that they function alongside commercial screens as a part of the theatrical distribution channel, Ebert is righter than it sounds like he knows.
Shifts in the way theaters make money–specifically, the split between the studio/distributor and the theater on opening weekend vs later weeks–have combined with the overbuilt glut of screens–and screens per multiplex–to constrain theater owners. They need tons of traffic to generate concession sales, since the studio gets the lion’s share of opening weekend receipts. So they fill their screens with the latest releases, pushing smaller and independent films out.
The maturation and consolidation of non-mainstream theaters, too, means that actual independents constistently lose screens to the products of the mini-majors.
For the moment, theatrical runs are still apparently important to securing a film’s success in the DVD sellthrough and rental markets, but maybe there’s a way to change this. The potential returns from DVD’s could become key to profitability, especially if there were ways to better leverage a limited theatrical run or decouple DVD’s and box office entirely, or if there were a way to capitalize on festival exposure. I think of the way bands burn and sell live concert CD’s on the spot or online. If festivals are dispersed enough, there would be next to no downside for selling DVD’s of a film, maybe coupled with festival extras like the director Q&A as part of a ticket package.
diCillo may be a bit of a stretch, but I could picture directors with healthy online followings–from Mike Mills on the quiet end to Kevin Smith in the food court–reaching a decent sell-through audience. Then let MySpace fill in the rest. Or maybe get a blog.
An indie director asks: Is the whole thing a Kafkaesque nightmare? [suntimes via kottke]