waitress.jpgBoth Variety and the Los Angeles Times have stories in the last couple days about the difficult environment smaller, independent and non-mainstream films are finding themselves in this fall.

As the VAR story says, smaller movies that don’t have the huge marketing resources of a big-budget blockbuster rely largely on the festivals earlier in the year to build a core group of fans. Those first adopters (that’s what they are) hopefully then can ignite a larger audience when the movie is released later in the fall and early winter. A strong presence in the last quarter of the year will, in turn, hopefully result in an awards nomination in the first quarter of the next year.

Again, because of the lack of marketing budget, an awards nomination is huge for these movies because it can be the only time it receives any real non-niche audience attention. These movies do a good portion of their box-office between the nomination announcements and the award presentation, with it dropping off drastically after the Oscar ceremony.

But the MPAA, in its infinite wisdom, has chopped a month off of that nomination to ceremony period. So the movies that rely on that post-nomination bump aren’t able to develop quite as big a bump.

The situation is complicated, as the LAT story explains, by the fact that there’s a glut of quality smaller films in theaters right now. So many that audiences aren’t able to see all the movies they want to see, leading to an overall weak box-office period for these movies.

Contributing to the problem is the fact that these movies aren’t generally spread over the year because of the awards calendar and the traditional advantage to late year releases. Poor box office then leads to movies being squeezed out of multiplexes as exhibitors turn over the screens to something that may bring in more money.

oncepic.jpgOf course there’s the problem some films are going to be facing, where the stars received critical praise for their performance but the movie still tanked. As a second Variety story says, it can be hard for movies that didn’t perform up to expectations to garner nominations in the first place.

I really think this all goes back an idea that is best expressed in Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. Right now resources for distribution – movie screens – are scarce. Like store shelves, the people running theaters need to squeeze the maximum revenue from each one of those screens. Each film needs to earn its keep and if it’s not doing that there isn’t the patience to see if that changes. A new movie is swapped in and the odds are played once again to see if this one sticks with audiences.

That system means only the most popular items will ever be available for any length of time. If you wanted to see Michael Clayton but weren’t available for the one or two weeks it was playing locally then you were screwed because it probably got pulled shortly thereafter.

The system is best remedied through online distribution. Netflix has more movies than your local Blockbuster store because doing business virtually means they can devote more resources to inventory. Extrapolating that to actual downloads, the ability to store an even larger number of movies for on-demand delivery increases greatly.

The smaller studios who are finding themselves squeezed by the big movies, who they just can’t compete with, should be at the front of the line to try a new system like this.