Netflix, IFC, and 4 Seismic Exits: The Great Indie Contraction Continues (Column)

When you cover the arthouse business, you get used to familiar faces more than famous ones. Programmers, distributors, and sales agents may not walk the red carpet alongside their stars, but they’re at all the afterparties, in the trenches of every major film festival, constantly plotting ways to get new work seen. Their ubiquity makes it possible to visualize this pocket of the entertainment industry so when the faces change places, it stands out.

In that respect, this week was extraordinary. Within 48 hours, news broke of senior independent film executives leaving jobs they held for years, in some cases not of their own volition. Welcome to the great indie contraction.

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First came John Vanco, the 18-year veteran of the IFC Center, heading to Netflix to take over the booking of New York’s Paris Theater, as well as the Bay Cinema and the Egyptian in L.A.. On its heels was the announcement that the same streamer laid off veteran documentary and indie executives Lisa Nishimura and Ian Bricke. Finally, the week ended with the abrupt announcement that IFC Films president Arianna Bocco stepped down from her top role after 17 years at the AMC-owned company.

Some moves are more shocking than others. Netflix had been looking for a new exhibition figure to inherit the role vacated last year by former Museum of the Moving Image curator David Schwartz. Vanco’s longtime perch at IFC found him collaborating closely with Netflix over the years, and the new gig will likely give him an opportunity to experiment with greater resources (and perhaps better job security).

As for the executives, Netflix has been working to consolidate its many moving parts, and people best known for their filmmaker-focused work with festival and awards-friendly titles don’t appear to be as much as a priority as the company doubles down on streaming-friendly hits.

These moves indicate that even as streaming constricts and consolidates its resources, it continues to cast a giant shadow over the state of arthouse distribution and acquisition. Vanco’s decision to enter the Netflix expanded universe buys it some immediate goodwill from the arthouse community, but it also embodies the growing sentiment of a new economic standard in which streaming has the upper hand. This is the ultimate “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” switcheroo.

Bocco, on the other hand, jolted many of us because her departure seemed to come out of nowhere. A pioneer of the day-and-date model 15 years ago, she was a critical figure in the acquisitions space and one of the few buyers to continue to invest in foreign-language films for the U.S. market. She waited in the wings for years to take over the company from longtime co-president Jonathan Sehring when he retired, and eventually got her shot when co-president Lisa Schwartz vacated the president role in 2020.

Bocco’s tenure at the top of IFC was brief but steady, with acclaimed releases such as Paul Verhoeven’s subversive nun thriller “Benedetta” and the abortion drama “Happening” among their recent successes. These movies may not have been theatrical hits, but they generated a lot of noise and performed well in digital markets. Ultimately, Bocco navigated the dire circumstances of the pandemic and came out the other side. In a sense, it felt like she was just getting started.

However, she’s also the kind of straight shooter who can see the writing on the wall. Yes, she’s taken risks on bold filmmaking like Olivier Assayas’ sprawling “Carlos” and held her nose to turn “The Human Centipede” into a sensation. She also helped elevate lo-fi microbudget filmmaking into a modest corner of already-modest market with the so-called mumblecore movement.

Arianna Bocco - Credit: Getty Images
Arianna Bocco - Credit: Getty Images

Getty Images

At the same time, she has been a constant realist about the challenges of the theatrical release for non-English language films (and basically everything that isn’t genre these days) and she has been vocal about theatrical serving as a form of marketing for digital sales. That mentality made her uniquely equipped to navigate the nature of IFC’s structure as a content feeder for AMC. More and more, however, the streaming market has cannabalized premium VOD (aka PVOD) sales that play a crucial role in the lifespan of many IFC releases. Someone looking to continue their growth in this industry would likely want to grow beyond the constraints of a model tied in part to PVOD revenue.

Sources at the company told me that Bocco’s departure was a surprise. IFC did not include a statement from her in its official announcement, nor did it acknowledge her storied history at the company; instead, it merely explained that head of acquisitions Scott Shooman would fill her role in the interim. While she did not answer calls and texts on Friday, it’s a safe bet that this move caught Bocco’s AMC employers off-guard — and they may not have been thrilled about it.

Where will she wind up? Nobody I contacted on Friday seemed to have any concrete ideas, but there are few people better equipped to leverage the interplay of theatrical and streaming for international films in the U.S. IFC continues to show value within AMC as feeder of feature films to its cable network and AMC+ streaming channel. However, since subscriber numbers aren’t public, we don’t know if that will become a long-term priority. The magic of IFC in its arthouse heyday may have faded, but they still got away with a lot while many people proclaimed the business had died. That kind of resilience is rare, and Bocco’s commitment to the work is larger than the whims of a single corporate entity.

While theatrical may be endangered, people with experience in that market all levels of the industry still add real value to the current landscape. Streaming entities have started to grasp the inherent importance of developing and acquiring original content for a global audience and recognize theatrical as a piece of that equation. Therein lies the potential silver lining: An expert in the art of bringing international cinema to American audiences has currency in an ever-changing market.

Two weeks ago, I attended a ceremony at the French embassy honoring Bocco and her former IFC colleague Ryan Werner (who now runs Cinetic Marketing and new distributor Sideshow) as they were honored with the Chevalier of Arts and Letters. In retrospect, Bocco’s remarks after accepting the prize read as a kind of introduction to her next phase. “Participating in the industry and having the opportunity to bring films to the U.S. has really been the honor of my career,” she said. “I think it’s important that we continue to support different cultures, different films, and new voices. I really hope that I continue doing that.”

It’s likely she will, though where and how remains unclear. As buzz gathers for Cannes, no Netflix movies are expected to play at the festival. Meanwhile, Apple gears up to partner with Paramount for the release of Cannes entry “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Amazon releases “Air” across the country next week. The models are changing, but there’s still room for arthouse figures to enter the streaming world and disrupt it with their own agendas.

There will continue to be purists who resist the notion of a streaming-dominated future for cinema, but the streaming business already sustains virtually every aspect of the arthouse world. Top decision-makers in this business are well-positioned to infiltrate global distribution and attempt to instigate some measure of change. Some of its most familiar figures will have to adopt new ways of doing business. Here’s hoping they still show up at the same old parties.

Check out Bocco’s appearance last fall on Screen Talk here

As usual, I welcome feedback to this week’s column:

Browse previous installments here.

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