Like the beginning of any decade, the start of the 2010s was a time full of promise. So it was for FilmDistrict, a new independent movie studio founded by Graham King, among others. One of the earliest titles acquired by this outfit was Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 movie Drive. Purchased in November 2011 before the project had even finished filming, there was excitement brewing behind Drive and how it could not only be a success but help establish a firm identity for FilmDistrict. This was a studio to watch out for, this was a studio that could launch the next big crossover indie hit.
By the end of 2013, FilmDistrict would be gone. The struggles it faced were not exclusively it’s own. They were shared with other movie studios that began at the dawn of the decade like Relativity Media, CBS Films, Open Road Films, and even a relaunched version of DreamWorks Pictures that distributed its works through Disney’s Touchstone Pictures. All of them set out at the start of the 2010s with high hopes of being someone who could shake up the film industry. By the end of the 2010s, none of them would exist anymore as independent distributors, save for Open Road Films existing as a skeleton of its former self.
How did we get here? How did so many promising studios fall prey to dissolution?
The key thing to remember here is that the emergence of these independent studios wasn’t the only big thing happening to the American film industry at the start of the 2010s. The economic crash of 2008 had obliterated previously reliable financial models for the major studios (like Warner Bros., Universal Pictures, etc.). In responding to this development, studios began to wean themselves off mid-budget movies and slim down their slates. The focus was now shifting towards releasing fewer, bigger-budgeted movies in the marketplace, a drastic shift from the norm of even five years prior.
On paper, this would appear to have created a void that new studios like FilmDistrict or CBS Films could leap into. To be sure, the biggest successes these studios experienced could be owed to pursuing productions other places weren’t making, like Relativity Media filling in the need for romantic dramas with its 2013 film Safe Haven. However, by and large, new studios had trouble standing out in the marketplace with their titles. For one thing, their line-up of features wasn’t usually the $50-80 million mid-budget titles major studios had largely turned down. Many of them, like FilmDistrict’s April 2012 title Lockdown, were cheapie films that would’ve gone to independent distributors even before the economic downturn.
For another, the new emphasis on rampant blockbusters made it tougher than ever for these smaller films to stand out at the multiplex. Open Road Films, for instance, launched the Arnold Schwarzenegger action film Sabotage at the end of March only for that film’s entire target demographic to get swept up in Captain America: The Winter Soldier one week later. Combining softer slates of titles with persistent competition meant that new studios like FilmDistrict were bringing Nerf blasters to fight against the vast arsenals of the major studios.
Of course, there was also another issue facing these studios: money. It takes a lot of cash to run a studio that distributes and markets its own titles. The existing major studios have decades of older movies and TV shows to lean back on to generate revenue if a new release doesn’t make money despite a costly marketing campaign. Brand-new studios, on the other hand, in the modern film ecosystem, basically need every movie to be a hit, or else they’ll have to start concerning themselves with the possibility of going under.
By the end of 2011, less than a year into distributing its own films, FilmDistrict had to strike a deal with Open Road Films to distribute its 2012 titles. Around this same time, CBS Films, less than two years after its first film release, Extraordinary Measures, announced that it would be shifting direction. In the wake of weaker box office results for its inaugural titles, CBS Films would be slimming down to a primarily acquisition-based studio. Very quickly, these new studios found themselves struggling to maintain the finances needed to compete with the big boys in the industry.
Of course, there were also unique circumstances plaguing each studio. This was especially true of Relativity Media, the passion project for Ryan Kavanaugh. Unlike CBS Films, for example, Relativity Media had early out-and-out hits like Limitless and Immortals, which scored box office results that would’ve been at home in the major studios. However, shortly afterwards, signs were emerging over the erratically reliable nature of this studio. Among these early indicators was when Relativity Media was embroiled in a financing-related lawsuit while The Hollywood Reporter reported at the start of 2012 that the studio was facing financial hardship.
2012 wasn’t just a turning point for Relativity Media. It was also a pivotal year for DreamWorks, which had seen its initial distribution plan change drastically. Once set to be a partnership that would see DreamWorks produce as many as 30 movies over 6 years, DreamWorks ended up being in such dire financial straits by the end of 2011 that it shifted to doing just two movies a year. For the final two years in its time at Disney, DreamWorks would only release one film a year, a whimper of a conclusion for an initially promising alliance that could’ve rejuvenated the DreamWorks brand.
As the dawn of the 2010s turned into 2013 and 2014, the problems kept on mounting for the handful of new studios that even stuck around. FilmDistrict was the first to go in the fall of 2013, with Spike Lee’s widely criticized Oldboy remake being an unceremonious end to a once-promising newcomer to the world of American exhibition. DreamWorks, meanwhile, went from being a standalone studio to just being one of several brands employed by Amblin Partners, a company largely owned by Universal Pictures.
The demise of these two studios, which saw the FilmDistrict library and the DreamWorks name getting absorbed into the Comcast-owned Universal library, seems now, with the benefit of hindsight, a harbinger of what was to come. These studios once meant to compete with the major film companies, becoming just another acquisition for a conglomerate is a precursor to the wave of mergers and acquisitions that have gripped Hollywood. Just like with Amazon buying MGM, the demises of these studios show how quickly promising glimpses of potential can just become the newest item to be purchased for a media empire.
By 2015, even Relativity Media went down in a messy bankruptcy that turned into a spectacle more gripping than many of the films it produced. Whereas other outfits like FilmDistrict just got quietly absorbed into bigger studios, Relativity Media went through a lengthy court process that also included the brief possibility of Kevin Spacey and Dana Burnetti being hired to run a new version of Relativity Media. All of the messy finances of running a new movie studio blew up in Relativity Media’s face and made for an even more chaotic bankruptcy process.
Flashing forward to 2021, looking back on these studios now provides a combined sense of bittersweet melancholy and also disappointment. On the one hand, the American film industry needs as many studios as possible to fight against potential creative stagnation. With all the growing monopolies in this sector, that’s more true than ever. Reading early press releases about FilmDistrict acquiring Drive or the studio’s heads talking about all the excitement of launching this company, one can’t help but get wistful about all the potential wiped out.
Then again, the actual reality of these studios was less ideal than their ambitions. The intent was to provide regular doses of mid-budget cinema that the major studios were largely eschewing. In reality, the financial hardships of running a new studio meant that the likes of CBS Films and Relativity Media regularly released underwhelming features that could be cheaply acquired and produced. There’s a reason people didn’t show up for the largely forgotten likes of Faster or Hector and the Search for Happiness. Rather than setting the stage for the next When Harry Met Sally, Relativity Media threw in Free Birds, another talking animal cartoon full of pop culture references into a marketplace crowded with such titles.
However, that doesn’t mean that the legacy of these studios is solely negative. FilmDistrict may not have lasted even three years as a standalone distributor, but it being the company responsible for unleashing Drive on the general public already gives it an important place in film history. FilmDistrict releasing a more challenging Nicolas Winding Refn movie that other major studios wouldn’t touch is a testament to why we need more independent studios. Meanwhile, the shortcomings of FilmDistrict and other 2010s studio newcomers provide a cautionary tale for future distributors entering this field.
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