Once upon a time, back in 1999, Jim Henson Pictures wanted to make a fantasy movie about a mermaid, the king who tries to steal her immortality, and the illegitimate daughter who comes between them. In 2001, it became a Disney project and development continued for a decade. After “The Moon and the Sun” wrapped production in 2014, Disney was out and Paramount was in until it wasn’t, pulling it from the release calendar weeks before an April 2015 release.
The $40 million picture starring Pierce Brosnan lay fallow for five years until Arclight Films introduced it in 2020 as a new sales title, “The Kings Daughter,” adding Julie Andrews as narrator. Today, it becomes the weekend’s widest release on more than 2,100 screens — via Gravitas Ventures, a company best known its voluminous catalog of VOD releases.
An indie VOD distributor supporting a wide theatrical release at a time when even major studios demur might sound like a fairy tale in its own right. Another way to look at it: It’s good business.
“We are really collaborating and releasing more in theaters than we had in the first 15 years of our existence,” said Gravitas CEO Nolan Gallagher, who founded the company in 2006. “We have now released five movies, really since the pandemic started, in anywhere between 600 to, in this instance, over 2,100 screens.”
He said Gravitas wants to release five to seven more movies in theaters over the next two years, each on at least 1,000 screens. Even for these films, home viewing is still an end goal — Gallagher said his theatrical titles enjoy an extended VOD shelf-life and boost their earnings potential beyond a straight VOD release — but theaters have no objection. Faced with a dearth of studio product, exhibitors didn’t hesitate to provide Gravitas and “The King’s Daughter” with the kind of robust marketing support usually reserved for majors.
Gallagher spoke with IndieWire about the film and what’s behind his company’s strategy. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
INDIEWIRE: It was eight years ago that “The King’s Daughter” wrapped principal photography, then changed distributors’ hands. What led you to recognize it as an opportunity?
NOLAN GALLAGHER: We acknowledge that the film was filmed in 2014. For people like ourselves who follow Hollywood, that’s interesting. But we really became aware of the film last year. We think it’s a terrific family family film, unbelievable production values, great performances by Pierce, and Kaya (Scodelario), and William Hurt, and others.
I think 99.9 percent of people who are watching the movie in theaters probably aren’t thinking about the fact that it was made when it was made. I think they’re just going to enjoy a fun family fantasy film. It’s a $40 million production budget, and you can see it on the screen. They shot the film at Versailles, it’s got amazing action sequences, luxurious wardrobes, and just a great story.
This was presented to us as an opportunity last year. As a company, we are really collaborating and releasing more in theaters than we had in the first 15 years of our existence. We have now released five movies, really since the pandemic started, in anywhere between 600 to, in this instance, over 2,100 screens.
What were your conversations like with exhibitors? It’s a challenged time for them; how eager were they to have a wide release like this?
We met with them at CinemaCon late last summer. We said we had this film and we’d want to take it out in January. They’ve been helpful with the amount of in-theater support. We’ve been trailering since early December, the weekend that Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” came out. If you go into Regal, for example, we’ve got lobby displays that are digital and interactive at many of their top locations. They treated us with open arms, like a major studio, and it’s been exciting because we want to five to seven more of these to do in over 1,000 screens between now and the end of 2023.
We’re dealing with a landscape with shorter windows, more titles on streamers, and exhibitors are very hungry. What do you see as the opportunity for this film, but also for Gravitas Ventures as a whole? You have an interesting place in the market because of your VOD infrastructure, but here you’re saying that you see more opportunity in theatrical now.
We’re going to be out on the hunt for films that we think will play well in theaters, but will have a long life on video on demand. We’re a company that’s always trying to work on better content and find willing collaborators. We had our first Academy Award nomination last year (for documentary “The Mole Agent”). We’re very open to a variety of content. We’re excited that this is a big family film. We put out over 100 documentaries a year, so we think we’re the largest-volume distributor of documentaries.
Gravitas acquired “The Mole Agent” after its 2020 Sundance premiere. It went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary.
When it comes to family films, there’s one company everyone thinks of. We’re seeing Disney’s strategy change as more Pixar movies end up going straight to Disney+. Is that something you think creates space in the market?
When major studios move their theatrical movies into future years, it opens up opportunities for us that maybe weren’t available a few years ago. We can find these independent gems, whether it be “The King’s Daughter,” which we think will be a great value for a family going to the theater, or we had a film last year called “Queen Bees,” a wonderful film with Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margaret, and James Caan.
It was for an audience that was an older audience, and an older female audience. There weren’t a lot of options at that time for that audience and we were able to have that film play for months in theaters, and was also available on demand. It did well in both places — almost $2 million at the box office.
It’s all about finding great films and being willing to put the work into releasing a film in 1,000 to 2,000 screens. We do that all in house and that’s key for us to be able to manage the destiny for each of our films.
Gravitas Ventures was acquired by Anthem Sports & Entertainment in November. How does that come into play here? Was that part of what helped make your embrace of theatrical and “The King’s Daughter” possible?
We’ve only been together for a couple of months, but they’re promoting “The King’s Daughter” on some of their channels, like AXS TV, which is a home for great independent films, and they’re buying quite a few of our films that are in our library. That will be beneficial for our producers to get incremental revenue on their films long term.
Their corporate goal is to find content that has a known audience that is passionate about it, whether it be music, whether it be combat sports, or in the case of Gravitas, it’s narrative films and documentaries.
Gravitas released 2019 TIFF selection “Our Friend” in January 2021.
What has the pandemic meant for Gravitas? Did you see your business grow as people stayed home?
With theatrical, that was absolutely impacted by the pandemic. We saw an opportunity to talk with exhibition to see if they would work with some of our content. A year ago this weekend we were putting out “Our Friend” and now “The King’s Daughter” is going to three times the amount of theaters.
There’s a thread that I’ve been talking with distributors about, the value that theatrical can give a film in its life after it leaves theaters. How does that fit into the puzzle for these films, that, as you say, you’re living with for a very long time?
As someone who has released over 3,000 movies on VOD, part of my answer is a data-driven answer: The films that we’ve put in theaters in a meaningful way — to us, 600 to 2,000 screens — have a very long afterlife on video on demand.
“Queen Bees,” we debuted that film June 11 last year. Here were are seven months later and people are still renting that movie at a considerable level. Versus had we not done a large theatrical release, I have thousands of data points that suggest that the interest in that film would have been seven weeks.
It’s never one size fits all. We tailor the distribution of a film to what we think makes the most sense long-term, and get the largest audience, but also so the producers and directors feel they can get a return. That there will not just find audience, but continue to generate revenue so they can make their next movies.
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