In March, when movie theaters were shutting down and major Hollywood studios were shuffling their film release dates, the head of distribution for IFC Films was cold-calling snack bars at drive-in theaters to speak to their owners.
The independent distributor, which released the Academy Award-nominated "Boyhood," was "dialing for dollars," said Lisa Schwartz, IFC co-president, hoping to find a new home for its lineup of films.
IFC had never played its films in drive-ins before, but the unconventional shift has kept the company in business and not far behind its box-office sales from last year. In fact, its ticket sales are down only 2.6%, to $3.39 million, compared with last year, according to Comscore, despite the growing troubles exhibitors and studios have faced from the coronavirus pandemic.
"A lot of other companies are waiting and what are you waiting for?"said Arianna Bocco, IFC's executive vice president of acquisitions and productions. "We are in a new normal and we need to take advantage of it."
IFC's horror film "The Wretched" was released in May and has garnered more than $1.7 million in ticket sales, fueled by a strong showing at drive-ins, Bocco and Schwartz said.
The company is one of only a few that have regularly reported box-office tallies during the pandemic.
"IFC has been a beacon of light for the industry by supporting the theatrical experience and never wavering from their commitment to consumers and filmmakers alike by adapting quickly and finding a great partner in the drive-in movie theaters that have maintained the big screen, communal experience throughout the course of the pandemic," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.
IFC, owned by AMC Networks, has been around for more than two decades and is the distributor behind 2002's hit "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and the critically acclaimed "Blue is the Warmest Color." Most recently, IFC distributed "The Rental," Dave Franco's directorial debut.
The horror thriller starring Dan Stevens ("Beauty and the Beast") and Alison Brie ("Glow") tallied $404,000 in ticket sales during its first week after showing in 250 theaters. Ninety of those were drive-in locations, and accounted for 86% of the total, Schwartz said.
Being an independent distributor, which predominantly partners with independent cinemas, IFC had developed a strategy of releasing its films in theaters and on-demand for rental on the same day even before the pandemic. While major theaters would have rebuffed the idea of an integrated release, the independent chains have been more flexible.
When the pandemic hit, IFC was well-positioned to continue this strategy, and even use it with films that typically would have had a more traditional release.
"We had the advantage in terms of being able to step back and look at what we had planned and then have discussions about where we could potentially pivot out of a traditional release into an integrated release, and producers and filmmakers were comfortable with that to keep product moving," Schwartz said.
IFC releases its films across a number of online platforms including Vudu, Google Play, Amazon, iTunes and Direct TV for $6.99 per rental. "The Rental" not only found itself at the top of the box office during its opening weekend, but topped the on-demand charts as well. It was No. 1 on Apple TV's list of most viewed titles.
"We did pitch Dave Franco that he would be the summer blockbuster and that bore out to be true," Bocco said.
Because theaters are predominately closed in the U.S., Schwartz said the majority of revenue for 2020 will come from cable and video on-demand sales. Year over year, IFC has seen a 30% lift in catalog rentals as folks stuck at home look for content to keep themselves occupied.
IFC has tended to buy the North American rights to certain film releases, but it plans to do a little more production financing in the future. Getting involved earlier in production can ensure that IFC is able to get its hands on new content for 2021 and 2022 given the rising competition.
The current market for acquiring finished films is "really healthy," Schwartz said.
IFC's next theatrical and on-demand release is "Summerland," a war drama starring Gemma Arterton, which arrives Friday.
Disclosure: Comcast, the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC, owns Vudu.