How Indie Theaters Have Used This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Shorts to Bring Audiences Back

"A Love Song for Latasha" (Courtesy of ShortsTV)

The same as every year, New York’s IFC Center is seeing sellouts for its screenings of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films. Then again, selling out means something different during a pandemic.

“When you’re in a sold-out show, you don’t think you’re in a sold-out show because it’s mostly empty,” says John Vanco, VP and general manager at the IFC Center, which programs the Oscar shorts every year. “It’s all very odd, but it is what it is.”

The IFC Center, which operates independently but is owned by AMC Networks (not to be confused with the mega-exhibitor of the same name), is currently operating at 25 percent capacity under state guidelines for New York City, significantly reducing potential turnout for the Oscar shorts, which Vanco calls one of the theater’s most consistent box-office performers.

The 2021 Oscar-nominated shorts arrived at a pivotal time for independent movie theaters, many of which only recently began to reopen their doors and were in dire need of content to bring audiences back. Vanco calls programming a theater, particularly an independent, as a case of “feast or famine” in normal years—and that dynamic was more “famine” than ever during the pandemic, when even theaters that were able to reopen had little in the way of top-tier content to offer.

“I think the theaters are using this as a calling card to get people to know, ‘Hey, we’re back,’” says Carter Pilcher, chief executive and founder of ShortsTV, which has been producing and distributing the Oscar shorts since 2006.

That’s certainly the case at the IFC Center, which reopened its doors on March 5 after being closed for a total of 51 weeks. “I think a lot of theaters really looked forward to the Oscars shorts as a first-class program that would do well any year,” adds Vanco. “And frankly [it] looks even better this year when there just aren’t that many top-level releases from the indie studios coming out in the in the first three or four months of the year.”

A robust vaccine rollout has also helped matters. “In New York, vaccinations are going pretty well,” says Vanco. “So…the proportion of our audiences who are ready and willing and excited to come back to see movies keeps going up a little bit each week.”

Normally screening in around 700 theaters each year, the Oscar shorts, due to a patchwork of reopening guidelines across the U.S., only played in around 350 this year at their height (many theaters stop showing the shorts on Oscar weekend). Another 200 or so have been exhibiting them virtually, with proceeds from those ticket sales split evenly between ShortsTV and theaters. Viewers can also watch the shorts via the indie streaming platform Eventive; revenue from those sales are spread evenly among all participating theaters that have yet to open their doors.

Due to the lower screen count and capacity restrictions, ticket sales are way down from a typical year, when the shorts normally gross around $4 million by the end of their run. Pilcher says box office for the 2021 Oscar shorts is about 10 percentof that currently, but thanks to a reduction in marketing and other expenses, they are nonetheless inching toward profitability.

“We went into this year with the high expectation that we would lose some money,” says Pilcher. “[But] I would just say this: I think we might be pleasantly surprised.”

That’s good news for everyone’s bottom line. Perhaps more importantly, it provides a much-needed sense of continuity.

“Traditions in exhibition have been kind of undermined by the past year,” says Vanco. “So being able to maintain a positive tradition like this feels extra special.”

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