Top Movie Distribution Companies of 2018

Top Movie Distribution Companies of 2018

This list is hodge-podged from various online sources, and it's only a rough outline of the current major-movie distribution landscape, really, for my own reference. If you don't like it, I don't care. Many of the words are ripped straight from the marketing material of the company's themselves because what's important here is the taxonomy of what differentiates them in the movie marketplace — which, at the moment, doesn't exist anywhere in a practical way. This is a good starting point when considering the economics of filmmaking in general.

In other words: Why does it matter to know who the distributors are? And what they specialize in? In theory, it doesn't matter. We're all going to die one day — the Sun is destined to explode, The Heat Death of the Universe, etc. 

But if we're going to put those thoughts aside & play the game of the day-to-day, then this is important information. Knowing the major distributors, and what they focus on, is a key into the doorway of why movies exist in the first place. In many ways, the major distributors are not the creators of culture but the gatekeepers of cultural demand. Meaning — They're not telling us what to like... We're telling them what we like, and they're just giving it to us.

This is important because most filmmakers create without the knowledge of why. 

It's also the foundation for a radical-futurist cinematic aesthetic if applied all the way...

1. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The #1 distribution company on the planet. 34% of the movies people buy are distributed by this one company. Pixar, Star Wars, the Marvel cinematic universe...

2. Warner Bros.

A director-friendly studio, has generally fared well with franchises. The studio behind Harry Potter, The Matrix, Looney Tunes, and the DC cinematic universe (the Chris Nolan Batman films, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc). They set a new record as the only studio to exceed $1 billion for 13 years running. Other films include — Inherent Vice, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Gravity, The Lego Movie, Inception, Dunkirk, Heat, Ace Ventura, The Glimmer Man, etc... 

Warner Bros. releases around 20 movies per year.

3. 20th Century Fox

The world’s second largest film studio after Warner Bros. The studio has distributed various commercially successful films. Over $1 billion dollars in gross annual movie sales. Original distributor of Star WarsAvatar, Ice Age, X-Men, Die Hard, Planet of the Apes, etc.

4. Sony Pictures Releasing / Columbia Pictures

Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) operates subdivisions which also create content — Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, Screen Gems, Sony Pictures Classics, etc. The subdivision which distributes these films is known as Sony Pictures Releasing.

Sony also acquired Columbia Pictures in 1989, which is a producer & distributor of movies. Why? Well, apparently they acquired the company to have access to its vast movie library, to sell to this American movie library to international markets, and to capitalize the American population in the future production of movies & commodification of the library (in the form of home movies, digital downloads, licensing, etc). I'm sure they also use the brand name of Columbia Pictures to distribute certain movies over others in Sony, for superficial reasons.

Sony's focus is "a strict discipline in manufacturing & miniaturization, design & efficiency."

The studio enjoyed its best year in terms of box-office grosses in 2012, with its films collecting US$ 4.4 billion in ticket sales. Sony has produced, distributed, or co-distributed successful film series including Men in Black, James Bond, and the Spider-Man franchise... As well as successful one-offs, like the original Ghostbusters, Air Force One, Punch-Drunk Love, etc...

This is one of my favorite distributor idents…

5. Universal Pictures

Universal Studios is best known for three of Steven Spielberg’s biggest hits – Jaws, E.T., and Jurassic Park, each of which became the highest-grossing film ever, at the time of its release. The massive back-lot of the Universal Studios is used by other film studios including Walt Disney. They also do The Fast & Furious franchise... Theme parks, etc.

6. Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures is the longest operating major studio in Hollywood. It has a century of experience in finest production services from development of story idea to post production to distribution. They currently control the Transformers franchise of Michael Bay, the original Iron Man films directed by Jon Favreau, Titanic, the Star Trek reboot of J.J. Abrams, many Spielberg films (War of the Worlds, the Indiana Jones franchise, The Adventures of Tintin, etc), as well as the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible franchise. Lotta hits!

7. Lionsgate Films

 Aggressive genre-focused player making profitable acquisitions as well as financing through offshore sales; home to franchises Saw, Twilight, and the Hunger Games... As well as low-budget reliable assets like the Tyler Perry films, the John Wick trilogy, some action movie mini-franchise called Red starring Bruce Willis (never heard of it), La La Land, and the ensemble action film franchise The Expendables. Lionsgate releases about 25 theatrical movies a year.

8. STX Entertainment

Mid-range movies with major stars, founded in 2014. The company bridges the gap between China and the US, with additional partnerships around the globe. Ran by two people: a movie produce and an international private equity investor.

They make movies in the $30,000,000 range... Presumably hoping to make their money back, with some profit (kinda like stocks, or as an investment for financiers), under the risky hope of a few projects a year heavily profiting because the movie was at the right place at the right time. Their most successful films are: the Luc Besson science-fiction movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), the comedy ensemble film Bad Moms, a Jackie Chan action movie called The Foreigner (2017), a few horror films called The Gift, The Boy, etc

9. Fox Searchlight

Fox Searchlight specializes in North American distribution of independent and British films alongside dramedy and horror films as well as art-house and foreign films and is sometimes also involved in the financing of these films. They are a full-service mini-studio that develops, acquires, and produces commercial specialty titles, many of which win Oscars, from The Full Monty, Boys Don’t Cry, Little Miss Sunshine, Grand Budapest Hotel, Wild, Birdman, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and 12 Years a Slave.

I make note of Fox Searchlight even though 20th Century Fox is listed above (and is the parent company of Fox Searchlight) because of it's distinct mission. Although they serve the same master, their approach to distribution is different enough, and their share of the marketplace distinct enough, that it's productive to take special note of it.

Whereas 20th Century Fox represents about 10% of all movies, Fox Searchlight represents an extra 1% of all movies purchased per year.

10. Roadside Attractions

Oscar-savvy specialty distributor (Super Size MeThe Cove, Biutiful, Winter’s Bone, Albert Nobbs) with partners like Amazon (Chi-Raq, Manchester By the Sea and Love & Friendship) as well as acquiring titles; sometimes with Lionsgate, who owns a part of Roadside Attractions. Founded in 2003. Other films include: What the Bleep Do We Know!?, Dear White People, and Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing...

11. Focus Features

Universal’s specialized film subsidiary has long backed Oscar-bound titles (Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Joe Wright’s Atonement, Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers’ Club, P.T. Anderson's Phantom Thread) with the potential to find a mainstream worldwide audience.

However, the new management team is still finding its way after key personnel peeled off during the Peter Schlessel era. They recently lost veteran publicity exec Adriene Bowles to Annapurna, as well as production chief Jim Burke, who will produce for the label. Judging by its lineup, Focus plans to spend the year doing what it knows best: making movies designed for awards-season release.

There’s a reason why most major studios have shuttered their indie shingles. The money just isn’t there right now. Independent cinema thrives at film festivals and caters to cinephiles, but the multiplex masses have been, and always will be, an extremely tough sell,” says analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. “I personally like the way Fox Searchlight and Sony Classics do business in the indie sector — autonomously, away from their parent company. Otherwise, there are too many cooks in the kitchen, and the same sensibilities don’t often apply when you’re catering to a buffet versus an intimate dinner.

12. Entertainment Studios

For a long time they just focused on television. But in 2017 they started a motion picture distribution sub-division. They're chase the studio crumbs. Since Hollywood doesn't want movies that do $40 million to $60 million, Entertainment Studios has focused on capturing that kind of value. They state they're good with those numbers, and that is what they're pursuing. Founded in 1993 by a comedian, some of their movies include — The Hurricane HeistChappaquiddick47 Meters Down, etc. Looks like they're struggling to make a movie that profits, but hey! Chappaquiddick is a win because of the all the buzz it generated...

13. Neon

Neon got off to a quiet start when the partners released Michael Moore’s 2015 under-performer Where to Invade Next, before the distributor had even announced its name. Neon made a big splash at Sundance, however, picking up the dramatic comedy Ingrid Goes West, starring Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen, the teen drama Beach Rats, and the hip-hop drama Roxanne Roxanne, the Erroll Morris documentary The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography, the Aaron Katz neo-noir Gemini, the Laura Poitras documentary about Wikileaks founder Julian Assange entitled Risk, etc.

Co-founded by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema founder Tim League.

14. Amazon Studios

Last year the streaming giant came into Cannes as a new studio with five auteur titles: Woody Allen’s Cafe Society (Lionsgate), Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden (Magnolia), Jim Jarmusch’s music documentary Gimme Danger (Magnolia) and Paterson (Bleecker Street), and Nic Winding Refn’s Neon Demon (Broad Green), all set for conventional theatrical release.

"Amazon will give most of its original movies a proper theatrical release, unlike rival Netflix," Amazon Studios marketing and distribution chief Bob Berney announced. "A good robust theatrical run is good for everyone... Therefore, almost all of our films will have full theatrical releases. Our goals are aligned with exhibition."

It looks like Amazon Studios retains the theatrical distribution rights to their movies, while they partner with experienced film distributors to do the actual booking & placement.

15. A24

Edgy arthouse pleasers that eschew conventional storytelling norms.

It looks like they're competitive by tapping into Internet aesthetics for Gen Z + Millennial demographics, as well as social media marketing, word of mouth prestige campaigns, etc

Known for many indie darling movies like — Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, Tusk, Ex Machina, Moonlight, The Florida Project, The Disaster Artist, etc. They make good flicks!

16. Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Classics distributes, produces, and acquires specialty films such as documentaries, independent and art films in the United States and internationally.  They also focus on foreign films and prestigious English-language titles from acclaimed filmmakers. 

Sony Pictures Classics has a history of making reasonable investments for small films, and getting a decent return. It has a history of not overspending. Its largest commercial success of the 2010s is Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (2011), which grossed over $56 million in the U.S., becoming Allen's highest-grossing film ever in the United States.

Formed in 1992, they are a distinct sub-division of Sony Pictures Releasing... Occasionally, Sony Pictures Classics agrees to release films for all other film studio divisions of Sony; however, under Sony Pictures Classics' structure within Sony, all other divisions of Sony (including the parent company) cannot force Sony Pictures Classics to release any film that the division does not want to release. Some of their films include — Whiplash, Moon, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Run Lola Run; American Movie; and Synecdoche, New York.

17. Bleecker Street

Formed in 2014 with backing from Indian-American billionaire (and the entrepreneur behind the 5 Hour Energy Drink) Manoj Bhargava, Bleecker Street specializes in dramas aimed at an older demographic. Some of their films include — AnthropoidElvis & Nixon, Eye in the Sky, Trumbo, and the Steven Soderbergh movies Logan Lucky & Unsane.

18. IFC Films

IFC Films deals in cast-driven English-language indies. IFC’s Sundance Selects brand often distributes well-reviewed foreign-language films, while IFC Midnight handles genre titles. Founded in 1999, some of their big titles include — Fahrenheit 9/11, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Steven Soderbergh's Che, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Finding Vivian Maier, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Y Tu Mamá También, I Am a Sex Addict, etc...

. IFC Films also has a history of releasing unconventional horror films, including the American releases of AntiChrist, Dead Snow, The Human Centipede, The Babadook, etc. IFC Films is an off-shoot of the Independent Film Channel, a 90's cable television channel (that actually influenced me a lot when I was a kid).

19. Annapurna Pictures

A film financing, production, and distribution company started by young billionaire heiress Megan Ellison. Backing classy projects from auteur directors, the company has produced — Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master & Phantom Thread, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, David O. Russell's American Hustle, Spike Jonze’s HerKathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, etc... Annapurna Pictures also began distributing films in 2017. Some of these films include Eli Roth's Death Wish, Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit and Richard Linklater's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, etc... Founded in 2011, they plan to release 4-6 movies per year.

20. Magnolia Pictures

Award-winning documentaries and foreign-language films. The company has an output deal with Hulu, where its titles are made available for subscription video on-demand following their theatrical release. Magnolia’s Magnet label handles genre titles. Founded in 2001, it's currently the distribution arm of 2929 Entertainment: a company owned by 2 tech billionaires, one of which is Mark Cuban... Some of their films include — The Wolfpack, Blackfish, To the Wonder, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Melancholia, RubberCapturing the Friedmans, I'm Still Here, Yo-Yo Girl Cop, Cocaine Cowboys, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, etc... They release around 10 movies per year (sometimes more, sometimes less...)

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