About halfway through an interview with The Michigan Daily, Jonathan Barkan, one of the executive producers of Kyle Edward Ball’s new experimental horror hit “Skinamarink,” received a text from fellow producer Josh Doke (“Goodland”) about the weekend’s box office receipts for their new film. Deadline was reporting that “Skinamarink” had just reached $1.86 million at the box office, a 12,300% return on the film’s $15,000 budget, which is significant for an independent film.
Barkan joined the project when the film was in post-production. The film had no online presence and no distributor.
“There was a 95% chance it fails,” Barkan told me. But he and Doke had high hopes. The two “wanted to make it like ‘Paranormal Activity’ or ‘Blair Witch,’” indicating that they knew, however unlikely, that the blueprint for a massive hit was there. “That level of success was the dream,” Barkan said.
That dream was in jeopardy last fall when “Skinamarink” was leaked online in November 2022. It was a viral hit, but this leak still threatened the film’s long-term prospects.
“We were worried that Shudder might pull out of the deal,” Barkan explained, “But they leaned into it. They said it was ‘Disappointing, but we’ll find a way through.’”
After moving back the release from October 2023 to January 2023, streaming servive Shudder’s distribution strategy — a limited theatrical release prior to its streaming premiere — worked. The film “was already generating buzz out of festivals,” Barkan said, suggesting that the boost in hype from the film’s virality would have come eventually anyway.
But one has to wonder how big the film could have been had it been given more time to build hype. Barkan lamented the leak as ultimately a negative, noting a culture of impatience in the film industry.
“There’s a sense of impatience in the streaming era where people want to see things immediately. An ‘I want it now’ mentality,” Barkan said
“There are few movies people will revisit, and that goes for the people that pirated (‘Skinamarink’). Doesn’t matter if you see something in theaters and hate it, you are still supporting it and showing distributors it has legs. Those are tickets that will never be sold and streams that will never be recorded. Those metrics matter (when trying to find future distribution deals).”
Though the age of streaming hasn’t necessarily hurt the success of independent films — the size of the potential audience a film could reach is far higher with streaming than with a limited theatrical release — there are fewer avenues for huge success with independent films because it becomes harder for audiences to discover a film in a sea of unlimited options when it isn’t marketed well. Some niche streaming services like MUBI and Shudder have to take risks to successfully market the films they acquire, but many larger services aren’t as willing to do that.
“Shudder was the dream for (Edward Ball),” Barkan said. “Shudder takes risks.”
But while Shudder may have been willing to take a risk on “Skinamarink,” there was still luck involved in getting it acquired. Though the film generated plenty of buzz after its premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival in July 2022, personal connections between Barkan and the Shudder team helped to get the deal over the finish line. Other independent films may not have the same luck.
Even when films like “Skinamarink” are lucky enough to be picked up by a streamer, the bigger streaming services — the ones with the most attention and the best ability to get a bigger audience than the films would have in a limited theatrical release — are failing independent films. They often don’t know what they have or how to get it to the people who want to watch it.
“Every acquisition is an investment, and they need to recoup that,” Barkan said. “Unless it’s major Oscar bait or generating huge buzz at a festival, independent films are struggling to be noticed on these bigger services. … No marketing. No narrative. No story. No rallying cry for independent cinema.”
This is a problem with the very nature of streaming. On major, big tech streaming services, an algorithm determines everything a user watches. Unless they actively search for something or are attuned to almost everything that gets added to a given service, the likelihood of audiences watching something outside of the algorithm is frighteningly low — Netflix’s entire recommendation system is built to hook you in less than 90 seconds.
“The algorithm does not work beyond surface-level films,” Barkan said. “There’s too much content to know everything that is going on.”
Barkan also noted that the algorithmic approach leaves behind films that don’t fit into a particular genre or niche. In reference to a film he could not name because it hasn’t yet secured distribution, Barkan commented on the different audiences present in algorithms.
“(It has) sellable names, but it’s an independent drama. How does it sell? Drama could be comedy in some places. Inoffensive in one place can be offensive in another. How do you sell the film to people? This is still very much a business. Fantastic movies get left behind,” Barkan said.
While “Skinamarink” may have had a bit of an edge in securing streaming distribution by being a horror film, there are other great films out there being left in the dust because the algorithm doesn’t work well for non-genre projects.
Those of us that try to champion smaller, independent works can try to convince people to change their viewing habits, but they will ultimately watch what is most readily available even if it’s not necessarily what they want.
“Streaming reminds me of the internet itself,” Barkan said. “When you have everything, you have nothing. How do you know how to navigate an endless sea of opportunities?”
Are Disney films the most successful in the world because they are the best and they appeal to the greatest number of people, or do they get the largest audiences because they crowd other films out of theaters?
This is why it’s so inspiring to see a film like “Skinamarink” find massive success at the box office. It shows that people will step outside their specific tastes for films that take risks — something other than another huge, bland blockbuster — as long as you market it in a fascinating way and capitalize on buzz. The important thing is that these distributors know what they have, not just that they have something. It’s how an inherently inaccessible horror film has become one of the biggest box office success stories in recent history. People want something different; it just has to get to them.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.