Independent films are finding their audiences on VOD
05:00 AM, Oct 28, 2013
Intrigued by the buzz surrounding Escape from Tomorrow, the guerrilla feature shot at Disney parks, which opened earlier this month? Don’t fret that the indie by first-time director Randy Moore isn’t playing at a theater near you. You can watch it on video on demand (VOD), including streaming the film from your cable or satellite TV provider, or renting or buying a film from a digital store such as iTunes or Amazon.com (prices usually run from $5-$10).
Traditionally, U.S. films have been released in theaters before becoming available in other windows, such as VOD. When a film is released simultaneously in theaters and on VOD, it’s called “day-and-date.” This marketing strategy has lost any stigma it once had and is now becoming standard for many small films that may have otherwise been overlooked.
VOD provides a potential audience of 100 million in North America alone, estimates Nolan Gallagher, CEO and founder of Gravitas Ventures. “Not every great movie is going to necessarily get to Cleveland,” said Gallagher, and “there are quite a few consumers who like to be the first ones to see movies fresh off their festival debut.”
Concussion, the Sundance hit from first-time feature director Stacey Passon, is only playing at select theaters, but it’s available on iTunes and other VOD platforms. The list of high-profile indies to be released day and date in the past few months alone is long and includes Lovelace, The Canyons, A Teacher, Adore, Drinking Buddies, Don’t Stop Believin’, Touchy Feely, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Blue Caprice, Muscle Shoals, Good Ol’ Freda and many other films that made the festival circuit.
Then there are films like James Franco’s As I Lay Dying, a prestige pic that is forgoing theatrical release entirely and going straight to VOD, iTunes and DVD. With a recognizable title, Cannes credentials, built-in publicity and Franco’s star power, the film should fare well on digital platforms, whereas, given the tough material, it would have been a tough title theatrically.
There’s also an “ultra” release, where a studio releases a film on VOD before a theatrical as a way to market the film and create buzz. Radius-TWC distributed the Sundance hit, the low-budget R-comedy The Bachelorette via the “ultra” model a month before its theatrical release in September. The film immediately climbed atop the iTunes “top movies” chart.
“I think VOD represents part of the future for indie film,” said Oscilloscope Laboratories’ David Laub. “Is it the entire future? I don’t feel we have enough data yet to know that.”
What is clear is that viewing habits are changing and the younger generation wants the convenience and flexibility of watching films whenever and wherever they want— whether it’s on their mobile device, tablet or streaming directly to their TV. What’s also evident is that some films lend themselves to day and date more than others. Laub points to two recent Oscilloscope releases to prove this point. They decided not to do a day and date release for Mother of George because “it’s not an automatic draw,” said Laub. “We loved the movie when we saw it and the reviews exceeded our expectations, but it needs to be nurtured.”
A film like 28 Hotel Rooms was a natural for day and date release, said Laub, pointing out that its title was a big plus (films that start with numbers or letters early in the alphabet tend to do well on VOD). About Cherry, starring James Franco, Heather Graham and Dev Patel, opened in only three theaters last year, but scored on VOD, where it made over $500,000 in the first week across all VOD platforms, according to the film’s distributor IFC Films.
But a successful VOD run and a successful theatrical run don’t have to be mutually exclusive — one of the benefits of a day and date release is that the publicity surrounding the theatrical release also benefits the VOD platforms. “You can still be successful in both realms if you have the right marketing campaign, the right film and the right release strategy. They can feed each other,” said Laub.
Margin Call, the 2011 film directed by J.C. Chandor and starring Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Irons, was a high-profile example of a film that had success in both theaters and on VOD.
Unlike theatrical releases where box office receipts are publicly reported, in general, VOD numbers are not released, which makes it tricky to gauge success, except when the companies are trumpeting it.
Gallagher points to The Perfect Family, starring Kathleen Turner, Emily Deschanel and Jason Ritter, which was released on VOD and in theaters in May 2012, as a day and date success story, saying it did “over six figures in the theater and very, very well on VOD.”
Releasing a film theatrically is expensive, and historically if the theatrical release wasn’t a success distributors would have to wait three months or longer to release the film on DVD or elsewhere. But now, distributors can coordinate all of the publicity efforts for the theatrical release to include the on-demand release.
“Most independent films aren’t sitting on large marketing budgets, so to be able to market both a theatrical and VOD release at the same time is very efficient,” said Gallagher.
Built-in name recognition or name stars also help VOD titles (as opposed to something like Mother of George, where the title doesn’t indicate exactly what it’s about and there are no stars in the cast). “When you have big stars like Ryan Gosling (Only God Forgives was an “ultra” release) in movies going on demand, people are starting to get it,” said Berry Meyerowitz, Phase 4’s president and CEO. “Movies that have done well on VOD have titles where you know exactly what it’s about, like Assault on Wall Street. The more descriptive we can be, the better,” Meyerowitz added.
In the past, filmmakers might be reluctant to have a day and date release and some do still prefer theatrical windowing. But, as Laub points out, “A lot of filmmakers are increasingly open to these new models. Terence Malick’s last movie (To The Wonder) went to VOD. There are legitimate success stories with films like Margin Call, which went day and date. I’ve seen more openness to it over time.”
In the case of Good Ol’ Freda, director Ryan White had no problem with the film being released day and date, especially since music documentaries tend to do well in VOD. “Our niche audience is Beatles fans who are throughout the country. It’s a film for the fans. I didn’t just want it to be available to people in the big cities. We wanted it to be democratic, with people being able to see it right away,” White told Indiewire.
“More and more filmmakers understand,” said Meyerowitz. “Exhibitors are starting to understand as well. If it’s gong to work, we need more exhibitors to buy into the notion that a bigger pie is better for everyone. Some movies will find an audience on demand and some movies will find an audience in theaters.”