While John Cassavetes is hailed as the godfather of the modern independent film movement, many have argued that the Indiewood business model was truly born when Bob and Harvey Weinstein acquired and released Steven Soderbergh‘s “Sex, Lies and Videotape” in 1989. But now, that model seems to be changing. Earlier this year Soderbergh, whose career fluctuates regularly between high-profile Hollywood fare like “Oceans Twelve” and low-budget movies, like “Bubble,” was at the center of a heated entertainment industry debate when his recent HD feature was distributed in select movie theaters, on cable television, and via DVD on the exact same date. As numerous distribution platforms have emerged to give viewers more choice in how they see new movies, day-and-date has become the heated issue. The studios have embraced releasing films in theaters and online at the same time, but adding in a simultaneous cable TV or DVD release has been widely criticized in Hollywood, among specialty division stalwarts, and by exhibitors.
Last night (Monday), a Tribeca Film Festival panel discussion aimed at exploring the changing distribution platforms for movies quickly expanded into a talk about some of the challenges facing the future of the film industry, from day-and-date distribution to rising star salaries. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, producer, distributor and theater owner Todd Wagner, Dean Garfield from the MPAA (sitting in for chief Dan Glickman who was unable to attend for personal reasons), and Ashwin Navin of BitTorrent weighed in with a number of opinions.
“Distribution of film online is coming sooner than you think,” Ashwin Navin of BitTorrent said Monday, adding, “(and) I think that the independent film community is going to lead the way in terms of creating a lot of value for consumers.” He added that today alone some 700,000 peer-to-peer downloads took place over the Internet, many using software like his company’s BitTorrent.
MPAA executive Dean Garfield explained that his organization couldn’t ignore the fact that there are challenges created by the rapidly growing adoption of broadband Internet access. “We are quickly moving from it taking five to ten hours to download a movie (online) to five to ten minutes,” Continuing he explained, “The studios aren’t all walking around in the dark bumping heads. People are seriously sitting down trying to think of solutions.” He added, “We are working aggressively to deepen our relationship with the exhibitors, to get to the bottom of what’s going on with our cultural shifts.” He said that research is being conducted to better understand changing movie-going patterns, “We are competing for time in a way we haven’t ever before,” he summarized. “The question on the sequencing of when it’s delivered is a whole different issue.”
“We needed to re-think the business model to be able to have the chance to survive in an industry that is run but a few very large studios,” explained Wagner, owner of Landmark Theaters and Magnolia Pictures, and producer of such films as “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Akeelah and the Bee.” As he has said during many panel discussions, Wagner reiterated that the move was simply meant to increase the revenue potential for the movie business. Critics of the plan have countered, however, that collapsing distribution windows will eventually erode the business of releasing movies in theaters.
“We want people to see a movie in theaters, that is our top choice,” Wagner countered, but he added, “We just want people to have a choice if they are not able to get to a theater.”
“I don’t think people will stop (going to movie theaters),” Soderbergh chimed in, “Because its still the primary date destination.” But, Soderbergh added, “There will be a new normal.” He added that theatrical attendance might slide, however, once all TV channels begin delivering HD content in a few years.
Continuing, Soderbergh added, “Cinema is a language that you use to make a movie, so I don’t care where (people) see it, because I know that that language I use to make it is in tact. So, I am not precious about that.”
With that in mind, Soderbergh signed on to make six HD feature films with Cuban and Wagner, each of which will be released under a day-and-date plan, like “Bubble.” Defending his decision, the filmmaker said Monday night, “I was interested in this because I knew that creatively…this was the only way to get a film like ‘Bubble’ made, period.” Soderbergh said that the DVD release of “Bubble” was more successful than he ever imagined because of the greater exposure created by the day-and-date strategy. While Wagner reiterated, “We are going to continue to releasing movies this way, ‘Bubble’ was a huge success to us.”
Citing figures that show an 85% jump in the negative costs of movies and a 110% leap in the P & A costs of distributing them in theaters, Wagner emphasized that the trajectory is in the wrong direction. “Its got to be fixed, the question is how and who,” Wagner said, “If the whole ‘Bubble’ release at least got some discussion going,” Wagner explained, “Then that alone was worth doing it for.”
The freewheeling discussion moved into other topics as well as panelists and attendees considered areas of the business that need improving. “Its important to acknowledge that there’s an elephant in the room that nobody likes to talk about when it comes to movies and it’s the compensation of ‘A-list’ talent,” He added that the up front cost of making movies cannot be sustained over a long period of time, saying, “The whole paradigm needs to be re-designed.” He added that if stars were given a $3 million cap, for example the quality of movies would improve, as would the outlook for the movie business.
Soderbergh added, sharply, “The economic model of the movie business, to me, is broken,” later adding, “Radical ideas need to be entertained.”
ABOUT THE WRITER: Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of indieWIRE.
[indieWIRE is publishing daily dispatches and iPOP photos from the Tribeca Film Festival in a special section.]