For more than thirty years, Wayne Wang has navigated the vastly different terrains of the independent film industry and Hollywood. Now, he’s preparing to extend his experience to another domain — the Internet. Due to the close relationship between his latest two features, “The Princess of Nebraska” and “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” Wang has decided to make “Princess” available online, for free, shortly after “A Thousand Years” hits theaters next month. Although the details of the distribution strategy remain in development, the final plan for the parallel releases will likely emerge in the coming weeks.
Exactly one year ago, Wang premiered the features — which are both based on short stories from an anthology by Yiyun Li — at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. Magnolia Pictures acquired North American rights several months later, but Wang was adamant about releasing both movies at once, which presented a challenge. At the Toronto fest, Wang screened the films together, and some theaters in France are doing that now. In the United States, however, such an operation seemed impractical. “Because of the expenses involved, we came up with the idea of putting one online,” Wang said in a recent interview with indieWIRE.
The filmmaker started tossing around the possibility of releasing the films on parallel theatrical and digital platforms shortly after the premiere in Toronto. “When I did both films, they became kind of connected in my mind,” he said. “I’ve always been in love with both stories. They’re both about women who come from China to the United States.” The idea first came up in conversations with Ray Price, Landmark Theater‘s VP of Marketing. Price had a working relationship with Wang going back to the eighties, and understood the importance of the filmmaker’s need to attain his vision for the release. “It was important to Wayne to put them out at the same time, but I think it’s problematic to put two films on the same platform at the same time,” Price told indieWIRE. “They cannibalize each other.”
After running down numerous possibilities, including the idea of releasing the DVD of “Princess” for free in certain magazines, they decided that the Internet provided the best option. Later, Matt Dentler at the newly formed Cinetic Rights Management became involved to help flesh out the concept. “They’re both very avant-garde in their thinking, in terms of putting things on the Internet and making it work,” Wang said of Price and Dentler.
Landmark’s Price noted that “Princess,” currently the only film licensed under the Directors Guild of America’s new Internet contract, was always the preferable of the two films to become available online. “At the very beginning, we intended to go into some other yet-to-be-defined strategy. It would be much more satisfactory for ‘Princess,'” he said. Wang agreed. “The movie was made for not a lot of money, truly in the indie spirit,” he said. “It was shot with a consumer camera. I think it’s correct for the film to be distributed on the Internet for free. We can still have a market to make our money back later on television and elsewhere, but I like the idea that it’s readily available for free in the beginning.”
Via Cinetic Rights Management, Wang and Price are close to securing a deal with an online platform. The group seem to have settled on a free Internet release for “Princess” shortly after September’s theatrical debut of “Prayers,” but are not ready to announce the final plans just yet.
Wang’s openness to the prospect of having people view his work online may go back to when he cast the star of “Princess,” Pamelyn Chee, after viewing her audition tape on YouTube. He has since warmed up to the venue. “It was an interesting way to look at casting,” he said. “I’ve actually started to look at different things on YouTube. It opens a whole other world.”
Price emphasized that the digital release was less a financial imperative than an experiment for allowing the director to achieve his goal for the projects. “Part of the point of this is that we’re trying to work out a paradigm that is filmmaker-friendly,” he said.
Rather than moving onto other projects, Wang continues to play a role in the upcoming releases, and has considered shooting additional material to promote the films on social networking sites. “If this gets his story to a bigger audience, I think he’ll jump right back and do it again,” Price said. For his part, Wang isn’t too concerned about the financial outcome. “Our ideas and creativity are riding on this,” he said. “Money-wise, it’s not like we made these for millions of dollars. They’re relatively inexpensive. Creatively, we’d love to see it succeed. It’s still a question mark, but we’re figuring it out.”