Video on demand is the future. So why doesn't anyone want to talk about it?
We all know when there's a VOD blockbuster, like Roadside Attractions' “Margin Call” or Magnet Releasing's “Black Death.” However, if extracting the numbers that quantify their success is difficult, getting any information about the thousands of other VOD titles — the performers that create the averages, which inform the strategies for indie filmmakers — is impossible.
All of this makes for an awkward reality: As VOD continues to grow across multiple platforms and it becomes the outlet where many indie films will have their best chance of finding an audience, it’s happening with an opacity that denies reality checks.
So when will people start sharing VOD numbers? After asking the major players in the industry, we have an answer: Not until they have to.
Here’s a breakdown of why you don’t know more about VOD.
Because they don’t want you to. As Rentrak chief research officer Bruce Goerlich said, “The barrier is a business structure; it's not a technological structure."
Goerlich said that the lack of public reporting on VOD data comes from the way the technology was founded. "The reality is that we do have the information," he says. "But we are constrained by what we can report because of arrangements between the operators and the content providers."
According to Goerlich, when VOD began about eight years ago, it was a way for cable operators to provide value-added service for subscribers. There was little interest in reporting transactions.
Today, of course, VOD is big business. According to a report by the Digital Entertainment Group, VOD spending in 2011 increased by 6.7% from the previous year to approximately $1.87 billion. Goerlich estimates that Rentrak gathers data from about 80 million set-top boxes across 35 major operators. And while some believe that data is too disparate to easily collect, Goerlich said that’s not the case.
While it's more complex than, say, gathering ticket sales from movie theaters, the third-party data warehouses that collect the numbers have just a three-day lag time in reporting.
Like theatrical box office, the transactions are a private financial arrangement between the operators and their providers. Unlike theatrical box office, said Goerlich, "they don’t want it reported.”
Distributors know more, but not as much as you might think. While Rentrak has a three-day window, it can be weeks or months before distributors receive their reports. "It can sometimes take six months before you have a real picture of what's going on," says Gravitas Ventures founder Nolan Gallagher.
Part of the problem is while a ticket is a ticket, VOD refers to dozens of different platforms, from Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and Verizon, to iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Sony Playstation and X-Box. “The word ‘VOD’ is so broad," Gallagher said. "A per-screen average is such a simple tool to measure. But in VOD, it's like comparing apples to oranges."
Some distributors want this to change. Dylan Marchetti, founder of theatrical distributor Variance Films, has worked with several companies on titles’ VOD releases; he calls the lack of of transparency "stunning and infuriating.
“I know filmmakers who have been surprised to receive $600 after being on VOD for six months and filmmakers who have gotten $100,000,” he said. “The surprise is not appropriate."
Some distributors suggest that it may be as simple as a fear of the unknown. "I don't think anyone wants to be the first," said Nancy Schafer, executive VP of Tribeca Enterprises, parent company of theatrical and VOD distributor Tribeca Film.
Gallagher took that chance at SXSW earlier this month when he released a document that showed the breakdown of the VOD numbers for a handful of Gravitas-released films, including a detailed numbers behind films such as "The Bill Hicks Story" as well as the narrative film "5 Star Day" and the documentaries "Billionaire" "Elephant in the Living Room," "DMT: The Spirit Molecule" and "Fat Sick & Nearly Dead."
But a lot of distributors don’t. IFC Films, which said it releases about 50 VOD titles annually, declined to make any further comment for this story. And Eamonn Bowles at Magnolia Pictures, which and pioneered the “ultraVOD” model (i.e., films released on VOD before their theatrical dates) argues that simple number-crunching isn’t good for the business.
"It's such a simplistic abstraction," says Bowles. "It doesn't account for money spent and all the other parts of the equation. It doesn't reflect economies of scale. If we go down that reductive road, it doesn't help us. There's no context for those numbers.
"We’re not about bragging," he continues. "That's the problem with the industry, all the dick-wagging that goes on. When you start going to the lowest common denominator, it makes it harder, not easier."
Bowles also notes that the indie films’ numbers aren’t terribly attractive compared to their studio counterparts. "You don't want to be lumped in with the 'Twilights,'" he said.
Still, looking for change? Watch TV. As the VOD market matures, "data analysis will be increasingly important," Gallagher said. "And the market will demand better data to make better decisions."
As to when that moment will come, it probably will be after VOD data for TV is made public. Goerlich said he believes that TV VOD reporting will mature faster because it has to: networks rely on viewer statistics to support ad revenue. "In an advertising-supported business, they need to have more transparency," he said. "There are no hidden numbers in those businesses."
However, since movie VOD is a transaction between cable operators and film companies, there's less incentive for that information to be made public. "And going from a closed market to an open market doesn’t do anything to help the cable operators," he said.
In the meantime, filmmakers can do it for themselves. If companies won't educate filmmakers about the revenue VOD generates, Marchetti suggested that producers should share that information amongst themselves.
"The one thing that I always preach is that filmmakers do eventually get their numbers, so the more they put that information out there, we can create a database of information," he said. "If filmmakers can say, 'This is exactly what I made,’ this will be able to help other filmmakers plan better, market better and cash-project better."
Marchetti also said that the more information there is about VOD grosses, the more theater owners might feel less threatened about theatrical and VOD day-and-date releases. "It's not necessarily an antagonistic relationship," he says.
But industry sources suggest that it's still going to take time for companies to come forward. "My philosophy," says Tribeca Film general manager Todd Green, "is that I'm not concerned with how other companies are doing. I know VOD is working for us. And when the industry is ready to share, it'll happen organically."
But when we asked Green about what kind of numbers Tribeca's top VOD success, the reality TV horror film "Grave Encounters" grossed, he replied, "I'm not going to answer that."