In June, the Dissolve’s Scott Tobias inveighed against the veil of secrecy drawn across the world of video on demand, which makes it impossible to know who, if anyone, is seeing some of the smaller, less traditionally released movies critics care about most.
Certain fundamental changes have happened in the independent market as a result of VOD. Moviegoers are changing their habits. Distributors are changing their release strategies. And to accommodate all parties, arthouses are changing their projection booths and their programming in order to survive. We can safely guess that these changes are profound and transformative, and that the indie business will continue to evolve (or devolve) at a breathless pace. We can guess these things, but we can’t really know them with any kind of precision, because they can’t be quantified. And that’s because the money generated by VOD rentals is almost never disclosed. Figuring out what’s successful or unsuccessful on VOD — or the overall viability of the format, period — is like being lost in a wilderness within a wilderness. And the powers-that-be aren’t passing out flashlights.
The same movie was also the centerpiece of Calum Marsh’s article in the New Yorker about the burgeoning world of VOD profits. "’Blue Ruin’ made a little more than two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in theatres—not bad for an indie film," he wrote. "But it made almost triple that amount through video on demand."
Today at Thompson on Hollywood, Anne Thompson has more from Harvey Weinstein and Tom Quinn of RADiUS-TWC, which released both "Blue Ruin" and "Snowpiercer." "Snowpiercer," she writes, made $2 million during its first week available on demand, which after crunching some numbers and making a few educated guesses will lead to around $13 million in profits after the film’s theatrical and on-demand run.
Perhaps most interestingly, Quinn and Weinstein opted for a split-the-baby approach to combining theatrical and VOD, releasing "Snowpiercer" only two weeks after its initial opening, but holding back that information until it its second weekend in theaters. (Theater owners knew, which was why some were reluctant to book the movie, as did on-demand providers, but they weren’t meant to let it slip, although some did.) By not putting a date certain on the VOD release until the people most eager to see "Snowpiercer" had already done so, or at least made plans, RADiUS was able to create an exaggerated sense of event around theatrical dates and still get the movie out while the excitement lingered. Quinn told Thompson he aimed to "crack that no man’s land between a boutique movie and a blockbuster where there’s no middle ground."
Here’s a question that lingers, though: Would critics (myself included) have gotten behind "Snowpiercer" the way they/we did had they known how the movie was being released? So much of the critical praise was focused on the idea that Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian thriller was a shoulda-been blockbuster — see, mostly recently, Anne Helen Petersen’s piece in BuzzFeed — a goal that would have seemed a lot more quixotic had we known its theatrical release was merely prelude to people being able to watch it on their couches. It’s much harder to create that sense of urgency, let alone to feel like you’re part of a larger movement, when you can’t rely on the familiar metrics of sold-out screenings and per-screen averages as a barometer of how well it’s working. Distributors aren’t the only ones who rely on profits as a measure of success; critics do, too.