“It Follows” is the year’s first big indie success story. RADiUS-TWC picked up David Robert Mitchell’s film last August, months after its Cannes Film Festival premiere. Today, it’s been lauded with talk of a possible sequel, critical praise (read Eric Kohn’s review here), and box office to match, grossing $11,798,000 since it opened March 13.
However, the horror film about a teen plagued by disturbing visions has proved discomfiting beyond its scares: “It Follows” is making theater owners and VOD providers anxious, for very different reasons. Read our FAQ to understand why the indie horror film is scaring some factions in the industry.
So why is this movie raising hackles?
“It Follows” is at the crossroads of the New Distribution Model (hereafter NDM). The RADiUS-TWC release strategy successfully played both ends — theatrical and VOD — toward the middle by carefully managing its relationships with theater owners as well as VOD providers.
OK, great. Why is that a problem?
While no official date was announced, “It Follows” was originally anticipated to be on VOD two weeks after its theatrical opening. When the movie proved a hit in its first weekend, RADiUS-TWC moved on a different plan: Increase the theater count and push VOD back to the traditional DVD window. “With the best reviews of any American horror film since “Evil Dead’ and the biggest exclusive opening for any horror film since ‘Paranormal Activity,’ going wide was the logical next step,” Radius co-president Tom Quinn told USA Today.
It seems clear that this was the right move for the film, and it’s poised as a bellwether for future release strategies. And therein lies the problem.
What’s wrong with success?
Nothing, if you’re the film’s distributor. But if this really is the NDM, it’s one that doesn’t give primacy to the theaters or to VOD; it’s whatever works best for the movie, and “It Follows” shows that’s very much subject to change. Exhibitors are pressing hard to keep their traditional theatrical windows, while VOD providers must contend with last-minute changes and the perception that the best movies are theatrical first. Whichever way it goes, both parties have to get used to the feeling of sand shifting beneath their feet.
What’s the industry’s reaction been so far?
Tim League, CEO of Drafthouse Films, has been quite vocal about the success of “It Follows.” He’s hopeful that in the wake of the film’s success, VOD platforms, theaters and iTunes will allow this sort of flexibility.
In an ideal world, League wrote, “Strong indie films with a chance of breaking out would begin with a 2-4 week theatrical window. If they do extremely well, the VOD and iTunes windows would be pushed back to allow the theatrical revenues to be maximized and for awareness of the film to build. At the same time, expansion market cinemas would be willing to pick up the film, provided it crossed certain revenue thresholds in its first two weeks of release. If the theatrical grosses aren’t there, the film would stick to the compressed-window strategy or maybe play in those expansion markets with just a few showtimes.”
What about other distributors?
If it’s any indication of the topic’s sensitivity, Indiewire contacted 10 distributors for comment and none would respond on the record. One small distributor allowed himself to be quoted anonymously, saying he hoped the strategy would change the way the industry releases films on VOD. “Right now my choices are basically do it before theaters with extra premium pricing, do it the same day as theaters with premium pricing, or do it after with regular pricing (and if I don’t do a 94-day window, then I don’t get a number of key theaters on board).”
Why are indie distributors frustrated with theater chains? And why do they want shorter windows?
Said another small distributor: “I understand why it would be a disaster for theaters if a $150 million 3D kids’ film were to have a 30-day window, but what’s wrong with a 2-5 week window between theaters and VOD for a smaller indie film? It hurts no box office (nobody is planning what they’re going to be watching on VOD five weeks out) and I think really helps the VOD and theaters by consolidating two campaigns into one – which, in turn, helps lower the cost to putting out the film, getting us better films in release.”
As League said, “To date, the cinema industry is largely unwilling to discuss any flexibility in the way independent films are booked. I am in accord with the industry that new-release blockbusters need to have a long exclusive theatrical window. But for independent films, we need greater flexibility.”