By Jay A. Fernandez | Indiewire May 4, 2012 at 2:22PM
Paramount Insurge has crossed a new threshold: Its low-budget horror film “The Loved Ones” has its first audience-requested screening confirmed through fledgling on-demand hub Tugg. As of early Thursday afternoon, the creeper about a girl’s nasty revenge on the guy who declined her prom-night proposal had attracted more than 50 fans — the bar necessary to lock in the event — for a June 1 screening at the New Beverly Cinema.
Potential screenings of the film in San Francisco, Austin, New York, Chicago and Houston have yet to meet their quotas, but as the running countdowns on Tugg’s event pages make clear, viewers still have 28 days left to fill them. Many of the events are pitched with invitations to potential audience members to dress up in prom wear and vote on a king and queen.
The Tugg method also lends itself to activist documentaries. On Thursday, 13 cities hosted screenings of the Ryan Gosling-narrated Occupy movement documentary "#ReGeneration," with another 5-10 in the works.
“It’s a really good way to get the movie out to places where it might not survive a theatrical release,” says Paul Federbush of Red Flag Releasing, which is distributing “#ReGeneration.”
“Tugg helps people who care about the issues to get engaged,” adds Red Flag's Laura Kim.
The Austin-based Tugg, formed by Nicolas Gonda and Pablo Gonzalez in 2010 and still in beta after a February launch, is a collective-action web platform designed to give individual moviegoers the power to select what they want to see in their local theaters and promote those events using social media. Insurge put an early version of the phenomenon to wildly successful use when it invited fans to request a local screening of “Paranormal Activity” in 2009. But the Tugg model, which Insurge is trying out for the first time, is the latest effort to harness crowdsourced, preemptive demand.
Right now, the biggest obstacle to Tugg’s success is content. At the moment, the model makes available films that don’t get wide release (or were never released at all). For example, genre fans can use the service to bring hard-to-find festival midnight movies (such as "Loved Ones") to their local theater and get a bunch of their friends to commit to seeing it on a certain date. At, say, $10 a head, they're paying market rates and once Tugg has a group large enough to justify the expenditures — which are low, since no marketing costs are involved and most of the film “prints” are now digital files — voila: The audience just programmed its own film. It's exhibition at its most granular.
But the real goal -- and perhaps the real money -- is in making studio archives available to the public. Tugg’s founders are currently exploring studio vaults, assessing what they have in what shape and which format (Tugg does work for physical prints, but at a higher cost threshold). If Tugg can broker a partnership that sees digital entrepreneurs bring demand to the studios before they spend a dime on marketing or prints, it becomes found money for the likes of Paramount, Warner Bros. and Universal. The Tugg platform is designed to trigger deliverables only when the demand has already made the effort profitable.
With all studios on board, the potential for cinema lovers would be huge. A single person who loves “Top Gun” or “Pulp Fiction” or “Mamma Mia” and wants to build a birthday party or class reunion around it will merely need to have enough people sign up on Tugg to meet that threshold. And with studios (slowly) converting films to digital and theaters transitioning their projectors to same, those costs will continue to decrease.
All those different cuts of a movie, most of which are never seen? You could request the director’s cut, the “lost” version, the kitchen-sink rough cut -- or the NC-17 version, pre-MPAA-demanded cuts. Want to program a mini-festival of James Van Der Beek movies? Send the invitation to the Facebook fan club right off the Tugg event page and start the popcorn machine.
Recent real-world examples include screenings of “One Day on Earth” in 11 cities on Earth Day; screenings of “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope,” where individual promoters received letters from director Morgan Spurlock to read to each crowd before the film; an Austin screening of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” that a mother’s group set up so they could all take their screaming babies without complaint (that has led to a recurring series); and a screening of “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” organized by a University of Pennsylvania design student because the documentary never made it to Philadelphia theaters. That has led to a new series that will next feature a Tugg-enabled screening of “A Better Life,” complete with mariachi band and Q&A with local immigration lawyers.
“What’s most exciting is when people come up with ideas and experiences that wouldn’t have been possible before – that we hadn’t even thought of,” says Gonda.
You’re a specialty distributor and you want to extend the playability of your fall awards contender? Promote it on Tugg and have people ask for it. As a test case, Tugg recently made available Magnolia’s annual compilation of Oscar-nomimated shorts. A group of cinephiles in Chattanooga, Tennessee sold out two screenings and ended up building a new indie-film series for a local community hungry for that content. “It wasn’t even an appetite that had to be discovered," says Gonda. "It was already built up and waiting for a resource to enable it.”
Granted, having easy access to prints of "Citizen Kane" and "The French Connection" is still a long way off. Studios aren't fully on board yet. That “Loved Ones” effort is a low-risk experiment for a film that was hardly getting much exposure anyway. But Netflix, iTunes and Hulu have made viewers expect to watch almost anything they want at any time on any device. Why shouldn’t true cinephiles be able to use their beloved local theaters the same way? It would help the arthouse theaters stay solvent, it could reinvigorate film history by allowing big-screen viewing of classic films at will, it would provide studios with another revenue stream and provide an incentive to restore or digitize more movies. And moviegoers would see more of what they wanted.
Gonda said a number of studio-related announcements are coming in about a month and said they're bringing their own ideas about how to test titles that may not have fit a theatrical model before -- even foreign films that may now get a chance on American screens.
“People are coming from different departments with a strong appetite to use this tool," he says. "They see Tugg can be a real catalyzer. They’re not having to speculate or take risks.”
Imagine. Just as the moviegoing experience was migrating from the theater to the living room, the Tugg model could encourage just as many moviegoers to head back to the theater.