It's an ever-evolving and omnipresent element of the independent distribution landscape, but VOD is still tough to pin down. Enter the panelists at the Film Independent Forum's October 21 session "Crunching the Numbers: VOD Calculations Revealed."
Lending immediacy to the proceedings was Jordan Roberts, writer-director of "3...2...1...Frankie Go Boom," a film now playingat the Sunset 5, a stone's throw from the panel's home at the DGA Theater. Nolan Gallagher, founder/CEO of Gravitas Ventures, the company helping Roberts with its non-theatrical release, quickly divided the overarching "VOD" label into three distinct camps.
Transactional VOD describes cable-based services or platforms like iTunes that charge a specific fee per rental. Subscription VOD covers packages like Netflix or Hulu Plus that charge a basic rate for unlimited consumption and ad-sponsored/free VOD affords viewers a cost-free viewing experience, albeit with a few commercials.
When opening his festival experience back at SXSW, Roberts had anticipated the usual distribution search, despite the fact that he had largely self-financed "Frankie Go Boom."
"I wanted Harvey to buy the movie, I wanted Searchlight to buy the movie," Roberts explained. "I wanted a traditional end to an untraditional beginning."
Ultimately, after being persuaded to embrace the VOD route, Roberts opted for a day-and-date strategy, where the film premiered in theaters in close proximity to its alternate roll-out channels. Erick Opeka, another panelist and VP of digital distribution for Cinedigm Entertainment Group, stressed that while VOD offers a new pathway to a different style of viewership, there is definitely value in diversifying and deploying different release strategies to allow for various points of entry.
Panel moderator and Variety writer Andrew Stewart broached the issue of the VOD stigma, the idea that films not arriving in cineplexes in multiple markets are somehow lesser products. Roberts acknowledged that there's a vanity element to getting instantaneous feedback from an audience, but that for the indie world, the festival circuit largely fills that void. From a customer standpoint, Gallagher posited that "consumers are shattering the perception that this isn't a great way to watch a film."
For Roberts, the exclusive benefits of a theatrical release are slowly eroding. With a certain number of screens comes a certain amount of press exposure, be it physical or digital media. However, with greater access and a wider implementation of the process, that exclusivity might be challenged in the coming months.
For impending filmmakers looking to carve out their own VOD plan, Gallagher stressed that the rise of the VOD option doesn't negate the power of festivals, acknowledging that he and other Gravitas employees see around 50 films at each of the major American and international stops on the circuit.
Opecka emphasized that different VOD channels work better for different types of projects. For example, horror films might succeed predominantly on cable because the effect of being scared largely diminishes when the picture is transferred to a tablet-sized screen. Olivier Pfeiffer, the panelist representing the direct-to-fan contingent of the various VOD models, highlighted the need to understand the particular niche the film will be aimed at. "Do your research. As new films get distributed on the Internet, it's more important to know your audience," Pfeiffer said.
The panelists were also quick to point out a couple of common VOD traps to avoid. One centered around the dangers of pre-empting DVD strategy with too-early streaming availability, as physical sales are still a viable way to capitalize on audience exposure. "The digital stuff is very sexy," Opecka said, "but as tools become more pervasive, you have to window appropriately and give your DVD room to breathe." Also, both Gallagher and Opecka both explained that digital rights deals should not exceed more than a few years. "Technology changes so fast, you don't want to lock up opportunities," Opecka said.