"Margin Call," "Black Death"
"Margin Call," "Black Death"

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."

“The barrier is a business structure; it's not a technological structure. The reality is that we do have the information."- Bruce Goerlich, Rentrak

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."