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by Paula Bernstein
November 11, 2013 10:27 AM
20 Comments
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Is VOD the Future of Independent Film? Yes -- and No.

"About Cherry"
Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos riled the industry with a contentious Executive Keynote address at the 9th annual Film Independent Forum, in which he criticized theater owners for resisting the idea of day-and-date releasing of films on Netflix and claiming that theaters are going to "kill movies" if they continue to resist multi-platform distribution.

"I do wish more theaters would be open to supporting day and day releases for indie films."

John Fithian, president/CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners responded, telling Deadline that, in fact, Netflix was imperiling the future of movies. "Subscription movie services and cheap rentals killed the DVD business, and now Sarandos wants to kill the cinema as well," Fithian said.

After getting flak from theater owners about his bold statement, Sarandos backtracked, saying that he wasn't calling for day and date, but rather, "calling to move all the windows up to get closer to what the consumer wants."

Mainstream exhibitors refuse to carry films that premiere day-and-date, saying that there is a direct hit on theatrical exhibition when movies play day-and-date.

But some independently owned and operated theaters don't have a problem with the new distribution model. "I do wish more theaters would be open to supporting day and day releases for indie films," said Tim League, founder/chief executive officer of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.

As he told Indiewire recently: "Alamo Drafthouse is one of the few exhibitors that supports the idea of day and date and even ultra-VOD windows. I am a open to this for small movies by small distributors who don't have the budget for a massive national P&A spend. We have proven that model can work for the right film."

It's clear that day-and-date continues to be a hot-button issue for the industry -- big-budget and indie movies alike. 

"Escape From Tomorrow."

Sarandos' comments come just as many independent films challenge the traditional theatrical model with multi-platform releases, including day-and-date VOD releases and ultra-VOD.

As these distribution methods lose their stigma, they're becoming standard for many small films. 

Depending on who you ask, VOD is either the salvation -- or the death -- of independent film.

Of course, the Netflix model, where consumers pay a flat rate upfront, is quite different than video on demand, or from renting or buying a film from a digital store such as iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, or from sites such as Crackle and Indiewire's parent SnagFilms, where you can stream movies for free.

It's unlikely that Hollywood studios and theater owners will ever agree to having films stream day-and-date on Netflix or on VOD: By all appearances, it would destroy their business model.Independent films potentially have more to gain with day-and-date releases than blockbusters -- a larger potential audience and the ability to generate word-of-mouth -- but the risk remains.

If audiences can watch a new release at home, why go to the local theater?

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20 Comments

  • Michael | March 20, 2014 9:20 PMReply

    Roseanne Liang released a film in 2005 entitled "Banana in a Nutshell". Even after seven years of getting limited recognition for her documentary, Roseanne was still able to make two more films after her debut. The determination turned her to Kinonation, a start-up that specializes in cloud VOD distribution, in Santa Monica that allowed her to distribute "Banana in a Nutshell" to Hulu, Amazon, and SnagFilms. After years of minimal recognition, Roseanne was able to accumulate tens of thousands of views without any marketing or advertising firms to back her up. Her film currently holds a 7.4 rating on IMDb. Roseanne was able to make a feature film based on her documentary called “My Wedding and Other Secrets”. Roseanne used Kinonation as a stepping stone to boost her creative confidence, and was able to reach an audience that she never thought would set eyes on her film.
    Amazon review: “What an awesome and refreshing movie. Strikingly honest and beautifully done. I'm glad I got to see the epilogue to see how things turned out "happily ever after." They make such a wonderful couple and deserve all the happiness in the world! Please make more wonderful movies, Roseanne!”

  • Marv | December 2, 2013 5:36 AMReply

    Hate to sound commercial but I think it would be interesting if netflix redbox etc teamed up with small theaters or bought them out and with a subscription you could also go to the theater. Maybe even collectively vote tugg style on what gets played

  • Barry Norman | November 13, 2013 7:30 AMReply

    As an independent theater owner who is seeing many fellow indie theater owners closed due to the cost of digital conversion, having day & date VOD and theatrical release coincide will be the final nail in our coffin. If younger viewers don't go to the small, local theaters as our older customers become less able to do so, we won't survive.

  • Schmüdde | November 12, 2013 8:32 PMReply

    National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian addressed Sarandos directly:

    "If Hollywood did what Sarandos suggests, there wouldn’t be many movies left for Netflix’s customers or for anyone else. It makes absolutely no business sense to accelerate the release of the lowest value in the chain."

    Translated: “It makes absolutely no business sense to give the consumer the option to choose how they want to consume their media. It’s better if we create artificial constraints.”

    Mainstream record labels didn’t do well in their war against the consumer, and I doubt that mainstream exhibitors will either. Some independent films have released on multiple platforms on the same day. If this becomes a widely-adopted practice, we could see a real shift in what the consumer expects.

    ~ü
    (More on this topic at http://beyondthefra.me)

  • JohnL | November 12, 2013 3:56 PMReply

    I'm a semi-professional film critic/cinephile and I vote yearly in some year end award bodies. I live about 45 minutes from my local arthouse and a little less than an hour from my other arthouse. VOD allows me the opportunity to see many of the independent and foreign films that I normally would have to drive to see. (It is very costly to drive to see each important film). For example this year I've been able to see Beyond the Hills, The Angel's Share, Bastards, and many other major IFC releases on VOD. Other indie distributors have not been as kind, such as Strand, and this weekend I will make the hour trek to go see A Touch of Sin. While I'm willing to go the distance to see some indie and foreign films, most people will not. When distributors like Strand, Kino, Magnolia, and the such don't give wider releases to their movies I think it is better for them to release then on Demand. Maybe they don't have to do so on the first few weeks of release, but maybe a month later.

    Video on Demand should allow us to have more movies picked up to. It seems a lot easier for a company to pick up a movie like Jimmy P. (IFC) now than in the past. A few years ago, I think I counted 7 Cannes Competition entries withou US distribution. Last year we only had 1 and this year 2 have not been picked up yet. I believe VOD has led to more movies being picked up, such as Jimmy P, which didn't have stellar reviews out of Cannes but will have viewership which may still watch it. It doesn't seem to be as big as a financial liability for the indies.

  • Amanda Aldridge | November 12, 2013 10:29 AMReply

    Going to theatre will always be my preference because I feel the power but if a film does not make it & goes directly to DVD - if it has gotten decent reviews from viewers then YES - I will want to have it VOD.

  • Daniel Delago | November 12, 2013 5:58 AMReply

    Like the article says, theater owners are not worried about VOD for indie films. They are concerned about it eating away at their revenues for blockbuster releases. VOD is a good thing for independent film. Many good quality indies never get into movie theaters. 'Blue is the Warmest Color' comes to mind and a new indie called, 'The Motel Life' starring Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff and Dakota Fanning went straight to iTunes and VOD for example.

  • Russ Collins | November 11, 2013 10:08 PMReply

    VOD vs. Theatrical is a headline grabbing topic. However, it seems to me that we are obsessing over a topic that the market, in my opinion, has essentially decided. VOD already exists and can be implemented in many ways -- from merely posting a film on YouTube or Vimeo, or cleverly crafting a well-managed and carefully executed day and date theatrical and VOD release, or finally, executing a "traditional" platform release that begins with festival screenings, progresses to a theatrical release and ends with a video release in many different formats. There are hundreds of variations on these three basic release formats. For filmmakers and distributors deciding on what to do it is a complicated calculus. For theaters it is another dynamic to adapt to, but honestly, as a theater operator, it is not earth-shattering -- a little annoying, maybe a bit confusing, but the annoyance and confusion will soon pass as VOD day-and-date is assimilated into the release strategies of uncountable films desperately seeking to establish a place for themselves in a highly oversaturated market.

    Seeing a work of cinema day and date, via VOD, is just another way to be entertained at home with moving images. In the second decade of this 21st century it should in no way be discussed as a revolutionary concept or a dynamic that will significantly shift markets. 75 years ago seeing moving images at home was a revolutionary concept. 75 years ago the ability to see video at home shook the foundations of cinema markets profoundly and for the next decade and a half it reshaped the market for cinema (and TV). The shock of seeing video on a small screen still reverberates today. However, theatrical exhibition survived the initial cataclysm and has been essential stable since 1964, for nearly 60 years. Day and date VOD is the merest of aftershocks from that long ago, but cataclysmic cinema earthquake caused by small screen video technology.

    People go to see films at a theater, not because they cannot see films at home, but because it is a profoundly affecting way to experience a story; because it is the way many filmmakers intended their films to be seen; because human being are social animals who like to get out of the house and spend time together with other life travelers experiencing the flickering fire of the cinema in darkened rooms full of interested strangers.

    Cinema can be seen in lots of ways. We all know that it is mostly seen on small screens as a private or semi-private experience. But this is artistically inauthentic for many films. Inauthentic does not necessarily mean inconsequential or inappropriate. For example, we understand it is just fine to see a video capture of a play performed in a theater -- but it is not the same as seeing a play at a theater. It can be good to hear a great symphony played from a CD, but it’s not the same thing as hearing a live orchestra. You can watch and listen to a Justin Timberlake video performance, but it’s not like being in an area or theater full of Justin Timberlake fans.

    Movies need theaters -- for three good reasons I can think of:

    1) Aesthetic mandate – for many films to have full impact or be fully appreciated, they must be perfectly presented on a BIG screen in a beautiful darkened room full of strangers -- strangers full of artistic anticipation and cultural curiosity.

    2) Marketing godsend – reasonable success in theatrical exhibition is the most reliable (but not absolutely necessary) way for a movie to achieve success in all other release platforms. Theatrical exhibition can benefit filmmakers and the business of filmmaking.

    3) Fulfilling the primordial Campfire Desires – fulfilling the human urge to experience a story in community, in the dark; stories masterfully told by flickering light. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell would have loved this reason!

    Today, it is the in-home video market where the seismic shifts are occurring. Will Netflix rule? Will television networks survive? Will cable television be relevant twenty years from now? Who knows?? However, what I know for sure is that twenty years from now – one hundred years from now – there will be passionate, community-based independent theatrical exhibitors out there in cities large and small, showing movies by classic, great, and up-and-coming filmmakers to cinephiles in uncountable places throughout the world. See you at the movies!
    --------------------------------------------
    Russ Collins was chosen for the inaugural class of IndieWire Influencers. He is the Director of the Art House Convergence, the CEO of the Michigan Theater, an Art House in Ann Arbor, and the Founder of Cinetopia Festival, an up and coming festival in Detroit.

  • Paul | November 11, 2013 7:21 PMReply

    I'm sure I'm in the minority here, but I think a different frame/still shot could've worked better.

  • Frank Casanova | November 11, 2013 3:23 PMReply

    "VOD is either the salvation -- or the death -- of independent film"... VOD can be the salvation for low budget Indy Films... and indeed, may hurt higher budget Indy Films... Those bigger budget films that are simply not made within the studio system, but are every bit a studio-like film. For the low-budget Indy Movie, we aren't getting into theaters anyway, so VOD becomes the way to go.

  • CHRIS HORTON | November 11, 2013 2:17 PMReply

    Good article - the only thing I'd take issue with is the statement that "it's unlikely studios/theaters will ever allow simultaneous streaming on Netflix/VOD". I think the opposite: it's inevitable that they will. Maybe not this year, or next, but within five years? Absolutely.

  • NoWay | November 11, 2013 5:09 PM

    Producers and directors who make blockbuster tentpoles are too smart to do this...you won't see Avatar 2 on Netflix when it hits theaters...or Hobbit, Star Wars, etc....not happening

  • Ricky | November 11, 2013 1:02 PMReply

    VOD is the savior/future of indie film for a few reasons.

    It is hard for me to care when theaters say "Well, I'm not going to show it at my theater, if its also on VOD" when the movies that are going to VOD are the movies that aren't really making it to theaters anyway. Which isn't always their fault, I'm sure. Part of it lands on the distributors. And I love small, artsy theaters. I would throw money at them if I had it to throw, but the closest ones to me are in Boston about 40 minutes away with the possibility of traffic and the inevitably of no free parking, all of the costs together continue to make VOD that much more attractive.

    Plus if it wasn't for VOD "theatrical" release, a lot of those movies wouldn't be seen until VOD "home video" release, so your basically just cutting out the middle man, the problem being the middle man is the cinema-going experience and I would like that to persevere.

  • SK | November 11, 2013 12:55 PMReply

    How many times has indiewire used the headline "Is VOD the Future of Independent Film?"?

  • Chuck | November 14, 2013 1:27 PM

    By my count, several thousand.

  • And | November 11, 2013 5:11 PM

    How many times have you trolled?

  • rOBERT | November 11, 2013 12:48 PMReply

    Paulina Garcia is AMAZING in GLORIA, OSCAR FOR HER!!!

  • JACKIE | November 11, 2013 12:48 PMReply

    PAULINA GARCIA HAS TO BE NOMINATED AT ACADEMY AWARD FOR HER WONDERFUL PERFORMANCE IN GLORIA

  • Robert Maier | November 11, 2013 12:33 PMReply

    I run a small art cinema. It hurts when a potential patron says of a new film, "I just saw that last week on i-tunes, so I'm skipping it." Don't know if it will kill my little cinema or not. Definitely has an impact. How many people will say, "I saw that on netflix for free, and it was so good, I'll pay $9 to see it in a theater." It's nice that there are still people around who will pay to see films in a theater situation. The unknown is are there enough to keep things going? One problem is the $ being charged by distribs for guarantees or non-theatrical showings. They'll take pennies per head from Netflix, but want $5 per head for an theater screening. What's that about?

  • Frank Casanova | November 11, 2013 3:28 PM

    You are definitely in a tough business. Squeezed by the Distributors who beat you up (because they can) and the economics of the small Indy producer who must turn to VOD to make their money back since there are simply not enough Art House cinemas to place their product in.