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

What's also evident is that some films lend themselves to day and date more than others. Laub points to two recent Oscilloscope releases to prove this point. They decided not to do a day and date release for "Mother of George," because "it's not an automatic draw," said Laub. "We loved the movie when we saw it and the reviews exceeded our expectations, but it needs to be nurtured."

A film like "28 Hotel Rooms" was a natural for day and date release, said Laub, pointing out that its title was a big plus (films that start with numbers or letters early in the alphabet tend to do well on VOD). 

"About Cherry," starring James Franco, Heather Graham and Dev Patel, opened in only three theaters last year, but scored on VOD, where it made over $500,000 in the first week across all VOD platforms, according to the film's distributor IFC Films.

But a successful VOD run and a successful theatrical run don't have to be mutually exclusive; one benefit of a day-and date release is the publicity surrounding the theatrical release also benefits VOD platforms. 

"You can still be successful in both realms if you have the right marketing campaign, the right film and the right release strategy. They can feed each other," said Laub.

"Margin Call," the 2011 film directed by J.C. Chandor and starring Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Irons, was a high-profile example of a film that had success in both theaters and on VOD. But even with that film, there's a question of whether it would have done better in the theater had it not been available on VOD. 

Unlike theatrical releases where box office receipts are publicly reported, in general, VOD numbers are not released, which makes it tricky to gauge success -- except when companies choose to trumpet their successes. 

That may change; John Sloss led the charge by releasing VOD figures for "Escape from Tomorrow" and urging other distributors to do the same. Radius-TWC followed suit by releasing the VOD figures for "Man of Tai Chi," which went the ultra-VOD route. 

"The Perfect Family"

Gallagher points to "The Perfect Family," starring Kathleen Turner, Emily Deschanel and Jason Ritter, which was released on VOD and in theaters in May 2012, as a day and date success story, saying it did "over six figures in the theater and very, very well on VOD." 

Releasing a film theatrically is expensive; historically, if the theatrical release wasn't a success, distributors would have to wait three months or longer to release the film on DVD or elsewhere. But now, distributors can coordinate all of the publicity efforts for the theatrical release to include the on-demand release.

"When you have big stars like Ryan Gosling in movies going on demand, people are starting to get it,"

"Most independent films aren't sitting on large marketing budgets, so to be able to market both a theatrical and VOD release at the same time is very efficient," said Gallagher.

Built-in name recognition or name stars also help VOD titles (as opposed to something like "Mother of George," where the title doesn't indicate exactly what it's about and there are no stars in the cast).

Berry Meyerowitz, president and CEO at Phase 4, points to the "ultra" release of films like "Only God Forgives" as leading the charge.

"When you have big stars like Ryan Gosling in movies going on demand, people are starting to get it," he said. "Movies that have done well on VOD have titles where you know exactly what it's about, like 'Assault on Wall Street.' "The more descriptive we can be, the better."

In the past, filmmakers might be reluctant to have a day and date release and some do still prefer theatrical windowing. But, as Laub points out, "A lot of filmmakers are increasingly open to these new models.

Terence Malick's last movie ("To The Wonder") was released day and date in April. There are legitimate success stories with films like 'Margin Call,' which went day and date. I've seen more openness to it over time." 

In the case of "Good Ol' Freda," director Ryan White had no problem with the film being released day and date, especially since music documentaries tend to do well in VOD.

Freda Kelly in 'Good ol' Freda'

"Our niche audience is Beatles fans who are throughout the country. It's a film for the fans. I didn't just want it to be available to people in the big cities. We wanted it to be democratic, with people being able to see it right away," White told Indiewire.

"More and more filmmakers understand," said Meyerowitz. "Exhibitors are starting to understand as well. If it's going to work, we need more exhibitors to buy into the notion that a bigger pie is better for everyone. Some movies will find an audience on demand and some movies will find an audience in theaters." 

Of course, the less of a stigma there is surrounding a VOD or day-and-date release, the more VOD releases we'll see -- especially as fewer small films have a shot at theatrical distribution -- which means there's already a glut of VOD releases vying for attention. 

So is VOD the future for indies? Only time will tell.

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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.