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EXCLUSIVE: Horror Hit ‘It Follows’ Reveals Challenges of Theatrical vs. VOD

EXCLUSIVE: Horror Hit 'It Follows' Reveals Challenges of Theatrical vs. VOD

Radius/Weinstein is telling exhibitors that they will stick to their original March
27 VOD date for acclaimed indie horror film “It Follows.”  This comes after a frantic post-weekend Monday as the company responded to unexpectedly strong initial showings in New York and Los Angeles ($160,000 for three days). According to multiple sources, Radius told theaters that they were going to expand to about 1,000 theaters on March 27. But by day’s end they had returned to their original VOD plan, possibly in part under pressure from cable companies and other home viewing platforms.

“‘It Follows’ has received the best reviews of any American horror film since the original ‘Evil Dead,'” said Tom Quinn, Co-President of Radius-TWC, an autonomous niche division of the Weinstein Co. which tends to favor digital multi-platform VOD releases. He said that my version of the switchback in plans was “wrong,” but would not specify details, nor did he deny that VOD plans are still set for March 27.

Clearly, release plans were up in the air Monday, with initial indications that the VOD release would be delayed and then later that it was scheduled as planned, although some theatrical dates will expand this coming weekend.

As the frontiers of VOD are more and more a central aspect of specialized film availability, there’s uncertainty about what formula works best for individual releases. Though a Radius spokesman on Saturday emailed that the film was a “clean” theatrical release and later denied it had a confirmed VOD date, multiple published sources listed a late March VOD release.

The film’s initial theaters — four in New York and Los Angeles– routinely play VOD-adjacent films, unlike most major chains. Their booking the original March 22 expansion indicated that they were aware of the anticipated pattern. Significantly, Landmark Theatres, the biggest national specialized circuit, usually critical for independent films, showed no bookings for the film as of the weekend among their upcoming bookings. Landmark has never played a Radius VOD release, including “Snowpiercer,” which like “It Follows,” had a two-week theatrical window before its scheduled home viewing availability.

“Snowpiercer,” despite the lack of Landmark and other top-notch theaters last summer, scored in both theaters and on VOD. The film grossed $4.5 million in theaters, including $2.5 million day and date with home views after two weeks, with the VOD revenue reported by Radius as about $6.5 million for a total of about $11 million. “Snowpiercer,” though, had a muddled backstory and a much more expensive initial commitment from Harvey Weinstein (a coproducer on the Korean film). “It Follows” was an acquisition off its Cannes premiere last May, with the price not reported officially, but according to insiders involved with negotiations at the time likely just under $1 million.

Read: Harvey Weinstein Explains How ‘Snowpiercer’ Became a Game Changer, We Crunch Theater vs. VOD Numbers

These days distributors and theaters are making these booking decisions on a case-by-case basis. Horror films are in demand by VOD customers, especially well-reviewed, top-tier horror such as IFC’s “The Babadook,” which grossed just under a million in theaters despite day-and-date VOD play.

The two-week exclusivity for theaters elevated media interest in “It Follows” and confirmed its real audience and critical appeal. But it remains a low-budget independent film with no stars, little public awareness or wide marketing less than two weeks before a possible wider date. Whatever its original theatrical potential with such a strong response, at this late date it would have been a risk to drop early VOD. Even smart, targeted marketing (including needed TV/cable buys) likely would have cost $7-10 million minimum. Theaters would only pay part of their grosses to Radius, and there was no guarantee on short notice that future bookings would have done enough to cover increased costs.

Sticking to early VOD means that Radius’ costs would be much lower, with Radius retaining a higher share of revenues. So this route guarantees them a profit, with whatever theatrical revenue they take in (possibly in the range of $2 million or more).

This late flurry of activity is not typical of VOD, other than extreme special cases like Sony’s “The Interview” at year’s end. Most VOD dates are set weeks or more in advance, coordinated with whatever theater component they can add. Resistance from major chains remains great, but the fact that Radius could land two of the top-grossing platform theaters in the country — the ArcLight Hollywood and the Angelika in Manhattan (which alone grossed $120,000; two other New York theaters added another $40,000) despite going to VOD after two weeks, suggests that all specialized houses could be tempted to break down and book films on this pattern during a slow post-Oscar season. 

The increasingly important VOD component is evolving in the specialized world. So far in 2015, nearly 60 films have opened in theaters in some fashion no later than the VOD date (out of roughly 140 non-wide release specialized or independent films), an increased share of releases. “It Follows” had a built-in two week delay, but as was expected when TWC developed Radius, they continue to nurture the importance of non-theatrical distribution.  

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