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Sundance Is a Virtual Market for VOD Movies, and They’re Better for It (Column)

Theaters matter. But VOD is the greatest gift to distribution of the last 20 years, and it's time we acknowledged it for that.

“Pig,” one of several unusual 2021 releases to hit big on VOD.

For years, one little acronym has been deemed anathema to film culture: VOD. The usual complaint routine deems it a dumping ground, home to busted theatricals and the hellish limbo where even worthy titles flounder in obscurity. Here’s the truth: VOD is the greatest gift to specialized distribution in the last 20 years, and anyone invested the survival of the movies must embrace it.

The theatrical landscape is harsh and barren. Sundance is virtual for the second year in a row. Arthouse releases flatline around the country; so do awards-season titles. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” dominates the multiplexes, Netflix’s “Don’t Look Up” dominates the discourse, and everything else looks like an asterisk. 

Let’s not kid ourselves. These are bleak times for almost any movie without an eight-figure marketing budget and/or the algorithmic power of a major streamer. Also: That’s nothing new. When hasn’t exciting cinema been a tough sell? I’ll take that optimism a step further: Pandemic disruption has opened new avenues for more adventurous releases. The “stink” of VOD, as it were, has become an entrancing aroma.

At home, people are watching more movies than ever before. No one wanted to lose the in-person Sundance, but the virtual presentation is the most honest and direct way to represent these films. In-person viewing is superior in its aesthetics and the communal experience, but it won’t be the way that most films will find their audiences. A theatrical life is possible, yes, but for many films festival screenings will be their best shot at the big screen  — which is why Sundance and other Covid-impacted festivals will return in person as soon as they can.

When selecting its 2022 lineup, Sundance required filmmakers to commit to live and online presentations. Faced with that prospect, some filmmakers went elsewhere. A24 chose not to pursue a slot for its promising Daniels-directed multiverse comedy “Everything Everywhere All at Once” in favor of opening SXSW, where the energy could be contained to one combustible room.

Everything Everywhere All At Once

“Everything Everywhere All At Once”

Allyson Riggs, Courtesy of A24

Sources say that A24 also rejected a Sundance invite for its wild slasher “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies” starring Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, and Pete Davidson, because the stacked cast made it “highly pirateable,” according to one source; an in-person premiere was a safer bet.

Similarly, Apple’s docuseries on Magic Johnson, “Winning Time,” directed by Sundance regular Rick Famuyiwa, had Sundance written all over it — but the streamer wasn’t interested in playing at the festival unless screenings were exclusively in-person. 

I can’t wait for the opportunities to see these movies with audiences. The buzz is good and reliable. But virtual festival programming also points to the virtual destiny that most movies face. That’s not bad thing. “Huge long lines for movies in January = a bunch of stuff on TV in November,” journalist Mark Harris tweeted a decade ago. In 2012, that was irony; now it’s destiny.

The dominant Sundance players tell that story. Apple, Netflix and Amazon aren’t alone. Searchlight Pictures, one of the biggest contributors to the Sundance lore of multimillion theatrical deals, now has the prerogative to fill a slate of 14 movies exclusively for Hulu.

Even if a distributor has theatrical intentions, its business relies on the pay 1 window — the moment when movies move to streaming platforms. VOD is no longer a side effect; the market is flush with movies that would be near-impossible theatrical prospects. While there’s more money to be made in the PVOD window, where rentals are costlier, it’s these output deals that sustain companies.

Consider the successes of these risky titles: Last year, Hulu hits included “Pig,” a somber Nicolas Cage drama about a broken man that isn’t the “John Wick” knock-off you were looking for, and “The Assistant,” a remarkably experimental #MeToo thriller in which Julia Garner’s face tells the story. “Mass,” a talky drama about the parents of a high school shooter and his victims, cracked the top 20 on Amazon and iTunes. 

Post-Covid, the 65-and-over arthouse audience has yet to return to theaters — but they’re watching adventurous adult dramas at home. “It’s not a bad thing,” one distributor behind several VOD hits from last year told me this week. “It’s just a rewiring. People have been burned out a bit and are looking for something different. They’re experiencing things more regularly and the tropes are more obvious. The bar is higher.” 

VOD is more complicated for festival films that demand costly awards campaigns; they’re still tethered to the fall awards corridor. For everyone else, it’s all about experimentation. “It’s competitive because all of us distribs need films,” one buyer told me. “It’s a seller’s market.” 

Red Notice

“Red Notice”

Netflix

More than ever, audiences are more likely to stumble on unexpected movies on VOD. Analysts have pointed to the outsized popularity of “Red Notice” on Netflix as proof that starry, $200-million studio movies no longer have relevance because they can go to streamers. As if that’s a bad thing. Streamer star vehicles draw more viewers into a platform and some may be led to discover other offerings. Not every “Red Notice” fan will hop on over to a bold and hypnotic documentary like Robert Greene’s “Procession,” a Netflix pickup from Telluride last fall, but this adventurous look at victims of the Catholic Church reenacting their experiences of sexual abuse sure as hell makes more sense as a streaming proposition than it ever would have in theaters.

Sometimes, the exception proves the rule: The most successful arthouse hit of 2021 in terms of box office, awards, and critical praise is a garrulous three-hour Japanese drama, “Drive My Car.” At that length, with a cadence that demands the attentiveness created by a dark room, “Drive My Car” would never have thrived if it had gone straight to VOD. Likewise, as IndieWire’s Tom Brueggemann recently pointed out, Neon took a brilliant swing by positioning Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s slow-burn “Memoria” as a theatrical-only event movie… forever. That’s no easy proposition, but it suited the demands of the project.

“Memoria”

I understand why many distributors want to get back to the old way of doing things. For cinematic gems on VOD, there have been few celebrated success stories. Filmmakers and cinephiles treasure the big screen. I’m with all of you. That said: To sustain this medium, and the best it has to offer, embrace the home audience. To parahrase Aunt May in the biggest movie of 2021, with great struggle comes great opportunity. 

That’s the guiding mantra of this column, where I’ll track the struggles facing film and TV for people who value the art form more than the business, even as we need the business to keep it afloat. I’ll dig into topics ranging from piracy to talent representation, overdone storytelling tropes and underrepresented voices.

In the process, I will almost certainly get some things wrong, so I welcome any feedback readers care to provide. Feel free to share case studies or horror stories or injustices that deserve calling out…or just call me an idiot, as long as you can back it up: eric@indiewire.com

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