Sunday, September 11, 2011

Wait, What About Pre-Theatrical VOD?

So, it's been determined that the early video-on-demand (VOD) demand scheme where the studios would charge $30 to watch a new theatrical release sixty days after its premiere date isn't going to work out. The market for this kind of service doesn't exist at this price point. Theater owners who worried about VOD cutting into theatrical runs and their profits can breathe a sigh of relief. Lionsgate seems to have found a better tactic: it will be putting its new action film "Abduction" on VOD before its Blu-ray and DVD release, but only ten days early. Exhibitors seem fine with that.

But wait a minute. If they were worried about films being on VOD less than 90 days after they premiered in theaters, what about the increasing number of films that are being made available through various VOD and online platforms before their theatrical release dates? Right now on iTunes and Amazon, you can rent "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil" or Kevin Smith's "Red State" for $10 apiece, even though both are supposed to have theatrical runs beginning later in the fall. According to this great Cinematical article (a thousand curses on the Huffington Post!), Magnet Releasing and Magnolia Pictures, who are distributing "Tucker & Dale," have been doing this for a while. They've released a variety of titles early through their "Ultra VOD" program, including the alien invasion film "Monsters," documentary "Freakonomics," and indie drama "Two Lovers." Other distributors who have tried this include IFC, Oscilloscope and Tribeca Films. Lionsgate, which is handling "Red State," still seems to be testing the waters with multiple approaches.

Clearly there's a difference in the kinds of films that are being offered through pre-theatrical VOD and the titles that theater owners were worried about. "Tucker & Dale" and "Red State" will only be getting limited releases, possibly only playing a few dozen screens for a week or two, and won't be available to great swaths of the moviegoing public. There seems to be less impact on the theatrical performance because it's so small to begin with, and works on a very different model than the big mainstream releases like "Abduction" will be getting. However, I think it's important to note that these early VOD experiments have been very limited so far. It's hard to tell if art house patrons are seeing these films in theaters because they prefer the theatrical experience or if they simply aren't aware that the films are available for rental, and might choose differently if they did. Films that are billed as being simultaneously released on multiple formats don't tend to do as well in theaters, for instance.

If early VOD becomes more widespread and popularized, I think we might see more push back from theaters. With a flood of prestige pictures just around the corner, I wonder if you could incorporate VOD into their usual release pattern, which start out with very limited releases that slowly expand into more and more theaters as the season progresses. Would larger theaters want to book a film that's already widely available on the VOD platform? One issue I'm curious about is how early VOD releases affect awards eligibility. The draconian requirements for the Academy Awards, for instance, are all tied to theatrical distribution dates, and being shown on television first would result in disqualification. Would an early VOD release mean that "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil" would be automatically out of contention, putting aside the fact that it is a horror comedy about two bumbling rednecks mistaken for psycho killers? Is this why "Freakonomics" didn't get a nod last year? Since Kevin Smith went on tour with "Red State" back in March maybe it's played enough dates to qualify. I'm not sure.

Anyway, there still seem to be a lot of these kinds of unforeseen risks associated with early-VOD, which is why you're only seeing those very few, very exceptional titles being offered so far. "Tucker & Dale" was only finally acquired for distribution in June after over two years stuck in limbo. And there's absolutely nothing normal about anything that Kevin Smith has been doing with "Red State." Where do I stand on this? I don't want to see any of these films disappear from movie theaters, and I don't think VOD is any kind of suitable replacement. On the other hand, the access to some of these smaller films just isn't there in so many cases. As the Cinematical article noted, many viewers who watch these early releases on VOD didn't even know they existed beforehand because of the lack of marketing resources. More people getting to see more films sounds good to me.

So where am I going to see these films? Well, since I'm saving up my money for a lot of other movies this season, probably in five to seven months via Netflix or Redbox rental.

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