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The Perils of VOD, or Why "Melancholia" Should Be Seen on the Big Screen

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik November 30, 2011 at 12:54PM

There are compelling reasons why VOD is a great new weapon in the arsenal of indie filmmakers and distributors. As recounted in a solid new reported piece at The Wrap/Reuters, "the indie film industry has found a life preserver" in day-and date theatrical and video-on-demand simultaneous releases. But I can't help try to pop a hole in the preserver--or at least let out some of its air--because, come on, aren't movies better when seen on the big screen? The article cites recent successes, such as "Margin Call," which is expected to double its $4 million domestic box office through on-demand rentals, and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," which the story reports is on pace to gross $2 million via VOD.
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There are compelling reasons why VOD is a great new weapon in the arsenal of indie filmmakers and distributors. As recounted in a solid new reported piece at The Wrap/Reuters, "the indie film industry has found a life preserver" in day-and date theatrical and video-on-demand simultaneous releases. But I can't help try to pop a hole in the preserver--or at least let out some of its air--because, come on, aren't movies better when seen on the big screen? The article cites recent successes, such as "Margin Call," which is expected to double its $4 million domestic box office through on-demand rentals, and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," which the story reports is on pace to gross $2 million via VOD.

“It’s the most stable releasing period we’ve ever had,” Magnolia's Eamonn Bowles told TheWrap. “Platform releasing, where you opened in a couple of theaters and hoped to expand later, was a recipe for disaster. The paradigm was broken, so we had no choice but to hit on something that made sense.”

There are other highly favorable business reasons for the model: The split between cable companies and studios, is far more favorable than what distributors receive from exhibitors, according to the story. "Theater owners usually divide profits 50-50 or 60-40, but cable companies typically allow distributors and their partners to pocket about 70 percent of a film’s VOD profits." Plus, the marketing costs are significantly reduced. "Cable companies routinely run trailers for the films they carry, eliminating the need for costly television advertisements," reports TheWrap.

But as I've argued before, art-films -- which are the films that are increasingly becoming part of the VOD universe, and are seeing less and less theater-time -- are arguably the very films that should be seen on big screens. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more we buy into the VOD model for smaller films, the more they'll end up being relegated to home viewing. And the less impact they'll have: Does the gorgeously shot prologue and apocalyptic climax of "Melancholia" really have the same resonance on a television set than in a giant screen in a darkened movie theater? I know it's an old argument, but I'll say it again:

The intimate environs of your living room are not sufficient for films that excavate human intimacy; on the contrary, intimacy is more profoundly felt in a large theater, where viewers can absorb the actors' every glance and grimace. "We can wait for that on DVD," say filmgoers. No, not really. Waiting to see a film in your living room is hurting that film, insulting it; it's like saying to a good friend, "You're not good enough to meet me for dinner; how about we just catch up on the phone, or via computer screen, instead?... Of course, there are plenty of films that should be relegated to such a space. Just not the good ones.

This article is related to: Corporate Evils