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Is A Theatrical Release Still Essential In 2014, Or Will VOD, Digital Distribution Suffice?

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by Tambay A. Obenson
January 28, 2014 11:29 AM
16 Comments
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Movie Theater

That's the dream for most filmmakers isn't it? Your film on the proverbial "big screen," in front of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of anxious eyeballs, looking forward to whatever it is you have in store for them.

Or maybe I should say that it WAS once THE dream for filmmakers, because, with more distribution/exhibition platforms available, and accessible to even the poorest among us, some filmmakers are no longer married to the idea that their film must be seen in a theatrical setting - especially those who've grown up to be filmmakers in the last 15 to 20 years, and who have embraced the so-called new frontier known as digital distribution, which allows you to reach your target audience via a variety of platforms, and thus places.

Where do you stand? Are you old school, new school, or a combo of both.

Some facts worth considering before you rush to make that decision for yourself - facts that come courtesy of an LA Times report; facts that really shouldn't be all that surprising, if you've been paying attention to trends - shorter windows between the time a film is released in theaters and when it's released on home video, plummeting DVD sales as more audiences make the move to consuming their content digitally, and more.

As Hollywood saturates theaters with mega-budgeted superhero movies, sequels, prequels, comic book, video game, novel, stage play/musical, board game adaptations, it becomes increasingly more difficult for the independent movie producer to hang on, let alone attempt to compete. So, they're looking to alternatives, and VOD seems to be it! Yes, you likely won't see the same kind of returns, compared to some big-budget studio hit, BUT, the important thing is that you're more likely to actually SEE a return; as the LA Times report notes, your odds of turning a profit are higher. 

- The number of Hollywood-released films distributed in theaters and video on demand at the same time nearly doubled from 2009 to 2011 and is projected to continue to jump.

- Indie films are increasingly finding a lucrative niche in video on demand distribution. For example, the dark comedy Bachelorette grossed about $5.5 million from video-on-demand (or VOD) rentals, compared with a paltry $418,000 earned in theaters.

- And the simultaneous VOD/theatrical release of Margin Call, an independently financed picture about the financial crisis, was a critical and commercial success and earned an Academy Award nomination for original screenplay.

There's more; however, you may not be entirely sold on a primarily VOD release of your film. It was once commonly believed that films that went directly to home video were somehow inferior, and didn't deserve to be shown on the big screen. That opinion is clearly changing, as more content creators are creating their projects with the home video market (specifically VOD) in mind, and in some cases, planning to release only, or primarily to that platform.

An example would be all those content creators who already release their work online (web series, shorts, etc), and who have cultivated audiences (many thousand subscribers to their YouTube or Vimeo channels for instance); and so can market any future work (shorts, web series, or even features) directly to that audience, which will probably continue to grow.

Granted, not every single one of them will purchase the finished product, but considering the relatively low upfront costs, every single subscriber's dollar wouldn't necessarily be needed to turn a profit. As said before, it may not be a huge profit, but it could be a healthy one, and along with that comes even more credibility, more awareness, and the wherewithall to continue down the same path with future projects.

I suppose, in the end, it depends on what your goal is, and if you're choosy about how you want your film to be seen.

"There are definitely still people who resist and say the only kind of deal they will do is a traditional release... We hope more people will become open-minded and realize the potential,said Jason Janego, co-president of the Weinstein Co. unit Radius-TWC, which specializes in multi-platform releases.

Further... Tom Quinn, Janego's Radius-TWC partner, adds: "The statistics are extremely sobering... The traditional model only makes sense anymore if you believe in your heart of hearts that your movie will gross more than $20 million."

Some might say this kind of talk is really a scare tactic used by those in Hollywood to dissuade *outsiders* (as in indies) from infringing on a space they've long dominated.

And nowadays, you do have theatrical chains like AMC and their AMCi initiative, which makes it easier for the indie filmmaker/producer to afford their films limited theatrical releases. There are upfront costs (although primarily marketing), and a question (among many) that you'd have to answer is whether the amount of money you invest on that theatrical run, may have been better used for a VOD launch, which gives you access to a much larger, potentially global audience, and also higher profit margins.

While it doesn't have to be an either/or question, all signs seem to suggest that VOD/digital distribution is probably the smart play for indie filmmakers/producers today. 

So, back to the initial question: all you filmmakers reading this, where do you stand? Are you married to traditional methods of distribution - ie, a theatrical is an absolute must, and if so, what are you willing to do to see that happen?

Or... has that ship long sailed for you, and you've planted you feet firmly in VOD/digital distribution, and aren't looking back? 

Discuss...

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16 Comments

  • Michael | April 3, 2014 5:59 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!”

  • jess | January 29, 2014 5:11 PMReply

    VOD is the only way to go right now, especially if you are trying to produce a drama. While seeing yet another disappointing comedy at the theater, I kept thinking about how I would've preferred to be at home. If you're not going to see an action, sci-fi or awesome nature doc, sitting in an uncomfortable chair for 90 mins just feels ridiculous.

  • UMAR | January 29, 2014 1:00 AMReply

    Tambay's question does bring up a lot of other questions. But I feel people are forgetting to look at this through a lens of practicality, which I feel is what the question is really driving at. We can romanticise about the theatre-going experience and all that, but the fact still remains that gaining access to a theatrical release of any form remains a luxury for most independent filmmaker, and by independent allow me to stretch the application of that word beyond the borders of America. I'm an independent filmmaker living in Nigeria, where there is somewhat of a cinema culture. But the fact remains that even something as grand as a theatrical release only grants you access to a fraction of the Nigerian market due to the limited availability of high tech cinemas, which can only be found in 3 of the major Nigerian cities, more or less. For wider coverage, serious independent filmmakers are having to use VOD platforms like Dobox, iTunes, and irokoTV. This isn't even a question of choice or preference any more, it's a given, and it comes down to the simple questopn of naira and kobo, or in American terms, dollars and cents. It would be great to provide audiences access to my film theatrically at roughly 10-12 dollars, but not everyone can afford that, and not everyone has convenient access to it. What if I can offer them the option of paying about 3-4 dollars for it online? More people would have access to it, and more would probably be willing to pay that price. Thankfully, while I as a film buff may have been infected with the perception that fuilms that go straight to VOD are 'inferior' (a limiting mindset I'm working on changing), my audience hasn't. Again, I have to force myself to think in practical, business terms. I think this is what people like Ted Hope talk about. It's about creating a sustainable model that will allow you as a filmmaker to live on your work while hopefully continuing to make the kind of films you want ro make.

    I think the same thing applies in the American independenr scene. Filmmakers there can't compete with the studios in terms of distribution budgets and reach, theatrically speaking. But what new technology has done is to break the monopoly. So part of our work as filmmakers involves not only making films and getting them seen; it also means we have to build our own audiences by ourselves. This may not require much money, but it requires time and patience. So that when you have a film ready to go out there, there'll be a dedicated viewership waiting to PAY with their credit cards and Paypal accounts. It may not be as glamorous as an event at the Eastman Kodak, but it puts food on the table and hopefully gives you more mileage.

  • . | January 29, 2014 12:16 AMReply

    .

  • CareyCarey | January 28, 2014 10:52 PMReply

    Is A Theatrical Release Still Essential?

    "I suppose, in the end, it depends on what your goal is, and if you're choosy about how you want your film to be seen" ~ Tambay

    HEAR-HEAR! I believe it DOES depend on the goal and mission of the filmmaker and the individual moviegoer. So let me go here (I'll get back to filmmakers) --> "It was once commonly believed that films that went directly to home video were somehow inferior, and didn't deserve to be shown on the big screen"

    Well, as one who watches a ton of movies (easily over 500 a year), I am not hesitant to say, for the most part, direct to home videos ARE still inferior in many ways... but the devil's in the details (i'll get back to that). So needless to say, I am all in with the reader ALIAS. In fact, as I was reading her comment I was like "damn, I could have wrote that, she stole my thoughts to a tee". Listen, first, there's no replacing the experience of going to the theater. Look at it as the experience of going to events like football, basketball and baseball games for example. People pay $4000 to attend the Superbowl, an event one can see at home for free. Also, college basketball stadiums throughout the U.S. A. are filled to capacity (every day of the week) to watch a game they can see at home FOR FREE! So it's easy to see it's all about an experience that cannot be duplicated at home. As Alias said, they're all a unique, cultural experience that people love to partake in, that which will never go away, not ever - no never.

    In reference to straight to VOD's being "inferior", I did catch Arbitrage on VOD. I was pleasantly surprised. It was very entertaining. As I said, in my opinion most movies that go straight to VOD... well... lets just say I know why they didn't get a theatrical release. But I didn't even know (until I read Alias's comment) that Arbitrage wasn't released in the theaters, hence my surprise. I remember asking my lady how in the heck did we miss this one? Now I know... we didn't :-)

    Re: Inferior

    Now there are exceptions but generally the acting (especially black films) is sub-par, to say the least. And really, that just about kills the experience for me. I mean, as Malcolm said "When your kitchen is dirty, your house is dirty". In this case, when the actors suck, so goes the movie. Hell, how can a filmmaker expect me to get engaged in their film (get involved and believe in their story) when the actors give the appearance of someone acting? I mean, isn't the actor's basic job essentially that of telling a lie? They in essence have to convince me they are who they are portraying - and what they are saying is true. If they don't do that, I treat them as I would any habitual liar, I give them the side-eye and pay little or no attention to anything they're saying or doing. End result, poor acting = poor film = straight to video.

    And, I think it's safe to say most straight to VODs have "smaller" budgets than most theater releases. So, with small budgets some things take a back seat.

    I've already mentioned less-talented (lower paid) actors, but it's safe to say low pay does not attract the best writers, directors, cinematographers, etc, which translates to a low(er) product.

    In the end we're back to--> "I suppose, in the end, it depends on what your goal is, and if you're choosy about how you want your film to be seen"

    Yep, as a moviegoer I know what I need in my movie watching experience, but the filmmaker has to decided and be clear about why he or she is in the game. Is it riches and gold, fame and glory? Are they a first-timer just getting his feet wet, so VOD is the way? Is a huge profit (and possible millions) a major concern? Or, as Tambay noted, if one is a rookie, is cultivating an audience a major part of one's long term game plan, and thus VOD is the right choice at this time? Questions-Questions-Questions, which way is "right" for YOU? I mean, in the end, that's all that matters - right?

  • Dylan | January 28, 2014 10:26 PMReply

    I don't think theaters compete with VOD. You either want to go out or you don't- I don't remember the last time I looked at my wife as we were getting ready to go out for the night and had her say "hey wait, the movie we're going to see is available on iTunes! Let's stay in!"

    I don't think a theatrical release is essential for every film, and I say that as someone who does theatrical releases. But what needs to be understood, loud and clear, is that you can't skip the marketing part of things if you skip the theatrical part of things. If you just toss a movie out on VOD and then send some tweets, you're going to reach roughly the same number of people as you would be having a screening of it at your house. There's a lot of work to be done, and if you don't do it, you are in trouble deep.

  • CC | January 29, 2014 12:36 AM

    Good thoughts.

    I am reminded of small business owners who believe if and when they get a web page their business will rocket to the sky. Well, as you implied, just having a film on VOD does not guarantee anything.

    And this was cute--> "hey wait, the movie we're going to see is available on iTunes! Let's stay in!"

    *lol* You're right, that never happens. It's all about the experience. But on the flip-side, I have waited to see a film until it came out on DVD. But then again, that didn't stop me and mine from going out to the movies (if movies were our weekend flavor)

  • Adam Scott Thompson | January 28, 2014 8:48 PMReply

    In the same way that film and TV have co-existed -- and you could argue that each medium is forcing the other to step up its game in terms of the overall experience -- I believe that the theatrical release and VOD/Digital Distribution model can co-exist.

    It shouldn't be an either/or proposition. I can count on one hand the number of films last year that excited me enough to buy a ticket and sit in a dark room with strangers. And yet, I can say that I watched more films in 2013 than in any other of my thirty years -- thanks to Redbox, VOD, basic cable (mostly TCM) and YouTube.

    I also think that the eventual parity between these mediums can only allow for the inclusion of more lower-budget and non-mainstream projects. "Straight to DVD" used to be the kiss of death, but now movies of every genre can thrive on DVD and via VOD. A film can find its audience -- and success -- without a theatrical release.

    But... from time to time, a film is released that makes a trip to the local theater, and all its attendant discomforts, totally worth it.

  • Alias | January 28, 2014 12:40 PMReply

    Interesting piece, but I have to strongly disagree, from a moviegoer standpoint, with the VOD model. Who doesn't LOVE going to the movies? The anticipation of seeing a picture on a BIG screen, with the best audio, in a dark room full of strangers. Like, a stage play, it's a unique, cultural experience that people love to partake in.

    I've never ordered VOD. I equate them to straight-to-DVD releases that, clearly, couldn't make the grade as a theatrical release. I know that's not always, necessarily, the case, but that's my mindset. There's only one VOD that came out last year that I really wanted to see, and didn't understand why the studio made it VOD only. And that was "Arbitrage" with Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere.

    VOD is not a priority for me, when there's so many good offerings on cable and broadcast to keep up with. And, again, who doesn't enjoy getting out of the house. And, observationally speaking, I have noticed when Tambay posts stories about new straight-to-DVD or VOD movies, the readership isn't eagerly commenting about the releases. Which leads me to believe that many feel as I do. ...NOT A PRIORITY or NOT WORTH THE TIME, EFFORT, MONEY to partake in.

  • jess | January 29, 2014 5:14 PM

    How quaint and retro of you.

  • Rocket | January 28, 2014 6:45 PM

    I have to agree with Tom. Give me VOD any day. I can stay home, cook a nice meal and enjoy the film with my wife after our kids go to sleep. Or better yet a group of us can watch a film during a get together.

    The theater is best for for comic book/special effect movies. Other than that its not really worth it anymore.

  • Tom Haverford | January 28, 2014 1:51 PM

    "Who doesn't LOVE going to the movies?"

    A lot of people. Prices keep rising on both tickets and concessions, it's a hassle to get babysitters, people increasingly feel the need to comment on what they're seeing onscreen, kids run around in the aisles, cellphone conversations are had, and these days, it's becoming increasingly plain unsafe with all the gun violence. The problem of a bad crowd only gets worse for movies that require attention, like character pieces. The reasons to not go to the theatre easily outweigh the reasons to go.

  • benxpete | January 28, 2014 1:37 PM

    Agree with all this wholeheartedly.

  • Daryl | January 28, 2014 12:25 PMReply

    Good article Tambay, theatrical releases are no longer important, especially for independent filmmakers, You got it right Tambay when you said the money you would spend doing a theatrical release wouldn't it better serve for vod. My opinion I think this is the best route for independent filmmakers to go, you can deal with your audience directly without the politics of the middleman and if you got a decent indie budget of 2 to 4 million you should do limited theater release and vod at the same time. It just make more economic sense to go vod if your indie.

  • Miles Maker | January 28, 2014 12:02 PMReply

    Currently there are 137 feature films completed every day around the world--do the math: a theatrical release is far from an arbitrary decision, it's subject to the economics of moviemaking. Your budget dictates how your film can and should be released; a process of reverse-engineering borne of cast, subject, genre and most importantly access & availability of additional P&A funds to support it. As cable & satellite VOD continues to fill the revenue-generating void left by the implosion of the DVD sales business, filmmakers will hopefully become more receptive to a hybrid-distribution model of day-and-date releasing and leave their Ego at the door for the sake of the Best interests of the picture.

    Whether you 4-wall yourself, distribute on demand (using platforms like Tugg, Inc.) contract a service deal or sign a traditional distribution contract, there's always the availability of screens to consider at competitive times of year when any theatrical release beyond studio fare is a challenging proposition.

    Statistics say genre films are Best released in January; November for indies in general. The reality many filmmakers must accept is that every film isn't built for wide release but the bottom line is you CAN have some incantation of a platform release--not as a loss leader but a as a sustainable due diligence marketing activity.

  • benxpete | January 28, 2014 11:41 AMReply

    Even the question of theaters not being the #1 way for people to see and EXPERIENCE new film is scary, disheartening, saddening, and most of all - impossible for me to think about. I dont like that idea, will not accept it (due to stubborn-ess andhigh box office numbers).

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