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

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 28, 2014 at 11:29AM

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

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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