Warner Bros. has confirmed that their March 14 limited release
"Veronica Mars" will open day and date in theaters as well as on multiple Video
on Demand venues. This will be the first time a major studio has ever done this,
which makes it one of the most significant film business stories of the year.
A Warner Bros. source emphasized that this is intended as a one-time move, geared specifically to the unique circumstances of the film's development. Creator Rob Thomas and star Kristin Bell both wanted to make a film version of their cult-success TV comedy, and raised money through crowdfunder Kickstarter, with 91,000 people buying in. As a Warner Bros.-owned show, the company had to decide whether to handle it themselves or find another distributor. Its low budget (under $6 million before marketing) is not remotely the usual level for the studio, nor is the limited-release playoff that seemed to make the most sense.
Those who contributed $35 for the cause were promised a digital copy right after release, something anathema to studios for a film playing the normal theatrical route. This multi-platform plan makes it easy for them to deliver on their offer.
While VOD is increasingly a factor among independent companies, there is a precedent among higher-profile films. Roadside Attractions has led the way with "Margin Call" and "Arbitrage," which grossed between $5 and 8 million respectively with a similar theater count (around 275) to that planned for "Veronica Mars." Though some independent theaters will play day and date under normal deals, the big circuits resist this. Second-ranked exhibitor AMC, having played the two Roadside films, has agreed to rent out theaters (a practice known as "four-walling," in which rather than paying a percentage of the gross, a screen is rented out for a set price, with all receipts then going to the distributor, irrespective of the gross).
AMC, per Warners, will provide the bulk of the screens for the run (in some markets where they don't have a presence and there was initial Kickstarter interest, others will play it). "This is all about "Veronica Mars," I was told.
This does seem to be a unique situation not easily replicated. But it is hard to think that the results here won't be carefully analyzed when this opens, for its impact on the dual platforms. As the future increasingly looks like non-theatrical play is a rising source of revenue for studios, it's hard to imagine that this isn't another step toward a brave new world, even if Warner Bros. and others keep their main attention focused on what they do best -- releasing mass-appeal films for audiences worldwide, initially in theaters. No comment has been made from the top chains at this point (AMC has shown an interest in marketing innovation ahead of some of their competitors) but it's likely that NATO spokesman John Fithian will raise a protest amid some serious teeth-gnashing.