Sarasota 2009 | VOD Mea Culpa

By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall April 13, 2009 at 4:31AM

Sarasota 2009 | VOD Mea Culpa
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This past January, I wrote about a press conference announcing the launch of the SXSW/ IFC partnership, a deal that saw IFC release four films on Video On Demand (VOD) simultaneous with their screenings at the SXSW Film Festival. At the time, I was deeply skeptical of the strategy and said as much right here on this blog:

…On the surface of things, playing (a film already on VOD in my festival’s market) might make sense. But there are new, competing interests at play. The energy generated by a live event for an unknown film with little marketing that will be a relative “risk” for film-goers unfamiliar with the movie is complicated by the economics of a VOD purchase; the film is $7 on VOD and as many people as you can fit into your house are able to watch the movie for a single purchase. Weigh that against the $9 per individual ticket a festival needs to charge in order to pay for the costs of showing the film. From an economic standpoint, VOD provides an incentive to stay home and watch. Can the festival “event” outweigh the incentive of staying home? That answer is easy when the world comes to a place like SXSW to party and take in the live music along with the interactive and film events. But at a smaller, regional festival like mine, I really don’t know what my audience would do.

Well, in the months since the announcement was made, Holly Herrick and I spoke with the team at IFC Films and decided to give it a try; instead of theorizing about how this might work and how it might impact us, we programmed Three Blind Mice, which I saw and loved at Toronto, and which was launched on IFC VOD the same day it screened at SXSW. The film was available for over two weeks on Comcast VOD in the Sarasota market before our festival screenings. No talent from the film attended our festival; the movie was simply screened twice as part of our narrative feature program.


Mattew Newton's Three Blind Mice

Two things happened as a result; our audiences really liked the movie. More importantly, the film sold well and played to near-capacity audiences both times it screened. What was most interesting to me is that we had been handing out IFC’s Festival Direct marketing materials at our box office during the intervening weeks, and that piece even stated the availability of the film on Comcast VOD. No difference; attendance for and appreciation of Three Blind Mice was as good or better than every other film in the festival.

I’m no scientist (*ha*), but it seems to me we can draw some conclusions about our festival and this strategy from these two simple screenings. First, it seems that there are platform-dedicated audiences in our community, some prefer theaters, some VOD, and IFC’s central argument with Festival Direct, that the allure of the “live event”-- that is, a film festival-- can and will draw people into screenings, is correct. The other possible conclusion is that awareness and market penetration for VOD, particularly among older audiences, is not yet ready to challenge the energy and local marketing blitz the festival puts on. Whatever the case, it is fair to say that our Three Blind Mice experiment was a success; I wouldn’t hesitate to employ this strategy again at any of the festivals at which I work.

All of which is to say that I was wrong about the VOD/festival relationship, my assumptions did not turn out to be true, and I am happy to say so. I know not every market and every film will be able to make this work, but that is the case with any film, regardless of platform. I have to thank IFC Films for working with us on this, for allowing us to give it a try and to our audiences for unwittingly setting me straight. Now that we’ve tried it, I feel excited to try again, to see if we can’t work with interested parties to do more in the future to help these films find an audience. In the meantime, I’ve never been so glad to be wrong.

This article is related to: Industry