We need to talk about VOD

I used to look down on VOD (Video-On-Demand) or at least what I thought VOD was. I saw it as a contingency plan for films that weren’t good enough for traditional theatrical wide release. Boy, was I wrong. Today, I see it as practical way of distributing films with a reasonable budget. Ultra-low budget filmmaker Ed Burns has basically made this his signature move with recent films like NICE GUY JOHNNY and NEWLYWEDS. But just how does this VOD work?

It took some Googling but here’s a basic breakdown of your Video-On-Demand options:

  • theatrical release (usually limited) followed by VOD run
  • VOD (via iTunes, Amazon, cable, etc) run a few weeks before limited theatrical release
  • Day-and-date (simultaneous limited theatrical and VOD release)
  • Day-and-date and DVD release (essentially film is available on all platforms)
An interesting case study in the realm of day-and-date is this January’s MARGIN CALL, which according to The Hollywood Reporter, made an extra $5 million by going this route. I’m sure the fact that it was a Sundance 2011 official selection didn’t hurt either. It was a very smart, yet risky move, given the film tackles the financial crisis, but where else will you find the people most affected but in their living rooms or laptops.

Our film school dreams of seeing our films on theater marquees across America have to be restructured for today’s model. The successful indie filmmaker goes to where their audience is, based on their particular project. I’ve observed it with Ava DuVernay’s African-American Film Festival Release Movement (AFFRM). DuVernay and company are doing what the studios’ haven’t gotten through their heads still. Build it and they (and their dollars) will come. For their last film, RESTLESS CITY,  I took notes via Twitter while witnessing the power a limited theatrical release marketed specifically in niche cities combined with festival acclaim has to fill seats.

But VOD takes the limited release plus festival buzz model a step further. Take the Duplass Brothers and their recent VOD venture, THE DO-DECA-PENTATHALON, which played at SXSW in March. These guys definitely have an admirable work ethic and approach to filmmaking distribution, so I assumed they had a rational reason for going with an early VOD release before a limited theatrical run. In an interview with Scene Magazinethe brothers appeared realistic since the film isn’t necessarily niche or features big stars, even saying “they had to put their egos aside” and “Would we rather someone watch it in the theater? Yes. But if they’re watching it on their phone, that means it’s the only place they’re interested in watching it, so that’s fine too.”  These guys and Ed Burns often repeat that you can make enough of a profit from distributing films on a smaller scale to make another film to in turn make another film. Which is also fine. Very fine.

As I learned in the Ryan Koo/Brian Newman talk from VimeoFest, the most vital thing an indie can do is engage with their audience. It’s frustrating as a fan to watch great festival favorites sit on the shelf only to come to the general public years later. For example, Diego Luna’s directorial debut, ABEL was just released via VOD last Thursday and I saw that film at AFI Fest in November 2010. Again, fest play is a common factor I see in these films that are embracing VOD. I’m still not sure why ABEL was held back until now, but I’m glad this amazing psychological family drama won’t get lost in the man-buster movie theater madness.

As I’m bombarded with ads for my personal festival favorites on Youtube and IndieWire, I wonder what does VOD mean in the great distro disco? Some of my favorite filmmakers are making it a lot easier for me to see their films, but would I be brave enough to try it myself? I’m more inclined to watch a film that’s been in limited release by driving down to my local Redbox or streaming it on Netflix. MARGIN CALL was going for $6.99, which is not a price I’m willing to drop to watch one single film in the comfort of my home. So, once again, this is where the artist and the consumer conflict. iTunes, Amazon and cable release are gamechangers, no doubt. Limited theatrical release is frustrating to the small town film lover and multiplexes full of sequels could kill a girl. Luckily, I’ve more than filled my quota through festival volunteering, but I know that’s not the case for everyone. A lot of cinephiles still have to wait and wait.

I suppose there is only one important question I must ask myself as a filmmaker: what is the best way the most people can see my movie? If any of us intend to garner the best of both audiences – big city and small town – I truly see VOD as the ideal option. So far, it seems like a great way to appeal to audiences a limited theatrical release alone might miss.

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