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Talk to anyone about the future of independent film and inevitably the conversation will turn toward streaming. Following the extremely successful day-and-date release of Margin Call (2011), there have been increased purchases of festival movies by distributors specifically looking to try their hand at the simultaneous VOD and theatrical release strategy.
Proof of this trend lies in the fact that seven of the dramatic competition films at last winter’s Sundance received day-and-date or Ultra-VOD (putting a film on-demand before a theatrical run) releases. Results, as with all film distribution models, have been mixed.
In talking to a random sampling of indie film publicists, distributors and producers, three common complaints have emerged with the day-and-date strategy over the past two years — and all of them are related to problems with overcrowding.
Every major city has its marquee art house cinemas, where indie filmmakers dream of opening. The problem for day-and-date distributors is that major exhibitors are holding tight to their exclusive 90-day window before anything they show is available on any other platform (VOD, iTunes, DVD). For these indie distributors, this means fighting over the remaining independent theater space that does not demand a 90-day window.
The problem with those theaters, however, was they were traditionally less desirable platforms to launch a movie. Now the problem is that the limited-release space is so competitive, even some high-profile indies are having difficulty getting into these theaters. This leaves the even less attractive alternative of “four-walling,” or shelling out cash upfront to completely rent a theater (hence four walls) and in return taking 100 percent of the box office.
Make no mistake about it, one of the reasons Magnolia Pictures has so aggressively moved into the day-and-date release space, as well as Ultra VOD, is because its parent company, 2929, owns Landmark Theatres, one of the largest art house movie theater chains in the U.S. That allows Magnolia to circumvent the 90-day window that hinders its competition.
Release your film in New York City and the New York Times will write a review. It’s one of the cornerstone principles of indie distribution, as a positive Times review not only can drive an audience to opening weekend, but it can be used by indie distribution teams to extend into other cities and sometimes even foreign sales. Crowding, though, is once again a problem here. With the increase of day-and-date releases, there were weeks this fall, especially following TIFF, when there were well over 20 film reviews in the newspaper, with many of the day-and-daters getting lost in the crowd with short, almost blurb-like reviews.
Moving away from the importance of the Times’ review, indie distributors and publicists are in general finding it increasingly difficult to position their day-and-date releases. During the peak times for releasing day-and-date films, they have found resistance to the type of profile pieces in major publications that a well-received indie could once rely upon to build word of mouth.
3. “Before It’s in Theaters”
Every cable provider organizes their on-demand content differently, but each company has a category labeled “Before It’s in Theaters,” or something along those lines. The conventional wisdom has long been that getting in one of these folders was your ticket to high VOD sales. Crowding is once again a problem here, and these folders are now full with titles.
Further complicating this situation for indies is that with the big studios putting less publicity money behind fewer and fewer releases every year, these folders have become a dumping ground for mediocre fare with recognizable stars. This is a nightmare for indie day-and-date releasers, who hoped these folders would become synonymous with smart indie fare like Margin Call, not the straight-to-video model of the previous two decades.
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