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Chris Colfer couldn’t be any hotter in the pop culture sphere. His Glee character Kurt Hummel is one of the most popular on Fox’s hit series, and in the past year he has been an Emmy, SAG and Golden Globe nominee. Last week he was named favorite male TV comedy star at the People’s Choice Awards.
Despite that, the movie he wrote, produced and stars in — Struck by Lightning — grossed only $2,157 per screen when it premiered in six locations during the past weekend.
For once, however, that is almost irrelevant to the ultimate success of the movie in terms of how much it makes.
That is because a crucial decision was made last year to pass up traditional offers from movie distributors and take Struck by Lightning down the emerging digital path, which treats the release in theaters as little more than another way to promote the video-on-demand and digital distribution on iTunes.
This is the story of how Colfer and the producers decided to go for a digital release at the cost of a traditional Hollywood opening and why they believe it is the future for many movies.
“My partners agreed with me that this was a way to get this film seen by as many people as possible,” says producer David Permut, “and also have a profitable experience for everybody involved.”
While Struck by Lightning has grossed only $22,930 from a special preview night and its opening weekend in theaters as of Tuesday, it is on track to gross more than $1 million from on-demand customers on Time Warner Cable, Comcast and others by the end of February. It sells on VOD for about $6 to $10 per showing.
Struck by Lightning also has been a strong performer on iTunes since it was released in the second week of December (well in advance of hitting theaters). It was the No. 1 independent electronic rental film for its first two weeks and even this week is in the top 40 among all movies, both from studios and independent distributors.
Still, it wasn’t an easy decision for Colfer to accept. He had written the movie when he was only 16, and it got a standing ovation when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. His dream had been to have a big splashy Hollywood release.
It was right after Tribeca that the offers started coming in. What he learned was that as good as his movie was, it wasn’t the role model for a high school movie in Hollywood.
“I had many meetings with the production companies and studio heads,” says Colfer. “I think everyone categorizes the high school audience into certain things that aren’t always accurate. Unless it’s a movie about an up-and-coming high school girl looking for popularity, no one really wants to back it up.”
The traditional distributors were interested but wanted to make changes in the movie and sell it as something Colfer did not believe it was.
“It was offered, but I didn’t want to because I didn’t want it to turn into something I didn’t want it to be,” he says. “It would be the story of how [his character] Carson loses his virginity, rather than him achieving his goals. You know, they thought that would be more marketable. I think people understate how many Carsons there are out in the world.”
Before production, Colfer had hooked up with Permut to help arrange the financing and production. Permut had brought in Brian Dannelly (Saved) to direct with Colfer’s enthusiastic approval, and he had cut the budget down to about $1.3 million to give them lots of options for distribution.
“I kept coming back from Sundance after seeing five movies a day and realized the technology was there to make these movies very modestly with people like me and the actors, who don’t get their full fees but work out of passion,” says Permut. “I pared the budget down, and we got an incredible cast who were attracted like bees to honey because they love the material, they love Brian Dannelly, and they love Chris. So we shot it in Los Angeles on a three-week schedule for a very realistic budget.”
Permut, whose movies include Face Off, Youth in Revolt and Charlie Bartlett, also had been impressed by what he saw happen with the movie Margin Call. It was sold to Lionsgate and went out on a day-and-date release — theatrical and VOD simultaneously. “They didn’t spend $10 million or $15 million on P&A [marketing],” says Permut. “Their advertising budgets are less because they’re targeting the VOD audience primarily and they use theatrical platform to sell VOD.”
“Margin Call [which cost only about $3 million to make] grossed more than $20 million,” says Permut, “and more people saw it than ever would see it if it went out the usual way.”
More recently, the Richard Gere drama Arbitrage had the same level of success with a similar business plan.
The downside is that by giving it a day-and-date video release — or, in the case of Struck by Lightning, a pre-theater VOD release — the major theater circuits such as Regal Cinemas, Cinemark and some others won’t play the movie at all, limiting the ultimate release in U.S. theaters no matter how it does.
“Chris has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, so it made sense,” says Permut. “Let the audience just see the movie on whatever size screen is comfortable for them.”
Tribeca, the 3-year-old distribution arm of 10-year-old Tribeca Enterprises (owned by Robert De Niro and others), operates on the business model that sees digital as the primary driver and theatrical release as part of the promotional process.
“We’re trying to be smart about how we spend money, and we work with filmmakers who share our vision and understand at the end it’s probably going to deliver a bigger return and a lot bigger audience than spending a whole lot of money on P&A that we have to make back,” says Matt Spangler, Tribeca’s executive vp marketing and content. “So in terms of risk, we just think it’s smarter.”
The key is to have a movie that is both presold in terms of concept or cast and a cast that is willing to work for less than their usual fee and be enthused when it comes to promotion.
That certainly describes Colfer, who has taken the movie to festivals, done promotions and made public appearances to generate interest. A week before the official theatrical opening, there was a one-night preview in 17 theaters, after which a Q&A session with Colfer was beamed in live.
During the past weekend, Colfer did in-theater appearances and answered questions first in New York and then in Los Angeles.
The theaters playing Struck by Lightning are mostly specialty houses, such as Laemmle in L.A. That is a problem because those “art houses” tend to draw an older audience, while this movie appeals to younger viewers.
To raise the movie’s profile in New York City, Tribeca did a “four wall” release. That means it rented a theater from AMC and did its own release.
Ultimately, says Spangler, most of the target audience will watch the movie on video. “That audience who really want to see this movie will watch on VOD or use iTunes,” he says. “They are going to see this film — just not necessarily in the theater.”
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