It’s a question that filmmakers—indie and mainstream alike—are asking themselves when it comes to the question of distribution for their movies, starting with finding a company that’s willing to put a stake in their project to where and how their movie will be seen (i.e., theatrical, VOD, Internet streaming, or DVD).
Much like the music industry, Hollywood is now just catching up with the technology that over the past few years has altered how we find, select and watch movies. In 2006, when Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble” premiered simultaneously on HDNet and in movie theaters, it seemed to be somewhat of a novel stunt. Made for $1.6 million and released through Magnolia Pictures, most movie theater chains refused to show it. The exception was Landmark, a chain owned by billionaire new media entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who also happens to own Magnolia and HDNet as well.
And while not everyone has a billionaire media mogul in their corners covering all angles of distribution, it did demonstrate the convergence of viewing platforms that continues today. To Magnolia’s credit, they have used this model on other indie films that cost even less to make than “Bubble.”
This is an era where more filmmakers than ever can get their work seen, but it’s getting harder and harder to monetize the exposure. Some movies released on VOD have little to no marketing; it’s up to the indie connoisseur to find them. The Internet has dozens of sites that offer video content, and even more to help a filmmaker network. But is that enough?
For mainstream movies, the mentality has become “use a well-known commodity and hope for a big opening weekend.” As Joe Bader stated in a recent Film Slate Magazine blog post, the number of remakes, reboots, and sequels in the Top 20 highest grossing movies of the past three summers increased from 20% to 55%. And that doesn’t take into account movies that are derived from TV shows such as the redoubtable big screen treatment of “The A-Team.” And while that’s just a sample of summer movies, it’s a pretty safe bet that the trend continues throughout the year.
So there are fewer original ideas even getting made into movies by the people who already have the means to make them. Hundred million dollar budgets (along with marketing money as well) that could be divided into several different projects are sucked up by the next “Transformers” sequel, causing a distribution bottleneck, where executives bank on one monster title.
Much of this comes as DVD sales are beginning to factor less and less into a movie’s long term profitability. At one time, home video was a major piece of the puzzle when it came to a movie’s success. But with digital delivery platforms like Netflix, Hulu, or even the digital piracy that’s commonplace now, studios have to do more than ever in hopes of selling physical media as the theatrical to DVD window has shrunk from several months or a year down to just a few months in most cases.
As longtime producer Harvey Weinstein noted at the Produced By conference recently, “It’s become much more of a theatrical business because the movie has to work in theaters,” he said. “There’s no second chance.”
That’s the Hollywood problem. They’ve been slow to react, and their response has mainly been to keep cranking up the marketing machine for a title they know they can sell. Which is fine for certain releases, but in a universe of a thousand channels and streaming websites popping up all the time, there is certainly a sense that it has turned the business upside down—and not for the better. The demand for more content has been filled less by traditional TV shows and movies and more by reality TV and other inexpensive alternatives. Without major capital backing their efforts, many of these fledgling sites get lost in the shuffle with everybody else offering to revolutionize our viewing habits.
“The technology that they promised that was supposed to be so great for our business has actually just f—d it up,” said Luke Perry. The veteran actor who first achieved stardom on “Beverly Hills, 90210” has acted in his share of both big budget and indie films.
“The paradigm of how things get distributed and all that, they said it was going to be this great big new open marketplace, and all it’s really done is, it has devalued actors, everybody makes less, everything is made cheaper…it did the exact opposite of what they promised it would do.”
For indie filmmakers, the model remained the same for years. Make the movie cheaply, take it on the festival circuit, and hope for some benevolence from the financial gods. From the 1970s and into the 1980s, the indie movement was far less pronounced than it is now because studios were willing to make small to medium sized movies.
Most would make profits because they had small production and marketing budgets. It kept stars happy making vanity projects, and they were low risk ventures. As the blockbuster era completely took hold, the smaller movies got squeezed out. But technology and cheaper equipment allowed indie filmmakers to keep plugging away while people like Weinstein and companies like Miramax were trying to find the next “Clerks.”
Indie filmmakers have stormed the Internet gates, using it to network with other filmmakers, and fund, promote, and even show their movies. They are the ones that are most comfortable using the new technologies because they have nothing to lose. And while there is certainly nothing wrong with being a filmmaker merely for the passion of the craft, most would like to make their livings at it as well.
“The Perfect Host,” written and directed by Nick Tomnay, played the festival circuit and then found release through Magnolia Pictures, and will have a limited theatrical release. With the brave new world in distribution, it has already been playing on VOD since May. For the indie director these days, it’s less about how the movie is viewed as long as it is being viewed. It only makes sense because they’ve embraced the new technologies to make the film, so they’re the ones who are embracing the new models of distribution. And while all these things are exciting, it still comes down to a major company on some level putting up a good deal of money—either in hopes of turning an immediate profit or even if they’re looking down the road.
“We’re doing the Magnolia model which is VOD, theatrical and DVD, so we’re doing all three and they sort of compliment each other,” he said. “It’s actually worked out that there’s more awareness; the film is on VOD and the people are enjoying it. That will increase word of mouth and that will help the theatrical, and the theatrical will get reviewed and that will help with DVD, so they’re all interlinked. I think some of the cut and dry stigmas that are attached to film distribution have changed recently.”
Beyond the technological advances in making and distributing the movies as it relates to delivery, Tomnay notes that distribution has also changed (Or is it a chicken and the egg kind of question?) because of home theater systems and the devices on which we can watch movies.
“I think now there’s HD, and big televisions and proper sound systems and the economy being not so strong, there’s something attractive about sitting with three of your friends and paying ten bucks to see something fairly well rather than paying the increased film prices and the parking and the babysitter or whatever.”
There’s no doubt that the viewing habits have changed for the movie going audience as the means of delivery and the equipment we watch it on have changed as well. But it’s still left everybody scrambling inside the film world distribution vacuum as the major companies try to figure out how to keep their grip on the business even while those on the indie side look to gain a toe hold.