The on-demand indie film revolution


(Kyle T. Webster for The Washington Post)
August 17, 2012

The movie “360,” a dramatic roundelay of interlocking stories set in Vienna, London, Denver, Phoenix and beyond, boasts an impressive pedigree. Written by Peter Morgan (“The Queen”), directed by Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”), starring Rachel Weisz, Anthony Hopkins and Jude Law, it’s just the kind of film I love to watch at the local art house, popcorn in hand.

But when “360” opened in Washington two weeks ago, I had an unusually crammed schedule: writing deadlines, the return of a summer camper, preparations for a busy weekend. So, I did what filmgoers are doing in increasing numbers: I fired up my computer, went to my satellite TV service’s Web site and ordered “360” on demand for $6.99. On opening day, I was on my couch watching “360” — with no popcorn or coming attractions, but grateful that I hadn’t gone to much trouble to see what turned out to be a modestly engaging but non-world-rocking movie.

I like to consider myself a movie purist — a fan of film as both experience and material object, with a romantic attachment to its grainy texture, mythic scale and enveloping sense of grandeur and collective worship. I have fulminated — in these very pages — against the encroaching tyranny of technology, from the diminished visual values of digital cinematography to the bland close-up-dominated grammar of a medium now as likely to be encountered on a three-inch phone screen as in a spacious movie palace.

Put simply — and to paraphrase Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.” — my aesthetic expectations have always been big; it’s the pictures that got small.

But in recent years, forces have converged to make me reassess my stance. Obviously, TV screens and sound systems have gotten bigger, flatter and more sophisticated, allowing them to more closely approximate theatrical projection. With audiences texting, talking, beeping and buzzing through a movie they just shelled out nearly $20 to ignore, a compelling case can be made that watching a movie at home — even with kids, electronic devices and easy bathroom breaks — is more immersive and less prone to distractions than going to the multiplex.

Some industry analysts have suggested that it’s precisely those considerations that led viewers to wait to see “John Carter,” “Battleship” and “Dark Shadows” on VOD, rather than in theaters, a calculation that made them all box-office flops.

But in another corner of the movie business, where low-budget independent films huddle for warmth against encroaching extinction, the simultaneous release of films in theaters and on VOD — rather than the traditional months-long window between the two — has proved to be a sustaining, even crucial survival strategy.

In 2006, I interviewed Steven Soderbergh the day his experimental thriller “Bubble” made its premiere in Parkersburg, W.Va., where it was filmed. Soderbergh and the film’s distributor, Magnolia Pictures, were embarking on what was considered an audacious release strategy for the film, making it available on DVD and the HDNet Movies cable channel at the same time it opened in theaters (called day-and-date in industry parlance). Soderbergh — who’s never been particularly worried about the sanctity of his images — wasn’t concerned about whether his work was seen on a 70-foot theater screen or on someone’s tiny television. “I really don’t care how people see my movies, as long as they see them,” he told me. “I’m just not interested in controlling how somebody experiences one of my films.”

“Bubble” didn’t turn out to be a hit. But Soderbergh’s willingness to meet his audiences where they were, and not try to control where or how they saw his films, proved prescient.

By 2008, the crime drama “Flawless,” starring Michael Caine and Demi Moore, would earn more than $1 million in its on-demand window during a contemporaneous theatrical run. In 2010, “The Killer Inside Me,” an ultra-violent adaptation of a pulp novel by Jim Thompson, earned around $4 million from people who watched it on demand. That same year, “All Good Things,” a true-crime drama starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst, earned a whopping $6 million. (By contrast, the film earned around $600,000 in theaters.) Last year, “Margin Call,” J.C. Chandor’s taut Wall Street thriller, made its VOD debut day-and-date with theaters. The film wound up earning about half its $10 million total returns in video on demand.

The message was clear: What was once considered a marginal or even stigmatized part of the distribution world had clearly earned a second look.

Whereas people may once have been suspicious of a movie that showed up on their cable system’s on-demand menu the same day it opened in theaters, when the synopsis includes names such as Caine, Moore and Gosling, that stigma significantly evaporated.

“Stars definitely matter,” says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which released “Flawless” and “All Good Things.” “Because frankly, it’s a menu . . . and you only have a certain amount of information you can get across.” (The all-important menu can be finessed in other ways: At a gathering of ­micro-budget indie filmmakers at the Maryland Film Festival in May, one director advised his colleagues to choose a title that begins with “A,” so it has a chance of being seen first.)

Another essential element, Bowles adds, is genre: Even the scrappiest no-name action and horror films can do very well as on-demand offerings, regardless of who’s in them. “People aren’t going to rent something unless they have some notion of what it’s about or what it’s going to deliver,” he says. “If it has a [type of] story or stars no one’s heard of, that’s a tougher sell.”

With adult dramas increasingly on the ropes in Hollywood, the simultaneous VOD-theatrical release strategy would seem to be a no-brainer; how better to reach grown-ups who want to avoid the sensory overload of modern-day multiplexes than delivering films to the safety of their living rooms? But don’t look for “Hope Springs” on your iPad just yet; big theater chains refuse to play films that are showing on other platforms. (Magnolia, which is owned by Dallas Mavericks magnate Mark Cuban, shows its films at Landmark Theatres, which Cuban also owns; IFC Films, another VOD pioneer, owns a theater in New York and its films are shown in independent theaters, including Landmark. But Landmark often declines to play other companies’ day-and-date VOD releases.)

Last year, when Universal Pictures announced plans to make the comedy “Tower Heist” available on VOD in Portland, Ore., and Atlanta the same day it arrived in theaters (for about $60), exhibitors squawked so loudly the studio quickly retreated.

“Theatrical revenue for studios for a release like that is still very critical,” says IFC Films President Jonathan Sehring regarding big-budget movies. “I can appreciate why the major chains would take a hard look at the erosion of that [business]. It’s different for independents.”

Indeed, says Bowles, the day-and-date VOD strategy has made it feasible for his company to acquire and distribute small-niche films that, given the costs of marketing, would be financially prohibitive to distribute otherwise. That reality became clear in the 1990s, he says, when a handful of independent studios went belly-up. “You had to spend so much more money to get your film out there,” he explains. “The upside had become larger than ever, but the downside was abject failure. I can’t emphasize enough how little revenue came in if a film didn’t perform well theatrically off the bat.” Tying a VOD release to the advertising and awareness generated by a theatrical release, he says, has ensured survival for respected filmmakers who could not have found purchase in big-chain multiplexes — a slate as diverse as Lars von Trier, Takashi Miike and documentarian Alex Gibney.

At IFC, such auteurs as Werner Herzog and Michael Winterbottom have found success with the strategy as well. Winterbottom’s newest film, “Trishna,” received middling reviews and didn’t perform as well as expected in theaters, says Sehring. “But thank God for VOD; it’s helped make that title successful.”

And it’s not just filmmakers who are grateful: Now, thanks to on-demand technology, film fans in towns without art-house cinemas can see indie titles they otherwise would have had to wait months for, as the movies wended their way from theaters to DVD to television. Rick Allen, CEO of the digital film distributor SnagFilms, says the company uses a variety of distribution strategies for the movies it acquires, including opening them theatrically before showing them on additional platforms. But its core business so far is making films available on mobile, Internet and TV platforms, as well as on the SnagFilms Web site. Films on the site stream for free (interrupted every few minutes by ads).

One of SnagFilms’s most successful titles is “Return to Tarawa,” a drama starring Ed Harris about the legacy of a World War II battle that the company acquired in 2009 after it aired on the Military Channel. The movie has played steadily on the site’s ad-supported channel. “It’s well on its way to a million views, if it hasn’t reached it already,” Allen says, adding that SnagFilms’s aim is “to put films where people are. Make it easy for them to watch really good films when and where they want to watch them.”

It’s impossible to argue with that mission statement. Still, one can celebrate the democratization and downright survival of an embattled cinematic niche while bemoaning the sacrifices: Von Trier’s “Melancholia” was an epic exercise in bravura filmmaking, a heightened sensory experience that married image and sound with often stirring results. Could that sense of awe ever be approximated on a six-inch screen? Or on a 42-inch television with kids interrupting, phones ringing or breaks for making popcorn? (Then again, would that epic viewing experience be possible for someone living in a town lacking the theater to play it?)

But even if we accept some loss of scale, we can still grieve the collective ritual we once knew as going to the movies. The closest we can come to in our homes is watching a movie while on Twitter or Facebook. “No one goes to movies on dates anymore,” says “Tiny Furniture” director and “Girls” creator Lena Dunham.“Now it’s, ‘Let’s watch something on Netflix on my bed.’ ”

Dunham makes that observation in a terrific new documentary about filmmaking called “Side by Side.” In the same movie, director Barry Levinson recalls going to the film palaces of his youth in Baltimore. “The red curtain would open, and there’s the movie!” he rhapsodizes. “It’s not as special anymore. It’s another thing.”

Produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves, “Side by Side” adroitly threads viewers through the digital revolution in film, from how images are captured and projected to the changing ways we’re watching them, for better or for worse. It makes some crucial points about the pros and cons of technological progress. If you’d like to see it, you’re in luck: It opened theatrically in Los Angeles on Friday, but will be available on demand on Wednesday.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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