On Demand Summit: Sehring Says Indie Films, VOD Must Flow With The Current

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In order to win in the realms of independent film and video on demand, one has to keep moving.

So said Jonathan Sehring, president of Sundance Selects and IFC Films, during his keynote interview at the fourth annual On Demand Summit, presented by Multichannel News and B&C at Sentry Centers, here Wednesday morning. The executive in an interview with B&C editor in chief Ben Grossman talked about the virtues of day-and- date VOD and the benefits of pre-theatrical releasing as a new window instructing the indie business.

Sehring said that when IFC first assessed the theatrical film distribution business it already had an eye on pushing movies from movie theaters to living rooms via cable.

"The theatrical film distribution model is not a great one," he said, noting that history showed companies were in the mix for five to seven years before exiting. "It's not like with studios that also do TV. We had an eye on utilizing cable to get to a much larger audience."

Indeed, Sehring said that IFC, some six or seven years into its run in 2006, predictably found this was "an impossible business." Then, came day and date.

"To be successful you have to move with the current. When we launched [day-and-date VOD] we saw the seeds of growth," said Sehring, noting that the last five years have been the best in the company's history.

It currently proffers content to cable operators' subscribers under three headings: IFC Midnight, horror and art-house erotica; IFC Films, which feature cast-driven titles like Jane Fonda-starrer Peace, Love and Misunderstanding; and Sundance Selects, housing prestige titles plumbed from Sundance and Cannes, foreign titles and documentaries.

Reminding that not every film's VOD window coincides with its theatrical release, Sehring said the company is also seeing good traction with pre-theatrical positioning: making a film available at a premium price 30 days before it debuts in theaters. Sehring, who mentioned that pricing was set by the cable operators, said Comcast has really stepped to the fore in this space, which represents "a tremendous upside for our business," not only from a transactional perspective, but in opening doors to the types of films it can acquire for distribution.

Although business is good, Sehring believes it could be better. Improved cable interfaces are on his wish list, as is promotion from the Hollywood community. He said the toughest part of his job is convincing Tinseltown talent agencies that their clients also need to bang on the VOD drum.

"They don't recognize how important that is. Seeing the movie on the big screen is not necessarily the biggest part of [the business]. You don't see a George Clooney at NCTA, but you might see a Steven Soderbergh because he gets it," Sehring laughed, before adding that some films can derive 30% to 50% of their revenue from the VOD platform.

Responding to Grossman's queries about whether he agreed with A.O. Scott, the critic in The New York Times who opined that films are "simultaneously getting bigger and smaller," Sehring did, talking on the one hand about the giant bets studio chiefs most make in creating events that will break through the clutter and get people out of their homes and to the theater.

On the other, he said the digital age has vastly enhanced the creative possibilities and outlets. "Everyone is a filmmaker now. Entertainment is one of [the U.S.'s] greatest exports," said Sehring. "There are move film schools now and a movement among young people: ‘I want to be a filmmaker.' I guess they see reality TV, where everyone is a star."

Grossman rejoined comically, "Thank God."

After the laughter subsided, Sehring said that 18 months ago the film, Tiny Furniture came from Lena Dunham, who now makes Girls for HBO, saying it was essentially a pilot for the series.

"It was great and funny. Lena came out of nowhere, she went to Oberlin College and has had a meteoric rise. That could not every happen out of the studio model. It could only happen through digital technology," said Sehring.