Eight years ago, when IFC Films decided to release some of its features on the big screen and video-on-demand at the same time, there was a lot of hand-wringing from industry watchers.
Some were worried the day-and-date releases would cannibalize theatrical ticket sales. Others kvetched that same-day releases would devalue the films.
But IFC Films was confident the strategy was a winner — so much so that the independent filmmaker and distributor released four of its films with same-day-and-date timing, according to Lisa Schwartz, IFC Films executive vice president of distribution, operations and new business development.
“We jumped in with both feet,” she said. And it worked. Today, the bulk of IFC Films’ theatrical output is released concurrently in theaters and on video-on-demand.
TOUGH MARKETING SLOG
“We started day-and-date releases in 2006 because it was hard to traditionally release independent films,” Schwartz said. Some large theater chains shun art-house films, she said, and multifaceted marketing campaigns require deep pockets and extensive resources that independent film budgets can’t sustain.
With a few exceptions, large Hollywood studios have eschewed same-day releases. But for small and independent studios, day-and-date release has become a valuable and useful tool in the distribution of film product.
There are many reasons why independent filmmakers and studios are unveiling films in theaters and on TV on the same day — and in some cases before they hit the big screen. For one, releasing a film is complicated and expensive. Large studios can afford lavish, multilayered marketing campaigns backing blockbusters released on thousands of screens. Distribution of smaller independent films is often limited to a few markets in a handful of art houses or independent theater chains.
A television debut can create buzz for narrowly distributed films and produce cash that can be used to market those films more widely.
Magnolia Pictures, the theatrical and homeentertainment arm of the Wagner/Cuban Cos. that includes the Landmark Theatres chain and AXS TV, employs several strategies for releasing films.
“Our pre-theatrical offering gives consumers the ability to rent a film, for what basically amounts to the price of a movie ticket, prior to its theatrical release,” Jeff Cuban, executive vice president of HDNet/Magnolia Pictures, said. “We also offer certain films on demand simultaneously with their theatrical release and still others in traditional windows, where the theatrical release stands alone with the VOD being released simultaneous to the DVD street date at a later time. The determination of which strategy we employ is a film-by-film decision.”
IFC’s Schwartz said the chain of distribution depends on a film’s commercial viability, talent and critical acclaim.
In Demand, the cable operator-owned video distributor, has its own criteria for determining when to debut a movie. A film must run in a certain number of theaters to be considered for day-and-date release, and pre-theatrical releases can be delivered via on-demand as early as two weeks before they hit the big screen, according to Emilio Nunez, senior vice president, movies/original programming.
Numbers are hard to come by because most firms and studios don’t release numbers or financials. But Nunez said pre-theatrical debuts tend to perform slightly better than day-anddate releases.
Studio IFC Films generally releases 65 films a year via its multiple brands. IFC Films distributes talent- and cash-driven independent films; IFC Midnight features horror films, sci-fi , thrillers, erotic art-house and action titles; Sundance Selects primarily focuses on documentaries and international films; and IFC Center is a five screen, state-of-the-art cinema in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. Each IFC Films release is put through a number of filters to determine which distribution path to use, Schwartz said.
At Magnolia, which releases roughly 40 films a year, about 70% of releases have a premium VOD window structure, with the remainder going through traditional theatrical channels.
“To make sense in this earlier window, a film needs to have inherent marketability,” Cuban said. “This could come in the form of high-value talent, a visible topic or genre, or some other metric that allows the film to help sell itself while the theatrical marketing campaigns ramp up.”
REASONS TO STAY HOME
Of course, there are good reasons why someone might choose to watch any film in the convenience of their own home, versus going to a crowded theater, especially if it means they can skip the long lines, expensive snacks and noisy crowds. In Demand charges $9.99 for pre-theatrical releases and either $5.99 or $6.99 for dayand- date releases, Nunez said.
“We’ve proven consumers are willing to pay a bit more for a day-and-date or pre-theatrical release,” Nunez said.
Multichannel-video distributors like being able to offer customers something special like a pre-release movie, In Demand senior vice president of affiliate marketing Lauren LoFrisco said. Such movies attract film enthusiasts and subscribers who live in areas where such films aren’t typically released, giving customers something they can’t get elsewhere. This fosters more customer loyalty and gives distributors a sticky offering to keep those subscribers in their fold. Pay TV distributors have created special areas on their navigation guides to market and hype pre-release films available to their customers.
“Whether it’s the convenience or the premium value of being able to watch a film early relative to the theatrical release,” Cuban said, “consumers continue to find value” in prereleased films.
About 25% of In Demand’s total monthly film inventory comes with a day-and-date or pre-theatrical release structure, according to Nunez. That number isn’t expected to go up or down much, although the number of films available for early release is on the rise, he said.
The quality of early-release on-demand films is also improving, Nunez said, meaning that while the amount of In Demand’s day-and-date offerings may not increase, the number of consumers buying those films is likely to grow.
The perception of films released via VOD is changing for both consumers and filmmakers, too, Nunez said. Consumers are willing pay a little bit more to see a film the same day it’s released in theaters (or before it hits the big screen). Studios see the benefit of VOD from a marketing, distribution and cost perspective. And A-list Hollywood performers are increasingly using the small screen as an outlet for their talents.
In May, Time Warner Cable did its first Indie Film Month, offering new and classic independent films via VOD. The MSO featured a new indie release or classic throwback every day in May, plus behind-the-scenes footage and interviews via IndieWire. TWC also sponsored the May 21 New York premiere of director Jim Mickle’s thriller Cold In July, including a Q&A session with Mickle and actor Michael C. Hall. The promotion was successful enough that TWC is planning another indie film festival in August.
Technological advancements will also continue to work in favor of in-home viewing.
“I think it will only grow as the home screen gets bigger and bigger, making for a far better experience,” Cuban said. “I can’t wait to see how [ultra-high-definition] 4K TVs affect the marketplace. When an 80- to 100-inch TV is in a home with stunning picture quality, I have to believe the lines will start to blur at some level.”