For Sundance hits, theatrical still rules over VOD

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Posted: Jan 28, 2015 4:40 PM
For Sundance hits, theatrical still rules over VOD

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — After the $40 million digital release of "The Interview," video-on-demand may seem like all the rage. Particularly for independent films, VOD is seen by some as a better pathway to moviegoers than trying to lure them to theaters.

But many of the breakout hits at this year's Sundance Film Festival are still opting for a traditional theatrical rollout, even if filmmakers, stars and distributors see the tides changing down the line.

For many distributors, the classic theatrical window simply still works.

Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles is looking at a possible summertime theatrical release for Sean Baker's "Tangerine," the iPhone-shot film starring newcomers Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez that follows a transgender prostitute and her friend over one Christmas Eve in Los Angeles.

Day-and-date, in which a film is released simultaneously in theaters and on video-on-demand, doesn't make sense for "Tangerine," Bowles said.

"If there's a film with a big star or a large amount of awareness or a genre that's familiar to people, those can be better day-and-date or VOD candidates. But for a film like this, where there are really no stars in it? You have to establish its credentials prior to going on VOD," he said.

Bowles hopes a theatrical rollout will help "get the reviews and the features and people gushing about it to establish its credibility first."

Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, is also planning a traditional rollout for Sundance acquisitions "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," the '70s coming-of-age story with Kristin Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard and newcomer Bel Powley, and "Grandma," starring Lily Tomlin, but for different reasons.

"For the movies we're pursuing, the VOD model doesn't really work," said Barker. "Can you imagine if we'd done day-and-date with 'Whiplash' as opposed to staying on the screen for five months? Staying on the screen for five months is what gives it that word-of-mouth that gets it the best picture nomination."

The raised profile that comes with an Oscar nomination can also mean increased ticket sales and revenue streams down the line.

"When the Academy Award nominations were announced, our box office gross was $6.7 million," said Barker of "Whiplash," which premiered at Sundance in 2014.

"Since they were announced, the box office has boomed. This week alone, we're going to do $1.2 million or more in the box office and that is going to happen every week until and through the Oscars ... that would not be achievable if we did the VOD model," he said.

Although Barker said Sony Pictures Classics has yet to have a film that is day-and-date, "we will eventually have one. It just doesn't seem to fit with the movies we've either acquired or made."

Jeff Deutchman, vice president of acquisitions for Alchemy, believes there isn't a one-size-fits-all distribution model.

"We think that you have to see a movie and figure out what the best release strategy is," he said. Alchemy acquired "Strangerland," starring Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes and Hugo Weaving for a day-and-date release later this year.

"It's a beautiful film that is going to be polarizing in a good way," Deutchman said.

In other words, some people will want the theatrical experience for "Strangerland," and some will want to watch it in their living room.

He thinks that although most filmmakers likely want a theatrical release, they're also amenable to hearing all options, thanks in part to "blockbuster success stories" like "The Interview," ''Snowpiercer" and "Veronica Mars."

"Equally encouraging are some of the smaller success stories that have come out this year, with movies like 'The Babadook' and 'Elsa & Fred,' smaller films that both overperformed theatrically and on VOD," Deutchman said.

The actors in Sundance films tended to think more about the consumer experience.

"I am all about VOD. I'm a new mom. I don't leave my apartment," said Cobie Smulders, who has roles in both "Results," a rom-com about personal trainers (also a Magnolia acquisition), and "Unexpected." She did acknowledge, though, that nothing compares to collectively experiencing a film in a theater.

"I think eventually everything will be released simultaneously on VOD and in theaters at the same time. I think we're headed in that direction. We're already there with a lot of films," added Brooklyn Decker, who has a bit part in "Results."

Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler says filmmakers should be looking for alternative ways to release their movies.

"The Internet is becoming more and more legitimized. A premiere with Vimeo or going straight to Netflix can have real meaning. I think those are very positive things," Strickler said.

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