The head of DreamWorks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, last week predicted a three week theatrical window for feature films in the future – a troubling thought for those in the theatrical industry, and one which creates an interesting juncture for independent filmmakers. But whereas filmmakers and distributors will undoubtedly survive this change in viewing patterns, the cinematic experience itself stands to lose the most.
Katzenberg, speaking at the Entrepreneurial Leadership in the Corporate World panel, foresees that feature films will be given exactly three weekends in cinema, which is, according to Katzenberg, “95% of the revenue for 98%” of movies. After the theatrical window ends, films will be available everywhere in a “pay per inch” model, which is that say that the price will depend on the device, whether that’s a television, smart phone or cinema screen.
This is not the first time Katzenberg has made predictions about a “pay per inch” model – at an Oscars roundtable in 2012 for The Hollywood Reporter, Katzenberg made exactly the same point. And it’s also not the first time the death of cinematic distribution models has been predicted – with the introduction of every new piece of technology, from television to VHS, computers to tablets, not to mention the spread of online piracy, speculation abounds regarding what is seen as the almost inevitable demise of the cinema as a screening venue.
As far as the studios are concerned, this is simply a question of transformation, rather than a huge threat. As long as audiences are still paying for content, no matter what form it comes in, films that have the marketing and distribution force of a studio behind them will continue to be distributed and to make money. A more interesting question is how this will effect independent filmmakers – will the loss of a long theatrical run, to develop a following and establish an audience, prevent independent film from being distributed? Or are independent filmmakers already getting out of the theatrical game?
The simultaneous theatrical window and wide release (in which distributors release a film in their territory on multiple screens at once) hasn’t always been the way. Prior to 1972, films were rolled out gradually and in limited theatres. In its first run, a film would open on one “A screen” per market, or area. That exhibitor would have exclusivity over other A screens in the area, which is to say no other theatre in a 50 mile radius could book that film for the length of the first run – usually a year. After that, the film was shown in second-run theatres, and then third-run. Theatrical windows were long, and films had time to find their footing with an audience.
This began to change with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather in 1972, which had such a long running time that it couldn’t be screened as often in one day. Worried about the decreased profits, and using the enormous buzz the film generated, Paramount, the distributor, were able to secure five A screens in New York, opening nationally on 316 screens. The model was well and truly broken with Jaws – Stephen Spielberg’s 1975 monster thriller was released on 464 screens in the US on one day.
The wide release was not without precedent – exploitation films had previously made use of the wide release model, though to opposite effect. While most films relied on word of mouth to sustain a theatrical run and generate an audience, exploitation films used a wide release model to prevent a negative reputation from developing, adopting instead a “dump and run” approach. However, these wide releases did not even come close to the scale of Jaws. This was combined with an unprecedented national television marketing campaign. The film later expanded to 700 screens, and then over 950, validating the use of the wide release model and television marketing and irrevocably changing the distribution industry.
In the contemporary cinematic climate, independent films tend to go to a limited release – a small number of screens with a speciality exhibitor, such as Dendy or Palace in Australia. The smaller scale allows the films to run a little longer, building up an audience before moving to home entertainment, where some films find a long and lucrative life. Harmony Korine, the director behind last year’s Spring Breakers, said in an interview with Empire that his films are typically sleeper hits. “Usually with my films, people discover them over the course of decades. It’s never an immediate thing. You put them out, and people find them years after they’ve played in the theatres”. While Spring Breakers was certainly the exception to this, it nevertheless only opened initially on three screens. Korine and his work demonstrates the value of the long game in independent film. After all, had it been pulled after three weeks, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel would never have found the audience that made it a hit. In Australia, Best Exotic ran for 14 weeks, grossing over $21 million, still making a respectable $50 000 in its final week. In the UK, the film ran for 29 weeks and grossed over $32 million. Best Exotic is a rare case of both exhibitors and distributors allowing a film to become a sleeper theatrical hit. Simply put, the older target audience of Best Exotic do not typically make it to cinemas for the initial opening of a film. Very few independent films have the star power or the specific audience base to get the same treatment.
But will independent films continue to need theatrical distribution? On April 25th, Joss Whedon released his new film, In Your Eyes (directed by Brin Hill, written and produced by Joss Whedon) straight to Vimeo for $5. This comes on the heels of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and it’s simultaneous digital and theatrical release; and of course Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars, the crowd-funded film of the popular television show, which was released straight to video-on-demand by distributor Warner Bros. Video-on-demand involves significantly less overhead than traditional theatrical distribution, making it more accessible to independent filmmakers and meaning that a “window” simply ceases to exist. In Carruth’s case, theatrical distribution was only ever meant to legitimise the film, giving it an added push in its online release (where it made most of its money). Veronica Mars is an even more interesting study when you consider the entire process. Told that no one would watch a Veronica Mars movie so long after the show had aired, Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $5.5 million – well over the initial $2 million goal. By going directly to their audience, independent filmmakers can both fund and distribute their films outside of the traditional system. Veronica Mars is of course a unique example – the show had a cult following and significant celebrity pull in Bell. But it demonstrates the value of crowd funding and video-on-demand in first proving the existence of an audience, and then reaching that audience directly, rather than being beholden to an exhibitor.
Video-on-demand is in a unique position to offer far more to filmmakers than distributors and exhibitors ever could. Services such as VHX, which distributed Upstream Color and Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me even after it was picked up by theatrical distributor IFC, provide a user-friendly platform for filmmakers to self-distribute. For 10% of the gross plus $0.50 per sale, VHX can provide streaming and direct downloads of a film. They will host a site for the film on their own site, and measure the effectiveness of its marketing.1 Alternatively, for $200 a year, filmmakers can have a Vimeo Pro account that allows them to upload their film and charge a fee – much like Joss Whedon with In Your Eyes. Reelhouse, on the other hand, will only charge them 6% of your gross, and hosts direct downloads of the film or a 48 hour rental of the film. Other services such as QUADflix, Pivotshare, Distrify and a host of others are starting to emerge and establish themselves as perfect alternative to theatrical distribution. Instead of struggling to get distributors to consider their films, independent filmmakers can do it all themselves for a much more favourable split, and if they market it right, they can reach almost exactly the same audience as previously. It’s simply more convenient for everyone involved.
Comedians have, of course, long been eschewing traditional distribution channels. While Eddie Izzard only recently announced that he would be partnering with BitTorrent for his next tour, Force Majeur, Louis CK was offering direct downloads of his show, Live at the Beacon Theatre, for $5 in 2011. He said at the time that it made it “cheaper for the buyer and more pleasant for me”. Comedians often make the majority of their income from live shows – compare a $100 ticket to a live stand up show to a $5 direct download. It certainly seems more attractive from the viewer’s point of view but as long as the comedian continues to sell tickets, the download acts almost like paid marketing for the show, while also cutting out the distributor middle man. In terms of content creators and audiences, almost everyone is happy.
What we’re finding is that as theatrical distribution becomes less suited to certain types of content, other models are coming out of the woodwork. If the death of the long cinematic run is around the corner, film will survive – whether independent or studio, films will still be able to find and reach their audiences. What is at risk is the cinematic experience, which has been already been under threat for a long time. The endurance of cinema as a viewing platform will depend entirely upon audiences, and whether they continue to value its technical and social elements over the comfort of their own home. Few home cinemas can really rival the screens and sound systems of cinemas, and there are some films that arguably still need to be seen with a crowd or on a large screen. Comedies can lose some of their impact and jokes can be lost outside group screenings, and films like last year’s Gravity would surely suffer on the smaller screen. The question is then whether audiences will value considerations such as these over the convenience of video-on-demand. This is no new observation, but with a reduced theatrical window in the near distance, it may be the final squeeze on the theatrical industry that pushes video-on-demand ahead.
With the announcement that both Hoyts and Dendy will soon be offering their own video-on-demand services – Hoyts Stream and Dendy Direct – it seems that exhibitors in Australia have finally seen the writing on the wall. It’s quite telling that both a mainstream exhibition chain and a speciality exhibitor have chosen to diversify and expand into video-on-demand. At the time of the announcement, the Dendy chief executive Greg Hughes said that there was no one really operating in the video-on-demand market for “the discerning consumer”. He might have said, “no one in Australia”. This will undoubtedly lead to changes in Dendy’s own business model – without a physical limit on screens available, it’s possible that we’ll see Dendy picking up more films and making them available to “discerning consumers”. At the same time, Dendy could choose to only release more mainstream, commercially viable films theatrically, relegating those more specialty films we currently see in their cinemas to video-on-demand. It’s a difficult balance to strike and the distribution landscape of the future is hard to predict. Between the final death throes of cinematic exhibition and a new era of filmmaker-audience connection, the possibilities are endless.
The header image collage contains stills from Upstream Color, Veronica Mars and In Your Eyes.