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The Film Industry Must Risk Its Present to Find Its Future

As strict theatrical releases become a thing of the past, will studios continue to resist new modes of distribution?

Big news was made halfway through the 2011 edition of CinemaCon, the annual trade-show sponsored by the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). After months of speculation, Warner Bros, Sony, Universal, and Fox announced they would be the first studios to offer selected films on video on demand (VOD) 60 days after their release in theaters. This model effectively shortens the theatrical window, which is traditionally at least 90 days. At the end of April, DirecTV became the first television service to allow customers to view newly released films in the comfort of their own homes for $30 a-piece for 24 hours. Comcast and other companies are expected to follow suit. 

The announcement hasn’t been met with enthusiasm. At CinemaCon to support the release of the Warner Bros’ film The Hangover Part II, director Todd Phillips told the crowd, "If I had wanted to make movies for television, I would have been a TV director." Cinemark Holdings’ CEO Alan Stock echoed this sentiment last month when, as quoted in The Hollywood Reporter, he said: "We're not there to display and show made-for-TV movies. So, if you are making a made-for-TV movie, then take it to the TV."

Mr. Stock’s reaction is understandable. He makes his living by arguing that the best place to see a movie is in a movie theater. But Mr. Phillips’ comment is impressively shortsighted. 137 million dollars-worth of people bought tickets to The Hangover Part II in its first five days at the box office, but that is only the tip of the iceberg for this film. Exponentially more viewers will watch this film on VOD, DVD, Netflix, and a myriad of other viewing platforms. For Phillips to argue that his primary concern as a filmmaker is to connect with audiences in a movie theater is to ignore the reality of how consumers are interacting with content in the 21st century.

The significance of the theatrical window can’t be ignored, but it can certainly be overstated. I have a true, sincere love for film, but the movie theater is no longer the primary way in which I interact with film. It’s not even my platform of preference. I still love going to the movie theater, and I always will, but my viewing habits have evolved. For me, watching a first-run title on VOD or streaming an older release on Netflix has become as legitimate and important a means of interacting with content as is the movie theater. I assure you I’m not alone in feeling this way.

The world of theatrical distribution is limiting. For a distributor, it’s expensive and unpredictable. It’s also unable to sufficiently meet all of my expectations as a modern consumer. I want choice. I want increased access to a wide range of content. I want to be able to see films like Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture or Andrew Jarecki’s All Good Things. These are intelligent, thoughtful, and well-made independent films that would likely get overlooked if their primary opportunity for exposure was theatrical distribution. Both films thrived and found audiences because they were offered to viewers across a variety of platforms, including VOD. The fact that audiences were able to interact with these films outside of a movie theater does not weaken the business of theatrical distribution. Instead it strengthens the business of film as a whole, as viewers are able to access the content they demand, filmmakers are able to connect with larger audiences, and theater owners are able to focus on the movies that are most likely to succeed in a theatrical setting.

This is why alternate means of distribution are important, and this is why I find it encouraging that studios are experimenting with premium VOD. While I don’t believe that this particular model is going to radically alter the fundamentals of film distribution, I am encouraged by the studios’ acknowledgement that times have changed. The modern consumer is concerned with access and options: he wants to be able to watch what he wants, when he wants, and on whatever platform he prefers. This means that it is no longer the place of the studio to tell the viewer when, how, and where he should interact with film. That choice now belongs to the consumer. If we are to move forward as an industry, we need to acknowledge this fact.

It’s not about undermining the theatrical window. Studios know quite well how important theatrical distribution is, both as a money maker and a marketing tool to drive awareness of a film through its subsequent release windows. But it is not the only platform that matters.

It’s been over a month since the premium VOD experiment went live. Despite the fears of exhibitors, filmmakers, and Harold Camping, life on Earth has not (yet) come to an end. The audience for film is growing. If anything, new technology has only expanded our desire for content and media. Because of this, we have no choice but to look for new and innovative ways of connecting audiences with film. The opportunities for redefining our industry are endless, but we have to be willing to take risks.


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