So, we finally know what has become of Serena, the Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper period drama which has been in the can for over 2 years now: it’s going to debut in the U.S. on VOD on February 26th followed by a limited theatrical run on March 27th. Oh, sure, it’s going to play in actual European theaters later this year, but no US distributor would bite no matter how many times the director re-cut the film to help it make more sense. So, since Magnolia Pictures is basically the sister company to the one that made the movie they’ll dump it online, not even bothering with any kind of awards campaign. You could look at this and say it’s great that the recent explosion of VOD has provided filmmakers a bit of a safety net which will prevent something like Serena from falling through the cracks in an increasingly risk-averse market. However, to me it just means that Serena must be a white hot mess if absolutely no one was willing to pick it up even though it stars Lawrence and Cooper.
It’s the “that must mean it’s not that good” reaction. For years now, that’s what I’ve always thought every time I’ve heard about some new movie going to video-on-demand either in lieu of playing in theaters or in combination with a very, very limited theatrical release. To me, this “dump it online” approach seemed akin to self-publication in this brave new world of distribution models, i.e., the option you have to take because the industry infrastructure has decided you’re stuff isn’t good enough (or just way too artsy). I think the same thing about the many random, cheap-looking films which litter the catalogs of streaming giants like Netflix. Historically, there is a very obvious reason why “direct to video” movies go, well, direct to video.
Of course, this makes me a bit of a movie snob. I don’t really mean to be. I just react this way for largely the same reason that some people shun blogs in favor of reading professional outlets like the AV Club, Vulture, or the New York Times: there is an implicit guarantee of an acceptable level of quality with the more proven option. Of course, as a blogger myself I might not particularly like that mindset just as any filmmaker behind a movie which had to go to VOD might hope for a more enlightened view from someone like me, kind of like, “Come on, man, at least give us a chance.”
That’s just it, though. I have given VOD movies a chance before, and every single time I have I’ve seen why they were available for me to rent on Vudu instead of playing in my local theater. Rapture-Palooza may star a bunch of actors I’ve liked in other things (Anna Kendrick, John Francis Daley, Thomas Lennon, Rob Corddry, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel), but it is a far too frequently unfunny comedy dragged down by an overly odious version of the devil played by Craig Robinson. They Came Together and Walk of Shame are likable-enough comedies with charming actors (Amy Poehler and Paull Rudd in They Came, Elizabeth Banks and James Marsden in Shame), but they are both remarkably uneven. Veronica Mars was such a unique situation it’s hard to judge it too harshly, but as a merely casual fan of the TV show I often felt left outside the joke with the movie.
Those are just some of the movies I’ve watched on VOD while they were playing in theaters in just the big cities. There’s an obvious selection bias here, though, which is that I just might have crappy taste in movies. Maybe I’m just way too critical (e.g., I know people who think Craig Robinson is hilarious in Rapture-Palooza). Or maybe I’m just not challenging myself enough as a film viewer because right now VOD is littered with, as Forbes’ Scott Mendelson put it, “The kind of old-school star-driven, adult-skewing films that we all claim have been lost to Hollywood’s all-blockbusters, all-the-time mentality. These are the types of movies which would have been playing nationwide just 10 years ago.”:
- There’s a glossy star-driven thriller like The Two Faces of January (with Viggo Mortenson, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac
- A mind-blowing puzzle boxe like the trippy rom-com The One I Love (with Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass)
- A couple of musicals, like Stage Fright (a charmingly twisted horror musical set at a theater camp) or God Help the Girl
- Robin Williams’ The Angriest Man on Brooklyn premiered in VOD way back in April
- Helen Hunt, Samantha Morton, Aaron Paul, and Corey Stoll populate the cast of true-life breast cancer drama Decoding Annie Parker
Of course, I can’t actually find all of these through my preferred outlet, Vudu, but if I cast a wider net to include the likes of Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, or even the pay-per-view section on my cable box those films are out there, ready to be streamed in my own home theater. I don’t even have to worry about making any visits to a concession stand to buy overpriced drinks, popcorn, and/or candy as I would at a movie theater. That makes it seem like this convenience is taking potential money away from my local theaters, but as someone living in a non-college town in the Midwest no theater remotely close to me is going to play any of these films. So, for as much as I might have Martin Landau’s kindly old theater owner character from The Majestic in the back of mind, pining for the good old days when we all went out to see movies together, I have to rejoice that the industry has adapted enough to embrace VOD and provide me with more viewing opportunities.
This is pretty much all Margin Call’s fault, really. The VOD phenomenon goes back to at least 2006 when Magnolia, the same company behind Serena, released Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble in theaters, DVD, and on HDNet on the same day. The next couple of years brought additional experiments in the form of Flawless, The Killer Inside Me, and All Good Things all debuting on VOD prior to theatrical releases. However, it was when Kevin Spacey’s 2011 bank crisis drama Margin Call raked in $10 million from VOD along with $5m from North American theaters, $19.5m worldwide that Hollywood realized VOD was a legitimate secondary distribution network for feature films.
Since then, the sheer volume of films experimenting with day-and-date theatrical/VOD or pre-theatrical VOD releases has exploded. There have been some big success stories…we think. Arbitrage (starring Richard Gere) racked up $12m from VOD (compared to $7m from North American theaters, $35m worldwide), the Adam Scott/Lizzy Caplan comedy Bachelorette has finished north of $5m on VOD (compared to less than $1m from theaters), Ryan Gosling’s Only God Forgives scored $2.4m in VOD (compared to $1m from theaters), and something like the Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson comedy Drinking Buddies made back its entire half a million budget on VOD but less than that from theaters.
Or at least we think that’s how much they made from VOD. The studios don’t actually volunteer VOD sale information because they don’t have to. So, we don’t have neat charts to check out on Rentrak or Box Office Mojo for this kind of thing. Instead, sometimes all we can do is look at the rankings for the top 10 rentals on VOD, and assume from there that something like Belle showing up high on that list must mean it’s doing well.
So, the first barrier for VOD was whether or not theaters would actually exhibit a movie which was already available online because theaters historically have a hard-and-fast rule of demanding a 90-day window in which the film is only playing in theaters. Bubble came along and showed that under the right circumstances a handful of theaters are willing to be flexibile. Then there needed to be something which actually made pretty big money on VOD. Margin Call and Arbitrage did that. Now, there needs to be something that comes along to erase the stigma of VOD being the safe haven for those films which are simply not good or commercial enough for theaters.
That brings us to Snowpiercer, a science-fiction action thriller from director Bong Joon-ho starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, and Jamie Bell (and those are just the actors American audiences would know). It has an international cast, ambition up the wahzoo, and a heady mix of action and thought-provoking story. It was good enough to gross over $80m internationally, and has received universal acclaim from critics. Yet The Weinstein Company just couldn’t figure out what to do with it, as Radius (Weinstein’s specialty division) President Tom Quinn recently told KCRW’s Kim Masters:
This was a film that fell in that middle ground of somewhere in-between a limited, indie release or a wide release, and that’s largely a no-man’s land littered with box office failures. So, the idea to greenlight a conservative prints & advertising spend of $15 million didn’t quite make sense when I looked at the most comparable titles, Children of Men and Drive. I think they both fit the same review profile, they each grossed approximately $35m in the U.S.. It’s not an exact science, but where do you place Snowpiercer in that paradigm? If we’d even get to $35m you’re still banking on spending somewhere between $15-25m on advertising even though we’d only recoup around half of that $35m in ticket sales from the theaters.
Plus, there was the additional fee of how much they put down to purchase the film to begin with since they didn’t actually make the movie but bought it after it had been completed. So, they put it in theaters for a couple of weeks, dropped it on VOD where it has made $12m, and then continued playing it in theaters (where it is at just below $5m), although only in those theaters which were okay with exhibiting a movie which was already available to rent online. This strategy has been hotly debated with many completely disagreeing with Quinn’s assessment, arguing that Snowpiercer could have easily been turned into a box office hit if they had at least tried. Some of that seems to be generated by critics who want Hollywood to be a place that gives us films more like Snowpiercer than Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Since then films like Frank and Leprechaun: Origins have employed similar release strategies, and Radius’ own The One I Love was quietly dumped on VOD with absolutely zero advertising several weeks before its theatrical release, kind of as an experiment to see if It could build word of mouth organically. But there remain many in Hollywood who think VOD is only a suitable option as a last resort, e.g., IFC, Magnolia, and Roadside Attractions have embraced VOD whereas Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics have not.
However, Snowpiercer seems to have gone a long way toward erasing the VOD stigma because with the ever changing way in which we watch movies it doesn’t so much matter if we saw something on our computer or in a big theater. A good movie is a good movie, regardless of venue, and at least as of right now a lot of those types of movies are on VOD.