Cable operators struggle to sell arthouse titles

The potential of video-on-demand to widen the audience for indie film is one of the great hopes of the struggling sector.

Distributors like IFC, Magnolia and now Tribeca Films have been offering films on VOD the same date — or even earlier — than they hit theaters or debut at film festivals.

But for all the optimism, there is still the question of how cable operators can market these often-obscure films to their subscribers.

IFC Entertainment prexy Jonathan Sehring labeled his company’s recent experiment with the Sundance Film Festival, in which three films premiered via Sundance Selects on VOD day-and-date with the festival, a “terrific success.” (Sundance Selects and IFC both are part of Rainbow Media, a subsidiary of Cablevision.) The best of the Sundance offerings had 30,000 purchases in its 30-day VOD window. As a means of comparison, some 40 million households could access it. (IFC also recently partnered with South by Southwest.)

The cable channels showing VOD films, which need to also promote Hollywood pics, don’t appear to devote much effort to tubthumping indies to their viewers.

But help may be on the way, says Robert Benya, president and CEO of InDemand, which creates and delivers VOD and pay-per-view content to cable systems serving some 40 million subscribers. (Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner are among its owners.) He says cable operators are working on new tools to allow for better promotion via improved navigation of the folders — or separate categories — on their VOD platforms.

“We would love for them to be more robust, to be able to support box art and have Web-browsing capability,” he says. “The cable operators are working on that and those kinds of navigation solutions will appear as newer set-top boxes come out. They will have more memory and higher processing capability, so there will be a way to ingest the artwork and the other searching mechanisms that typically take up a lot of memory.”

Meanwhile, cable operators are teaming with studios, spending $30 million promoting VOD options with the Video Store Just Moved In campaign. Though the effort will likely emphasize box office hits, promoting the idea of VOD in general could spill over to help specialty titles.

Benya’s greatest hope, he says, is for cable systems to upgrade to the latest standardized interactive technology — called EBIF — that allows VOD customers to create playlists and receive recommendation lists based on their interests. “That’s going to help the little guy in the long run,” he says.

Cable operators are bullish about the expansion of day-and-date specialty titles on VOD, Benya says.

Beginning April 21, Tribeca Film is partnering with InDemand to offer for the first time national VOD purchase of seven films premiering at this year’s fest, along with five other titles. Cable operators are being urged to create a special Tribeca Film category on their VOD listings channel.

Geoff Gilmore, chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises, says cable operators didn’t need much persuasion to begin carrying Tribeca films as VOD offerings.

“We know (they) got excited about one major aspect — we’re doing this day-and-date with the festival. They could go to their audiences and say, ‘This is something happening right now and we want you to access it at the moment it occurs.'”

But there is a drawback to VOD growth. In secondary markets that traditionally get theatrical releases of arthouse titles months after big cities, VOD seems to be crimping B.O. In Dayton, Ohio — served by Time Warner cable — the downtown Neon arthouse last year drew only about 150 people for a one-week engagement of “Che” (which had earlier grossed $1.5 mil theatrically); 200 for one week of “Summer Hours” and under 300 for two weeks of “In the Loop” — all IFC releases available on VOD.

“We hold out hope people want to see them theatrically,” says manager Jonathan McNeal. “By the time we get them, IFC is not investing any more in a marketing campaign. They’re just happy to get a theatrical date.”

IFC’s Sehring doesn’t deny that. “I don’t think anybody is supporting a movie like they used to a couple years ago. There are times when newspaper advertising is the most effective way, but for specialized movies, it’s not the only way.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more