Lionsgate/Roadside release reaps solid returns from multiplatform release

Margin Call” takes a harsh look at Wall Street economics, but in the smaller world of independent film, returns have been bullish.

Bizzers are calling the Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate release a game-changer: In eight weeks of release, the Kevin Spacey-Zachary Quinto drama has become one of the biggest day-and-date video-on-demand releases yet, seeing VOD revenues of well over $4 million while the pic was playing in hundreds of theaters. And the theatrical performance has come as a surprise to many who thought the film’s potential was limited: Pic’s taken $5.1 million in box office, considerably more than most day-and-date VOD releases.

When the story of a group of Wall Street investment bankers at the beginning of the 2008 financial meltdown premiered at Sundance this year, it was well received but didn’t draw as much buzz as some of the fest’s other titles.

With a high-profile cast that also included Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Penn Badgley, Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci, “Margin Call” seemed too starry for smaller distribs, yet the bigger ones were shying away since theatrical prospects weren’t clear for the smart but chilly pic.

Enter Roadside Attractions and sister company Lionsgate, which partnered to acquire the film for $1 million during the fest. They plotted a multiplatform release, making the pic available on VOD and via Web streaming at the same time as the theatrical opening.

It’s become the standard plan for IFC and Magnolia releases, but exhibitor pushback and the fear of leaving theatrical dollars on the table have prevented the use of such a strategy with wider-release titles seen to have more commercial appeal. According to Lionsgate execs, however, variations on the stragegy will become in-creasingly common with bigger films.

“I think the possibility has always been lurking out there,” said Roadside Attractions prexy Howard Cohen. “The question has been picking a movie with potential to do it.”

After a quiet debut for “Margin Call,” momentum started to grow a few months after Sundance. In March, the film by first-time helmer J.C. Chandor was set for the opening-night slot at New York’s prestigious New Directors/New Films showcase. Reviews were stronger than expected — A.O. Scott called the pic “dazzling” and compared it to “The Social Network.” An Oct. 21 release was chosen, partly to distance the release from HBO’s May preem of the similarly themed “Too Big to Fail.”

Buzz grew louder in September, when the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations drew attention to the questionable practices of financial institutions that the film depicts, putting the pic at the center of a national news story.

It was fortuitous timing for “Margin Call” and its publicity campaign, especially given a minimal advertising budget.

“We rode it,” Cohen said. “There was sort of a quantum leap. The New Yorker made it the lead review, Entertainment Weekly did a full page, we got on a lot of hard news shows.”

Later in the release, the pic won a Gotham Award for ensemble performance and first-director awards for Chandor from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. The film landed on the New York Times critics’ best-of-2011 lists just ahead of the DVD release on Tuesday.

Likely not seeing that much box office potential in “Margin Call,” exhibitors didn’t put up the kind of opposition they did when Universal planned to release “Tower Heist” on VOD three weeks after its theatrical bow. But there are still roadblocks to doing a day-and-date release: The only NATO member that will book a film that’s opening the same day on VOD is AMC, while AMC and Landmark require the distrib to four-wall theaters — at a cost of more than a million dollars. The rest of the theaters that booked the pic, which played at 199 locations at its highest point, were independently owned.

“I thought if we don’t try this with a good film, how will we ever know, so it was a conscious decision to push the envelope in that way,” Cohen said.

Interestingly, exit polls two weeks into the film’s release showed that 98% of theatrical filmgoers didn’t know the pic was also available in their living rooms for $6.99, so it seems that VOD didn’t significantly cut into theatrical.

It’s not surprising, since “VOD has a very lousy marketing machine at the moment,” Cohen said.

Nevertheless, video-on-demand returns a much higher percentage to distribs than theatrical rentals do, and the physical costs are much lower, making it an attractive option for distribs.

Given the nascent state of VOD marketing, a recognizable cast is key to getting home viewers’ attention, Lionsgate prexy Steve Beeks said. Magnolia’s 2010 Ryan Gosling-Kirsten Dunst starrer “All Good Things” stands at the top of day-and-date VOD releases, with close to $6 million in VOD revenues but well under $1 million in theaters.

After releasing Kevin Smith’s “Red State” on VOD in advance of theatrical, Beeks said Lionsgate will experiment with a number of models in the coming months, such as a shorter, 91-day window for Taylor Lautner starrer “Abduction.” But “Margin Call,” Beeks said, reps a milestone as the first simultaneous release that also received a strong platform release theatrically.

The user interface is the key to growing the VOD market, according to Beeks. “They’re going to have to throw out the old model and do something different,” he said. “The hope is that five years from now, the user interface looks very different.”

Inevitably, the changing release platforms will cause friction with exhibitors. But despite unsuccessful premium VOD experiments, the cat’s already out of the bag. “We’ve got to find new ways to get to consumers,” Beeks said. “The world has moved on.”

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