Fest's pics appeal to young auds

By all accounts, this could be SXSW’s biggest year ever for film pickups. But it’s a good bet that many of the acquisitions will be seen at home before, or at the same time, as in theaters.

Titles screening at the Austin fest seem to have the right mix for day-and-date VOD release: low budgets and appeal to young auds who like to view films at home as much as in theaters. IFC took last year’s $50,000 budget Narrative Feature Film winner “Tiny Furniture” to a $400,000 theatrical gross and, according to an insider, around the same amount in VOD revenue.

After IFC and Magnolia pioneered the release pattern, several newer distribs jumped into day-and-date release. Phase 4 Films is launching its day-and-date release platform with 2010 SXSW Audience Award winner “Brotherhood,” starring Jon Foster. And on April 8, VOD aggregator Gravitas Ventures and Variance Films will each have their first day-and-date release with doc “American: The Bill Hicks Story,” which had its North American premiere at SXSW last year.

When more than 2,800 pre-event registrants attending this year’s SXSW Film, Interactive and Music conferences were asked their favorite way to watch a movie, 67% said “at home, curled up on my couch,” while only 28% — a distant second — said “in a packed theater with an excited crowd.” The other options, computers and mobile devices, were the combined favorites of only 3% of respondents.

Clearly there’s some convergence between SXSW’s broad multimedia audience, the film fest’s programming and an appetite for VOD movies. According to Leichtman Research Group’s 2010 national VOD study, only 57% of cable subscribers ages 18-34, 39% of them ages 35-54 and 32% of them ages 55+ have ever ordered any video-on-demand programming. By contrast, 71% of SXSW pre-registrants — most of them not participating in the film fest — say they use VOD services for watching films.

This willingness to click the remote is just one factor that makes SXSW a potentially strong day-and-date test market and launching pad for the right titles.

“SXSW is a great reflection of the tastes across North America,” said Gravitas Ventures founder Nolan Gallagher. “They program a tremendous variety of genres and mirror the taste of that younger, VOD-using audience.”

“There are a lot of films here done on real shoestring budgets,” said SXSW Film Conference and Festival producer Janet Pierson, who cited the Magnolia pickup “Monsters” as another low-budget hit emerging from last year’s lineup. “If you can take the film out and reach an audience without going into too much debt doing it, there will be some return.”

The debt is key, especially with the high risk involved. “A lot of (SXSW films) don’t have stars, are generally made by first- or second-time directors and shot digitally,” said IFC Films president Jonathan Sehring. ” ‘Tiny Furniture’ didn’t even have a print, initially.”

In order to get these films booked in movie theaters, it can cost an additional $40,000-$50,000 to make a 35mm print and internegative, making low-cost VOD distribution even more attractive.

Variance Films founder Dylan Marchetti said the day-and-date strategy can only work with films that have a strong marketing hook or push, such as the built-in fanbase of his Bill Hicks doc or word-of-mouth built by fest circuit award winners like “Furniture.”

But for low-budget filmmakers with limited options, the success stories and VOD’s appeal to the SXSW demographic may make it a worthwhile gamble.

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