Movie bows increasingly include day-date VOD, streaming options

As buyers descend on Cannes, the number of distributors playing in the multiplatform field of date-and-date releases — and compressed windows in general — is growing.

With distribs looking to speed up returns on their investments and maximize bang for their promotional buck, companies like Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions and the Weinstein Co’s newly launched multiplatform division Radius-TWC are joining longtime VOD-release proponents like IFC and Magnolia to add streaming and video-on-demand options to a pic’s theatrical bow.

More and more often, these are starry, prestige pics with commercial potential — projects more likely to have been traditionally platformed just a few years ago. While minimum guarantees for most indie pics have gotten smaller over the past few years, with producers sharing more of the risk (and more of the potential box office reward), distribs have been increasing the guarantees on select star-driven day-and-date projects, making such deals more attractive to filmmakers.

Distribution sources say some of the competitiveness stems from VOD outlets themselves demanding more big-name premieres in their pipelines.

“We’re a star-driven culture, and on a crowded (VOD) menu, what are you going to be drawn to?” posits WME Global head Graham Taylor, who adds that with marketing budgets skyrocketing, the ability to use a single campaign across closely spaced bows on multiple platforms is an important cost savings.

Arianna Bocco, Sundance Selects/IFC Films senior VP of acquisitions, attributes higher guarantees on select titles to the rebound from 2008-09′s market slump, and the increased competition that’s followed. She adds that salespeople have become more open to day-and-date releases after seeing the results.

Despite appearing on VOD a month before their theatrical release, Magnolia’s “Melancholia” earned $3 million in theaters and a reported $2 million on VOD, topping the $4 million-plus box office takes for each of Lars Von Trier’s two top hits, “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark.” Similarly, “Margin Call” grossed $5.4 million, and it’s estimated that it nabbed $4 million-$5 million on VOD.

While debate over whether the films could have made more money via traditional windows continues, each demonstrated that advance VOD won’t necessarily hurt a film’s theatrical take.

The strategy has earned the ire of exhibs, who feel multiplatforming cuts into a pic’s theatrical potential.

“(It) devalues the content and tells the consumer that the involved movies will never be a big deal,” says National Assn. of Theater Owners prexy John Fithian. “Theaters should not be used as mere marking platforms for home release.”

At Sundance, the comedy “Bachelorette,” starring Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and James Marsden, and “Lay the Favorite,” with Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Vince Vaughn, went to Radius-TWC in deals reported to be in the $2 million range. Lionsgate and Roadside, which teamed on “Margin Call,” picked up the financial-themed “Arbitrage,” starring Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon, for roughly the same price, and attached a comparable release strategy.

One of the biggest compressed-window titles could be “Only God Forgives”; the crime-thriller reteaming of Ryan Gosling and “Drive” helmer Nicolas Winding Refn was picked up by Radius-TWC during production in March, but its release pattern has yet to be announced.

Robert Pattinson’s “Twilight” fanbase is being tested with his period drama “Bel Ami,” now playing on Magnolia’s UltraVOD platform, which makes movies available on-demand before their theatrical release; “Bel Ami” can be rented via select cable or satellite operators ahead of its June 8 theatrical bow. No revenues were available from Magnolia regrading rentals.

This year’s Cannes lineup includes a few star-filled titles with available U.S. rights that might fit the day-date bill: the Reese Witherspoon-toplined “Mud” and Lee Daniels’ “Paperboy.

Aside from this being the first Cannes for Radius-TWC — which is looking for titles in advance of the bow of its inaugural lineup later this year — new day-and-date players at the fest include Cinedigm Entertainment Group and 36-year-old MPI Media Group’s just-launched MPI Films. Both outfits are testing the waters with mixed-martial-arts doc releases.

Cinedigm CEO Chris McGurk plans to fill half of his feature slate of 20-plus pics a year with multiplatform releases via recently acquired content aggregator New Video Group. “(We’re) able to leverage quality deals across the entire spectrum to get access to eyeballs in the home and in mobile,” McGurk says, adding that a low-cost releasing plan on a digital platform alongside 100 to 200 screens can be a profitable model for an indie film.

Other distribs using the multiplatform model for recent fest titles include Oscilloscope (“28 Hotel Rooms”), Wrekin Hill (with its post-Sundance pickup “The End of Love,” featuring Michael Cera and Amanda Seyfried), ARC Entertainment (the Brendan Fraser-starrer “Whole Lotta Sole”) and ATO Pictures, which has its first day-and-date release next month with the Ethan Hawke-toplined Toronto fest thriller “The Woman in the Fifth.” They join frequent day-and-date distribs like Tribeca Film, Phase 4, and the newly partnered Gravitas Ventures and Variance Films. New outfits like Film Arcade have also expressed interest in compressing windows on some future releases.

Another option for filmmakers is to make separate VOD and theatrical deals as part of a compressed-window release. The Duplass Bros. handed theatrical to Red Flag Releasing and ancillary to Fox Searchlight on their SXSW comedy “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” now set for a July 6 VOD/theatrical bow. Half of Red Flag’s eight or so annual releases will be day-and-date, including the docs “#ReGeneration” and “The Green Wave,” both released this summer via its Warner Bros. Digital Distribution output deal.

In a similar move, Focus Features’ new digital-only division Focus World released last year’s Cannes selection “Return” on Feb. 28, and DaDa Films handled the limited theatrical rollout a few weeks before and afterward. While the film’s theatrical take was negligible, the run allowed it to garner positive reviews that can help a film’s ancillary life.

Such mixing and matching is just one way filmmakers are seeking the right recipe for success. “Is a 10-city theatrical what will get you in a certain folder on a VOD cable system?” asks Preferred Content’s Kevin Iwashina. “Can you make money on theatrical, or is it just a loss leader and a marketing play that’s going to enhance your digital? Those are the economics everyone is trying to figure out.”

ATO Pictures partner Johnathan Dorfman says he’s waiting to see how “Woman in the Fifth” plays out this summer before he commits to any more day-and-date titles. “The verdict is still out on what the successes are going to be, and of course you face resistance from exhibitors” he says. “There’s a cost to four-walling (many of the) theaters, (and) you have to add that onto your P&A costs, run the numbers and see if it makes sense.”

His cautious approach is mirrored even by distribs who’ve made multiplatforming a big part of their strategy. Three of Magnolia’s five Sundance pickups will go out via its Ultra VOD program, while two will get a conventional release. And of IFC’s 10 Sundance buys, six will be multiplatformed, with the release strategy for three of the other four yet to be determined.In addition to their labels’ confirmed Sundance title and at least one Toronto buy (“Your Sister’s Sister”), AMC Networks’ pre-Cannes pickup of Walter Salles’ Kerouac biopic “On the Road” will get a traditional theatrical release. The latter will appear via its IFC Films and Sundance Selects labels this fall.’

Ultimately, those who’ve made the biggest buys and have had the biggest success with multiplatform releases still express caution in using the strategy. “(It’s) evolving quickly, and it is unclear what its long-term role will be in film distribution,” says Roadside co-prexy Howard Cohen. “Our first job is to make films work theatrically; specialty VOD is interesting only when it is additive.”

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