Variety Breakthrough Awards Veronica Mars

The major studios may have shuttered their independent film banners, but studio digital divisions are starting to borrow some of the release strategies used to roll out smaller-budgeted movies.

Warner Bros. Digital Distribution promised Rob Thomas a limited theatrical release for a “Veronica Mars” movie if he was able to raise the financing to produce the film.

After turning to Kickstarter to successfully raise over $5.7 million from more than 91,000 people for a feature-length adaptation of the WB-CW TV show, the studio has kept its promise, renting 270 theaters to show the film starting March 14. Most of those are operated by AMC, while 10 are independently-run screens.

But with a small but rabid fanbase, known as Marshmallows, for “Veronica Mars,” Warner Bros. and Thomas know they will make most of their money by renting and selling the film on video-on-demand and online platforms at the same time as the film plays in theaters.

Sources at Warner Bros. say the “Veronica Mars” strategy is a rare exception — a one-off release that isn’t meant to change the way the studio plans to release its films in the future.

The studio stressed that the theatrical release is essentially a make-good to the Kickstarter campaign. It also serves as a way to eventize and promote the mostly direct-to-homevid release, help get it reviewed by critics, and fulfill certain rule requirements come awards season in which films must play in theaters to be considered for some nominations. A spin-off web series for the show is also being produced, while books are being published to keep the franchise alive through other formats.

Last month, Warner Bros. and AMC Theaters posted a full list of the theaters that will show the film on its website.

Ticket sales for an early fan event, on March 13, sold out quickly.

SEE ALSO: ‘Veronica Mars’ AMC Fan Event Sells Out, Prompting Additional Showtimes

Combined theatrical/VOD runs have long been used by companies like IFC, Magnolia, the Samuel Goldwyn Co. and other banners to drum up buzz for their indie titles. “Arbitrage” and “Margin Call” made significant amounts both in theaters and on VOD platforms.

Some have even released films to airlines and hotels before their theatrical releases during a premium VOD window, including Magnolia’s “The Last Days on Mars” and “Best Man Down.”

SEE ALSO: Magnolia to Give Films Pre-Theater Releases on Airlines With Gogo Vision

But Warner Bros. is being closely watched since it’s the first major to release a high-profile pic in theaters and on VOD at the same time. Homevideo releases typically follow 90 days after a film bows in theaters.
“Veronica Mars” is expected to be a rare exception, however, and not necessarily raise the ire of other theater chains. That’s primarily because AMC is one of the few major theater operators that actually rents out its screens to films that bow day-and-date on VOD or within the 90-day window.

In the past, theater owners have been more concerned about pricier tentpoles being made available on homevideo platforms earlier than usual, especially those that feature A-list talent.

In the fall of 2011, Universal Pictures scrapped plans to release “Tower Heist” on VOD — for $60 one-time rental free — three weeks after its theatrical premiere, following boycott threats from major exhibs. DirecTV also abandoned plans to launch select VOD titles 60 days after their theatrical release for $30 rentals after raising the ire of theater owners.

Warner Bros. said it did not receive complaints by other theater owners when it first announced plans to release “Veronica Mars” day-and-date on all platforms last year. It’s likely that’s because of the small number of screens on which it will play.

With its low $6 million budget and little to no marketing campaign being spent around it – Kristen Bell and the rest of its stars are tasked with doing much of the heavy lifting through interviews and social media posts – the “Veronica Mars” movie is more like the direct-to-video sequels the studios make to keep their franchises alive.

Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment is producing sequels for “Jingle All the Way,” “The Tooth Fairy” and “The Marine,” while Universal has built a strong homevid biz around “American Pie,” “Bring It On” and “Death Race” and Disney with its “Tinker Bell” films. In the past, WB also has produced direct-to-homevideo sequels to “The Dukes of Hazzard.” The production budgets of those films fall in the same range as the “Veronica Mars” film.

Still, if “Veronica Mars” proves popular, Warner Bros. Digital Distribution will now have a new way to get those projects onto the big screen and build hype for their sale on online platforms.

And if it doesn’t, AMC was able to make some money by renting its theaters and generate some goodwill among a vocal and loyal fanbase still enamored with Bell’s sleuth.

The National Assn. of Theater Owners declined to comment.

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