PARIS– Cannes Film Festival did not find room for Abel Ferrara’s “Welcome to New York,” a fictional narrative based on Dominique Strauss-Kahn’ sex scandal, in its official selection but that didn’t keep the movie from making a large impact on VOD, scoring over 120,000 sales, following its high-profile launch orchestrated by Vincent Maraval’s Wild Bunch on May 17. Variety caught up with Maraval to chat about the upside of the experiment, its eventual impact on French laws regarding theatrical and digital release windows and the company’s plan to launch a TWC/Radius-inspired VOD label.
Why did you decide to release “Welcome to New York” directly on VOD?
Last year in Cannes we realized the movie was much anticipated and we knew we would have to release it on at least 600 copies and spend a lot in P&A to have it reach its box office potential. But then we figured, why should we spend so much in P&A to release it in theaters when we know the movie is not going to be acquired by Canal Plus because of self-censorship, because of threats from Anne Sinclair, etc.
Going the digital route allowed us to tap into TV advertising which is banned for theatrical releases, have the trailer shown for free on platforms and reach about 20 million people. We didn’t have to pay for VPF (virtual print fees) and advertising in theaters, and it doesn’t cheap. Last year, I spent almost 3 million Euros in virtual print fees and advertising in theaters.
“Welcome to New York” was the ideal movie to test a digital release, not only because it had not been acquired by TV channels but because it has sparked so much curiosity and anticipation since we unveiled a trailer in Cannes last year, we knew it would be a big event.
We had shown a longer version of the movie to Venice festival and they wanted the film but we decided to hold the movie because it wouldn’t have been ready for the VOD. We figured Cannes would be the best place to launch the film and have it roll out on digital platforms simultaneously to reach the widest possible audiences faster and prevent piracy.
The movie needs to be event-worthy enough to justify such a big experiment. We could have spent €400K in P&A instead of €1 million but we figured we should do the full-blown experiment to see what results it yields.
Didn’t you consider releasing the film day and date in France?
We would have preferred to release the movie day and date in France but since the window release schedule forbids it, we had to decide between theatrical and digital and we chose digital.
The irony is that we were approached by many exhibitors. The arthouse exhibitors have nothing against day and date. The ones who really oppose it are Canal Plus and the big circuits, including UGC and the Pathe-Gaumont Europalaces. They are strong lobbying groups and they don’t want anything to change to preserve their positions which is normal
What would have happened if you had given the movie to select theaters? What kind of penalty would you have faced?
We would have been fined for each ticket sold.
It’s cheaper to promote a film for a VOD release than a theatrical one but can you get as much upside for a VOD release?
The upside we get with a VOD release is at least as advantageous as with theatrical. The revenue sharing deals with have with platforms are two times higher than with theatrical. We got all the platforms on board: Orange 24/24 / FilmoTV / la box de SFR / iTunes / Canalplay / MyTF1VOD / Google Play / Videofutur / Virgin Mega. The only one which didn’t play the game was France Television (the country’s public broadcaster) and it’s not a coincidence.
Do you think a smaller film or a movie which is not necessarily anticipated like “Welcome to New York” can make an impact and be successful on VOD?
Auteur films are the main victims of France’s window release schedule.
In the U.S., when specialty divisions – the Miramax, Paramount Classic, Warner Classic, Focus — disappeared, what allowed auteur cinema to exist was IFC, Magnolia and a bit later Radius because they started releasing films day and date and were able to reduce P&A spending on movies.
Surely, with smaller films it doesn’t make sense to spend one million Euros in marketing. But if you can manage to sell 40,000 or 50,000 views, VOD is a more viable model than theatrical because on smaller movies, the TV sales are near-inexistent and the P&A is still high in a market like France.
In most cities outside of Paris, people read in the major newspapers (Le Monde, Liberation, Le Figaro and Telerama) articles and reviews about movies which they can’t see. It’s a big market share that we’re losing.
With the VOD day and date with theatrical, we could generate some profit which could allow us to organize a more significant campaign, spend more on P&A and release a film in 20 copies instead of one because we know we could recoup some of our investment with the VOD.
But can a small movie attract enough people simultaneously theaters and on VOD in the case of day-and-dating?
We have many examples showing that VOD doesn’t cannibalize theatrical. For example in the U.S., Arnaud Desplechin’s “Kings and Queen” did $700,000 at the box office in the U.S. whereas “Un Conte de Noel” which was released theatrically and on VOD scored $1.3 million.
So you would consider launching a service like TWC/Radius in France if this experiment is satisfying?
We’ve been considering launching a label like Radius in France to release films on a digital platform in a big way, promote them like blockbusters because we have access to TV advertising.
We see platforms like Radius as an alternative. More and more French producers are dependent on Canal Plus to finance their movies which gives Canal Plus a power on the life or death of movie which is a burden they should be spared of.
Today is this new digital model works, producers can seek private investors to raise the financing for their movies and allow them to recoup on VOD sales.
But apart from a few exceptions like “Welcome to New York,” most films that aren’t bought by a TV channel have a very limited commercial appeal.
That’s not true any longer. Canal Plus doesn’t only decline smaller auteur films. If they are proposed a big comedy with cast but they don’t like the script they’ll just say no. And they have a right to do so. There are also a lot of great independent American movies which aren’t picked up by Canal Plus.
So what revenues are you targeting to consider this experiment as profitable?
If we had chosen to release the film theatrically we could have certainly sold it to Netflix or to other services which don’t have a vested interest in the Parisian political circles and don’t care about pressures from Anne Sinclair or whoever. We could have gotten about 120,000 Euros out of these deals. So our break-even point is 120,000 VOD and we’ve already reached it. Whatever we sell beyond 120,000 views is profit.
There have been countless debates on the release schedule of films in France but nothing has been done so far. Do you feel that what you’ve done with “Welcome to New York” can help shake things up?
The reports conducted by Rene Bonnell and Pierre Lescure are calling for a more flexible window release schedule to allow certain films to obtain a permit to be released differently than others.
But what we need is to let producers and distributors decide on the most adapted release schedule for their movie, the way it’s done in the U.S.. In the States, it’s a very liberal system where every decision is reached through negotiations. And still, most films there are released first in theaters, four month later on DVD/Blu Ray, and after six month on VOD, which is a window schedule that’s very close to what we have in France.
In any case, we urgently need to shorten the window between theatrical and digital — discussions have been in a limbo for a almost a year and in the meantime, pirates are having a blast in France.