In October, Comcast subscribers heard a lot from Edward Burns.
The actor-director’s ninth feature behind the camera, “Nice Guy Johnny,” premiered Oct. 26 on a wide variety of platforms, including iTunes, DVD and Comcast’s Cable On Demand service. The film’s release on VOD coincided with the launching of Comcast’s Indie Film Club, a new folder available to subscribers that exclusively promotes independent films available on demand.
Along with “Nice Guy Johnny,” the club also showcased behind-the-scenes extras and a series of movies Burns singled out as his favorites, including Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.”
Burns says the strategy emerged from his experience with the release of his last film, “Purple Violets,” on iTunes. “It opened our eyes to people’s willingness to embrace these platforms,” he explains. “I have completely fallen out of love with the idea of a theatrical release.”
Despite his optimism, Burns is in a minority in the film community, which still largely views VOD as a intriguing alternative to conventional distribution that nevertheless lacks the marketing campaigns most low-budget films require.
The Indie Film Club marks one significant effort to change that perception. Other initiatives that aim to engage potential VOD consumers include website and newsletter On Demand Weekly, for which Burns pens a column tipping readers to new indies coming to VOD.
He’s also on the On Demand Weekly advisory board.
“On Demand Weekly is a great way to keep people up to date, and I’m excited to be a part of it. I hope my column can bring film fans to VOD and shed more light on some great, new films,” says Burns.
“It allows you to see what the movies are before you buy them,” adds Diana Kerekes, Comcast’s vice president of entertainment services. “We’re trying to give them a programmed, editorial voice.”
The arena for VOD experimentation remains fairly limited, with two cable giants — Comcast and Time Warner — serving as the key outlets for bringing indie films to American households. Both continue to search for a model that works.
“We’ve worked hard to not only carry a wide variety of independent films on demand, but to communicate with our customers so that they know how to easily access this content,” says Time Warner spokesperson Maureen Huff.
Kerekes echoes the sentiment. “We want to give more of a voice to independent film and let people know that it’s accessible to them,” she says, noting that Comcast averages 330 million VOD viewers per month.
Prior to starting the Indie Film Club, Comcast partnered with the Tribeca Film Festival in April to make 12 films from the program available in 40 million homes during the festival. (Among the selections: “Nice Guy Johnny,” which led to Burns’ ongoing relationship with Comcast.)
Tribeca Film chief creative officer Geoff Gilmore says the experience made him hopeful about the prospects of VOD distribution. While Gilmore admits that “all models like this can be tweaked,” he insists that the Tribeca brand, coupled with financial support from American Express, helped bring immense visibility to the films available on the platform.
“We were selling quality,” he says, adding that “you usually can’t sell films to people when they aren’t being driven by stars.”
Gilmore says he’s optimistic about the company’s upcoming forays with VOD. “We’re obviously looking to do this again,” he says. “We were very pleased with the level of success we reached, given the difficulties of marketing indie film.”
Other distributors point out the wide disparity between certain successful VOD releases and their less-impressive theatrical performances. The Magnolia Pictures-released doc “Freakonomics,” for example, grossed under $32,000 in 20 theaters during its opening weekend, but made over $2 million on VOD, according to Magnolia’s president, Eamonn Bowles.
“The cable operators give us a lot of free advertisement and promotion on a level that we could never afford to pay for,” says Bowles, who also points out that they sell the films at a higher purchase price than other VOD selections.
IFC Films, which releases all its films on VOD, had a similar experience with the cult horror film “The Human Centipede,” where word of mouth appeared to have the biggest impact with home viewers.
“I don’t know what superlatives I could use to explain how tremendously it performed on VOD,” says IFC president Jonathan Sehring. “It’s a much better economic model. When you can access potentially 50-60 million paying customers making impulse buys in their living rooms, you’re just able to get at more people at the moment that they’re reading about a movie.”
IFC also continues to release films day-and-date with their festival screenings, forming partnerships with Sundance, South by Southwest and, most recently, Fantastic Fest in Austin.
“It’s still relatively new for the film community to realize what a great tool this is to help connect films with audiences,” Sehring says. “The next four or five years are going to be much better than the past ones.”