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Wild Bunch Skirts Theaters With Controversial ‘Welcome to New York’

With French industryites still embroiled in debate over rules for the nation’s theatrical windows, production shingle/sales agent/distrib Wild Bunch engineered an end run with its May 17 VOD-only release in France of Abel Ferrara’s “Welcome to New York.”

Wild Bunch treated “New York” like a theatrical event, even though it intended a VOD-only release. By screening the picture at the Cannes Film Festival with all the pomp and ceremony of an official fest picture — including a press conference and photo call with the movie’s stars, Gerard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset — Wild Bunch built major buzz for the pic, a fictional narrative based on the sex scandal surrounding former Intl. Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The company spent €1 million ($1.36 million) to promote the movie (which has pre-sold worldwide, and will be released in the U.S. this summer by IFC) on nearly every major platform in France.

The experiment appears to have paid off. The film, priced at €7 ($9.52) per order, scored more than 100,000 views in just one week. Wild Bunch co-topper Vincent Maraval called 120,000 VOD sales the break-even point. “Whatever we sell beyond 120,000 views will be profit,” Maraval told Variety, adding that the VOD strategy allowed the distrib to avoid the price of virtual print fees and advertising in theaters, which he says cost the company nearly $4 million last year.

Better still, the plan violated no rules for digital distribution. Only movies that have been bought by French TV are subject to the window-release schedule, which means that they must open in theaters before playing on pay TV and on pay VOD four to six months later; since the movie had been passed over by French pay TV networks and broadcasters, it had every right to be released directly on digital platforms, Maraval pointed out.

Indeed, the decision by TV to bypass the controversial film for political reasons was what led to the unusual strategy.

“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,” Maraval said. “But 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? The revenue-sharing deals we have with platforms are two times higher than with theatrical.”

Going the digital route let Wild Bunch tap into TV advertising, which is banned for theatrical releases, and allowed the company to show the trailer for free on various platforms, which reached about 20 million people, Maraval said.

The experiment’s success has reframed discussions over day-and-dating movies, said Florence Gastaud, general delegate of the ARP (the national guild for authors, directors and producers).

Pierre Lescure, incoming president of the Cannes fest, oversaw a 2013 consultation that delivered proposals which included allowing smaller films to be released day-and-date or straight-to-VOD.

Maraval said Wild Bunch has been considering launching a label that releases films on-demand — like TWC-Radius in the U.S. — because such a strategy would give it access to TV advertising.

“We need to let producers and distributors decide on the best release schedule for their movie, the way it’s done in the U.S.” for certain films, Maraval said. “Discussions have been in limbo for almost a year, and in the meantime, pirates are having a blast in France,” he noted.

Maraval added that French films aren’t the only ones Canal Plus declines, and on which the distrib would be willing to test VOD waters. “There are also a lot of great independent American movies that aren’t picked up,” he added.

Gastaud is hopeful the performance of “Welcome to New York” has brought the issue back to the table. “We’re now hearing that a reform will be proposed early next month and (might) get passed by September,” she said.

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