Tuesday, December 4, 2012

2012 in film: Pre-Theatrical VOD goes mainstream...

This will be the first in a series of essays detailing 'the year in film', spotlighting certain trends (mostly positive, I'm taking a break from complaining for a bit) of the nearly finished year.  Obviously I can't amass a best-of list until I see a few more alleged gems, mainly Les Miserables and Django Unchained, but I can start a retrospective of the movie year that was 2012.   

Normally when a film opens with $3,181 on three screens it's considered a pretty big flop.  Yet this past weekend saw the theatrical release of the surprisingly very good Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which marked the proverbial end of a seemingly successful run on pre-theatrical video on demand.  I say 'seemingly' because studios aren't yet releasing the proverbial grosses of films on this format, even ones that debut on VOD prior to theatrical release (Bachelorette made news as the top iTunes download on its opening week, but we have yet to know how much money that is).  It's release followed on the heels of Barry Levinson's The Bay, which is quite frankly the scariest American horror film I have seen since Frank Darabont's The Mist.  It opened in theaters and VOD on the same day and earned a whopping $30,000 during a two-week theatrical run.  Following the somewhat surprising VOD performance of Margin Call, which debuted day-and-date in theaters and VOD and rang up decent numbers on both formats (the $3.5 million picture earned $16 million worldwide in theaters), 2012 has seen an explosion of pre-theatrical and/or day-and-date theatrical/VOD content like never before. The sheer amount of content, relatively high-quality content, available on VOD amounts to a second film release schedule.

Yes Magnolia (the distributor of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) has been at this game for several years now, but this year we've seen Roadside Attractions (aligned with Lionsgate) and Radius-TWC (an arm of The Weinstein Company) join Magnolia and the ever-expanding IFC to offer theatrical features at home prior to their theatrical debuts.  What has been created this year has been something arguably more valuable than 'I get to see theatrical films at home before they are in theaters!'.  What has been created this year is a veritable second rung of theatrical features, arguably made up of just the kind of 'adult films' that until recently were in somewhat short supply.Yes we're still in a situation where a theatrical release (even a token one on a few theaters) and/or major stars helps separate the wheat from the chaff (and even then, beware the likes of Amber Alert).  But for the first time in history, a critic could arguably make up an entire top-ten list form entirely from films that debuted on VOD prior to or at the same time as theaters, or at least craft such a list comprised of a handful of such entries.

How many critics like myself will choose The Bay as the year's scariest horror entry?  How many critics will choose Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning as the year's best action picture?  How many critics will put the likes of Arbitrage ($22 million worldwide, natch) on their best-of list?  No matter whether I think the rather good Bachelorette is good enough for year-end inclusion (I don't), I wouldn't bat an eye if another critic disagreed.  What the expanded VOD platform has created is a new revenue stream that in turn creates a marketplace for smaller, character-driven, and/or experimental films (Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning plays with its mythology in ways Skyfall could only dream of) that nonetheless feel like the kind of movies that would have gotten wide theatrical releases just a decade ago (just asking Bachelorette's Kirsten Dunst, who was the face of controversy-free female-driven comedy back in the late 90s/early 2000s).  Yes, I've complained before about seemingly mainstream films suffering death-by-platform release and it could be argued that a film like Arbitrage being denied a wide theatrical release is still a kind of tragedy.  But the film now finds itself being a big fish (arguably the biggest such fish of 2012) in a newly growing pond.  And it's tough to argue that the core audience for pre-theatrical VOD (older audiences who want grown-up films but don't have the time and/or don't like movie theaters) hasn't created a new incentive for the future financing of more movies along the lines of Save the Date or Margin Call.

This isn't a case of 'soon The Avengers 2 will be debuting on VOD at the same time as theaters!', because I'd argue such a thing will never ever happen.  This is even better, with the VOD platform creating a kind of secondary theatrical release schedule that is filled with quality adult genre fare that would otherwise finding itself dying in a handful of art house theaters while The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes up four screens at the local multiplex.  With a growing number of mini-major studios making their product available for first run viewing to the very audience most likely to seek it out, we now have a secondary theatrical release system that can co-exist right alongside the more mainstream blockbuster-ish major studio entries.  For those who want to see films, especially something other than the week's latest would-be tentpole, right when they 'come out', this is among the most exciting developments in recent years.  Video on Demand has become a place where would-be arthouse fare can rule the proverbial roast, free of the burden of competing with the likes of The Dark Knight Rises or Prometheus.  Now if they could just start including subtitles for those of us who put the television too close to the kids' bedrooms...

Scott Mendelson                   

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