Friday, April 27, 2007

Simultaneous Release: Sound Strategy or Mere Ploy?

Have you noticed it? You walk past the local movie theater and see an ad for that documentary or dumb comedy you’ve been waiting to see. You promise yourself that you’ll catch it in theaters but you can’t make time, and within two weeks it’s gone, no longer playing. Normally you’d expect to wait months for the video, but a trip to Blockbuster proves surprising – it’s already available on DVD.

Yes, the time frame between a film’s theatrical release and its appearance on video store shelves is getting smaller. Facing competition from Internet piracy and websites like, Hollywood distributors are starting to abandon the age-old tradition of staggered release dates for shorter time frames between theatrical and DVD distribution. In fact, some distributors are eliminating that window of time entirely. It’s a distribution move called simultaneous multi-platform release, and it’s coming to a theater, TV screen, and DVD player near you.

The concept is simple: instead of releasing a film in theaters and waiting months or even years for it to become available for home viewing, distributors are removing that time window by releasing films in theaters, on DVD, and through digital on-demand cable all on the same day. Though the technique has been used mostly on small budget, independent films that normally wouldn’t get distribution, the strategy challenges one of Hollywood’s most basic – and lucrative – traditions.

The idea for such a radical form of distribution stems from “the belief that the choice as to how consumers view films should rest with the consumer and that theatrical, DVD and Internet forms of distribution need not threaten each other, and may indeed be mutually complimentary,” says John Lentaigne, producer of the film EMR, a deft thriller about drug addiction and paranoia shot for under $100,000 in both the UK and the US by James Erskine and Danny Mccullough. Distributed simultaneously in theatres, on DVD and over the Internet on July 15th, 2005 by a fledgling independent company in the UK called Dogwoof Digital, EMR was the first film to ever to attempt the simultaneous release strategy.

“Our main belief is that simultaneous releasing gives opportunities to release small independent films that are otherwise uneconomical to release,” says Andy Whittaker, CEO of Dogwoof Digital. “We hope to build an audience and give the audience a choice of when, where, and how they watch the film.”

“One of our biggest challenges is distribution,” says Michelle Byrd, executive director of IFP’s New York chapter. IFP – or Independent Feature Project, as the acronym stands for – is a non-profit organization that works to help struggling independent filmmakers find a place for their films. Byrd, who has seen the difficulties of distribution firsthand, believes that simultaneous multiplatform release can do a lot of good for the independent community. “Once you’re done [with your film], how do you actually connect and engage with an audience? I feel that topic is so important,” she says. “Simultaneous release gives filmmakers a way to cover all their bases.”

That belief seems to have caught on. Since EMR’s first attempt at simultaneous release in 2005, three films have followed in its footsteps: A-list director Steven Soderbergh’s improvisational experiment Bubble, released January 27th 2006, Caveh Zahedi’s autobiographical meta-film I Am A Sex Addict on April 12th 2006, and Michael Winterbottom’s docudrama The Road to Guantanamo on June 23rd. They were joined by another, when director Brad Silberling’s 10 Items or Less comes out on December 1st. 10 Items was of particular interest because it was be the first major star vehicle (the film is a road trip buddy comedy featuring Morgan Freeman) to utilize the simultaneous release strategy.

In each of these instances, the simultaneous release strategy seems to have made sense. All were features whose directors felt deserved theatrical release, but for whom such distribution was simply not economically viable. Soderbergh’s Bubble cost a little over 1.5 million dollars, yet went on to gross a mere $145,000 in theaters. Likewise, according to Caveh Zahedi, I Am Sex Addict would have had to gross “one million [theatrically] to put me in the black.” The film performed amiably, but failed to yield much more than $112,000 in revenue. Zahedi says that simultaneous release allowed for his dream of seeing his film on the big screen come true, while also making sure the film turned a profit. “Theatrical distribution is so high a risk that video on demand suppresses it. It’s a way of [distributors] protecting themselves, I don’t think they would have released it otherwise.”

Zahedi’s distribution story is particularly interesting in that it exhibits some of the problems with simultaneous release, as well. Originally expecting to see his film in cities across the nation, Zahedi received word a week before release that Sex Addict was being pulled from fifteen Landmark Theaters across the country. Landmark Theaters chain owner Mark Cuban pulled the film after he discovered that it was going to be available for viewing on Comcast On Demand, a major competitor of Cuban’s own HDTV/HDNet Films brand. Cuban, as he notes in his blog, is a “full supporter of the simultaneous release platform,” as he believes “that Hollywood’s distribution system requires radical change”. However, his decision to pull the film from theaters exemplifies the reality of the business, and the tricky situations simultaneous release may create.

For now, it seems as though the simultaneous multiplatform release structure may be relegated as a solution for the independent community only. Hollywood won't know the impact of simultaneous release until a studio tries it with a big-budget picture. But staggering the release of a movie between various formats has been a huge source of revenue for many years, and it might not be easy to dislodge such a lucrative, antiquated model. The biggest chain theaters, including AMC Entertainment, Cinemark Entertainment and National Amusements, have openly said they have no interest in carrying a film with a model that could undercut their own business. “We choose films to show based on what we think will fill the seats,” says a manager at City Cinemas Village East. “I wouldn’t choose something that I knew people could see at home.”

However, the consumer will ultimately make the decision. With new video technology appearing on the net each day, and home theater system quality improving, theatrical distribution faces a major threat. But for some, nothing can replace the magic of the theater. “I think it’s cool but it’s not for me,” says Paul Walker, a senior cinema studies student at NYU and employee at Focus Features. “I’m a theater man. I prefer to see films in theaters. But I could see its appeal for others.”

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