Possible solutions to the problem of access
9 February 2012
I mentioned yesterday that in my quest to see a couple of highly-respected art-house films, I’m willing to drive two hours across the state. I understand perfectly that I don’t live in an urban hub with art-house cinémas. But these films aren’t showing in Boston or in any of the other urban areas within two hours of home. Hence, I ranted about limited release, a problem I see as two-fold: I can’t see great film, and great films don’t get my money.
So here’s a solution: some version of Pay Per View. Each filmmaker eager for their film to be considered for award nominations must prove, at least one month before the nominees are chosen, that the film will be accessible to all viewers by the time of that awards show. Filmmakers can give evidence of access either by the usual means (wide release in theaters or, for films released earlier in the year, a DVD) or, for late-year releases, commitment to some form of widely-available Pay Per View — iTunes, Amazon streaming video, cable television, or an independent website (aka the Radiohead/independent music solution), or all of the above.
Thus, in order for the makers of We Need to Talk About Kevin to get its star, Tilda Swinton, nominated for Best Actress for the Golden Globes, they would have had to commit to some form of wide release by November 15, a month before the nominees are chosen. The films’ actual releases would have to occur at least one week before the awards show (December 8 in the case of the Golden Globes) with the idea that ordinary viewers would have the chance to see it beforehand.
If filmmakers cannot guarantee this release, the film will be forced to compete during the following year, when the film is available widely (presumably via DVD).
In other words, this strategy seeks to offer a middle period for award-worthy films in between very limited theater releases and wide DVD release. In that period, filmmakers can reap the benefits of wide viewership — and don’t directors really want people to see their films? — and producers can reap additional financial rewards of extra tickets sold. Streaming a film for $5.99 online is a huge attraction to me, especially if my only other option is to drive to Boston and pay $12 for a theater ticket.
There are precedents for such a move — precedents that have proved both highly profitable and great for public access. After shopping his film Red State (a fictionalized tale of a Fred Phelps-type radical Christian homophobic movement) around in the festival circuit, director Kevin Smith took his own film on the road — the 15-city Red State USA Tour. Smith’s SModcast Pictures says it spent less than $500 in advertising to support the tour, relying instead on reviews and word of mouth to encourage attendance. This decision was stunningly (and quietly) successful: it topped the per-screen average charts for three weekends, making it the highest per-screen average film of the year and the ninth-highest per-screen average film of all time, according to SModcast.
After this taking-it-to-the-streets road tour during the spring of 2011, Smith released the film in September via several online platforms, including iTunes and cable television. Now, several months later, it’s available streaming via Netflix for ordinary subscribers.
Independent musicians have used this method for years now, largely as a protest against the exploitative music industry that reserves most profits for non-artists. It’s a method made most famous by Radiohead’s In Rainbows (2007) which they released via an independent website as a digital download for which customers could set their own price. Guitarist Ed O’Brien reported of this strategy that “We sell less records, but we make more money.” Later, the band released the album in ordinary CD format at regular prices to critical and chart success.
Look, I want to see film, especially those films I’ve been hearing about for eight, nine, or ten months due to early festival screenings. I’m willing to pay to see film. But at least in terms of a few like Coriolanus and We Need to Talk About Kevin, there’s nothing I can do to see them (well, except buy a ticket to New York). These films are getting neither my viewership nor my dollars. You’d think these producers and directors would be at the forefront of experiments in change.