Possible solutions to the problem of access

9 February 2012

don't mistake the Golden Globe statuette for some kind of sex toy. Or, in the state of Texas, an "educational model."

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.

from Kevin Smith's Red State

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.

7 Responses to “Possible solutions to the problem of access”

  1. JustMeMike Says:

    There is news about this being done.

    Mel Gibson’s ‘Get the Gringo’ will be released directly to PPV via Direct TV. Scheduled for May 1st – this film will completely bypass the theaters. The price will be $10.99.

    Following its run on Direct TV, the DVD and Blu-Ray will be released.

    Of course, I don’t have Direct TV. I am a Comcast Cable subscriber, so I won’t be seeing this one either. While Gibson may not be everyone’s 1st choice as either a director or an actor – at least there’s activity heading in the same direction as your proposal.


    • Didion Says:

      The words “straight to video” have been anathema to serious filmmakers for a couple of decades now — and I totally get it. But as a result some terrific film doesn’t get seen at all in time for awards seasons, at least until the DVD gets released.

      So yeah, maybe Mel Gibson isn’t shooting for the next Academy Awards. But why shouldn’t BBC Films (which is distributing Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin) seek out greater revenue by going with some kind of iTunes deal? As of Jan. 29 it was still only showing on 10 screens in the US, and I can assure you that none of them were within New England — which seems like, ahem, maybe a good place to screen it.

      Again, as a writer myself I understand the desire to find audiences; and the current system has failed utterly, and even for some of the very best films.

      Another note: Boston theaters are showing the Oscar-nominated short films (both live-action and animated) — a great effort to get filmgoers to see these shorts that would otherwise be near impossible to see. Cheers to that effort, I say. And again, let me reiterate that I’d be willing to pay for home access to them.

  2. JustMeMike Says:

    Agreed. Straight to video doesn’t have a favorable cachet to it. In that sense, ‘cachet’ isn’t the right word at all.

    But straight to Pay Per View otherwise known as On Demand does have a different flavor to it.

    I’m willing to pay as well.

    As you say, why wouldn’t a big studio at least be willing to make their films more accessible. More accessible = more revenue? Right? At least that’s what one would think.

    But the film industry still believes in film theater tickets sold, and DVD’s sold. To buttress that argument – in the latest and decidedly bad news – Netflix is going to have to wait 56 days AFTER THE DVD release before they can make it available. At least for Warner Bros. films.

    Seems like a real dilemma doesn’t it. They want the Oscar Glory – which is the just the voting of the Academy members – and at the same time they’re willing to put a prestigious film into just 10 theaters in the whole country. Likely the same thing will happen for The Lady – Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi.

    I guess we are at the mercy of the industry who not only make the content but then they decide who can see it. I can understand theatrical revenues – and toons/animations, action films, rom-coms and films made from video games will sell better than Kevin or The Lady or even The Flowers of War.


    • Didion Says:

      Argh, this is terrible news re: Warner Bros. It’s just like the music industry, isn’t it — in the face of shrinking revenues, big corporations fail to think creatively and instead think, how can we squeeze every living cent out of the current system?

      I’m not the biggest fan of Kevin Smith’s films, but I’m a big fan of his DIY business model. I can only hope other filmmakers who aren’t backed up by big distributors join suit and change the industry from outside.

  3. […] Thanks to the NFPF, the film was restored and given a new score by composer Michael Mortilla. But unless you were lucky enough to see the premier of the restored film in Los Angeles in September, the film might as well be lost all over again. And you know how I rant about access. […]

  4. […] of these awards – awards dedicated to those women bosses of 2011 films — I got mired in a snit about the fact that I couldn’t get access to a couple of major films that were contenders for awards. Problem solved: if I couldn’t see your film, it’s been […]

  5. […] Why can’t I watch all the nominated short films on iTunes or some other service? (Here I go again with my complaints about access.) […]

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