Day and Date Film Release Conversation

September 18, 2014
posted by sheric

It is really great to see a festival get their industry panel videos online so quickly after the event. So few events do this in a timely manner and some never get around to editing and uploading their recordings. Toronto International Film Festival just wrapped and already their Youtube channel is populated with some of the great discussions had at this year’s industry conference. I have embedded this video discussion on day and date film releases that you can watch in its entirety (51 mins), but I will summarize the information if you are in a hurry. I’m going to add in a little commentary of my own, so if you want to pure version, watch the video.

What is the biggest challenge for the day and date distribution model?
Answers on this varied as 2 representatives were from the US where day and date has be tried a number of times by companies such as Roadside Attractions, TWC Radius, and Magnolia (as high profile examples), but is actually illegal in France where the other 2 participants are from. For distributors, the challenge is knowing which films to give a day and date release and which to open as a platform release to retain the 90 day theatrical window. Most theater chains in the US will not allow a day and date release film to play in their cinemas so this kind of release still remains a challenge rather than the norm.

Internationally, not only are there language barriers to sort out (sometimes over 20 different languages), but it is challenging to release in all territories in a timely manner that will reduce piracy. Since the bigger films are known about all over the world (thanks internet), the public expects to get access quickly and not have films released over 6 months to a year time period.

In much of Europe, there is a strong lobby to maintain a long theatrical window. Over time, things will change to reflect both the consumer viewing habits and the amount of revenue that will be lost if producers are not allowed to explore different release strategies. “Welcome to New York” is an example of taking a film straight from its Cannes premiere, where it received maximum publicity exposure, and going straight to VOD in France, completely bypassing the theatrical window and the strict no day and date policy. The move was meant to send a message to exhibitors that if they maintain their position, they will lose support of the producers.

What kinds of films make sense for a day and date release?
“Good name cast, good genre and/or films with an already established following” are films that makes sense for day and date and also for any VOD release. It is the name brand or strong genre recognition that sells in a crowded marketplace where there is now a glut of content being produced and released every week. “A comedy or thriller with A list cast” is the perfect candidate for day and date or VOD success. Also important is compelling key art and description. When consumers search VOD menus, they are drawn to the artwork and then to the description in making their buying decision.

Social media plays a role when the director or the cast have large followings that can be leveraged at the time of release (hear that social media phobes?). Films that don’t have A list cast, but do have cast with large online followings can find success in digital release.

Will major studios ever use day and date as their main release strategy?
Warner Bros. released Veronica Mars this way last Spring. They used 3rd party bookers (rather than in-house) and a 4 wall distribution method for the theatrical release. They specifically partnered with AMC Theatres chain along with a few other smaller theaters and grossed over $3mil domestically. The connection to an already existing fanbase really worked. Working with exhibitors and making it financially worth their while (4 wall fees) was a way for them to experiment much like the smaller independent distributors. The Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions partnership allows Lionsgate to distance itself from the day and date model because it leaves the theater bookings to Roadside and other 3rd parties.  Lionsgate’s good relationship to exhibitors stays protected while it picks up ancillary distribution rights for bigger indie releases.

As far as a studio releasing Star Wars or some other high profile title as a day and date, probably won’t happen for a long time.  There is real money to be had in VOD, maybe even tens of millions on a release. But the aspirations of a studio release exceed what day and date can provide at the moment.

What is the pricing model for day and date? Do you think premium pricing will work?
There is price sensitivity even though the sales pitch for premium pricing is multiple viewers can watch at home for one flat fee.  Mixed results have happened where a film was priced at $30 for VOD 6 weeks after its theatrical debut.

No matter what pricing is put in place, exhibitors are still pushing back on the idea of day and date.

Are filmmakers starting to accept day and date as a release strategy?
Filmmakers still want their films to go out theatrically, not for financial reasons, but because they believe it gives them more recognition; more press coverage and also because it feels more legitimate for them. They aren’t wrong. Many broad publications will not cover a film that goes straight to VOD and much of the public still views a film that is in theaters as more “legitimate” than one that goes straight to home video.

But Abel Ferrara was happy to make “Welcome to New York” available VOD only and be the first film to do that in France. In fact, Jean-Luc Godard expressed his jealously during Cannes this year. He wanted to do the same with his film.  With Ferrara’s previous film, 4:44 Last Day on Earth released in 2011, it did only 20,000 admissions in France. This film did over 200,000 sales  and the share split in each sale was close to 4 Euro . The number of sales went up, but so did the amount of revenue because traditional theatrical splits are not very good. It is very important to note this! While number of sales on VOD may not look good on paper, the revenue splits are often better.

But the “Welcome to New York” release did get publicity out of Cannes, so a high profile festival debut can often get the big publicity needed to propel a film to success on immediate VOD release (for smaller profile examples see Sound City and Indie Game which both launched at Sundance and capitalized on that publicity). This publicity strategy is highly dependent on playing a festival that is likely to attract a lot of media attention. The “Welcome to New York” example was powered by a name auteur director (Ferrara), a name French star (Gerard Depardieu) plus co star Jacqueline Bisset, a massive festival (Cannes) and the fact that they were a “first” for direct to VOD in France. None of these publicity angles are easily replicated for a typical indie film.

IFC Films has a core business commitment to day and date releases and treats those films to the same full publicity push that they would give to a more traditionally released film. They get cast on the late night talk shows. They do press screenings and interview junkets. A list cast is bookable and that really helps. They handle day and date films like  ”real” release.  Bear in mind, this means they aren’t sparing much marketing expense! But instead of only reaching 10 cities with a theatrical, they are reaching millions of homes all for the same marketing expense.

Where do you stand on whether VOD numbers get reported? Will there be widespread acceptance of releasing numbers publicly?
VOD number do get reported. They are reported to producers, to directors, to investors. There is transparency in that relationship. The complication in making them public lies in a constantly changing marketplace and in confidentiality clauses of contracts (ie, not everyone gets the same deal and the industry doesn’t want that widely known).

Also there is a lack of context around those numbers so they aren’t easy to interpret. With box office, you can see a gross revenue number, see how many theaters the film played in, see the per screen average and know roughly the average ticket price paid. But VOD is a whole different animal. There is a myriad of platforms, all have their own pricing strategies, their own promotional positioning at play (exclusives, pre theatrical sales, “now in theaters” sections). VOD encompasses cable, download to own, paid streaming/rental, subscription license fees, ad supported streaming.  So “the public” would be confused about what constitutes a “good” number.  (Caution: my own commentary ahead)

This is reported revenue as marketing ploy. What industry is scared of is opening weekend VOD numbers won’t tell the whole story because VOD is still a series of windows. Revenue builds up over time. But so does a theatrical platform release. Opening weekend in 4 cities is not telling the whole picture of a theatrical release, but those numbers are reported and then added to as the runs are widened. Anyone can see that on Boxoffice Mojo. All of the years letting theatrical grosses be a publicity angle for journalist reporting on the “success” and “value” of a film is coming back to bite because audiences are using this information to make purchasing decisions. A low number in VOD sales is likely to be reported as a flop and drive audiences elsewhere. But this also happens in theatrical release where a film doesn’t open to big numbers, but still chugs along in the long term to actually make a profit. Not the flop it was reported to be. Most that the time, that profit is never a story because the film is no longer new. I’m just not buying this argument. It is the American mania of having to have BIG numbers to show the film has value that is driving this reluctance to report. (end of commentary).

The point was brought up that reporting these numbers is valuable to gain acceptance of releasing this way, especially to show agents and talent (and press) that a day and date release is legitimate. The French participant said it isn’t about having big numbers in Europe, but about convincing film bodies and filmmakers that there are many ways viewers are choosing to watch films and whatever way they choose that involves paying to watch should be embraced. France is the only market where VOD numbers went down last year because of the stringent rules about the length of the theatrical window. One could take this to mean more people chose to go the the theater….or one could take this to mean that there was a lot of piracy going on so sales numbers declined.

You know what VOD numbers do get covered in some press? Pirated films and the estimated number of downloads they receive. Why would it not be worth reporting how many people have paid to digitally view a film?

Will Netflix ever be a bigger part of the day and date model?
There doesn’t seem to be a vested interest on Netflix’s part to make that happen and they don’t seem bothered by the fact that releases on Netflix appear a few months after theatrical and transactional windows. What they want is real awareness of the film by their subscribers. This either comes from the promotion of a theatrical release or it comes from the name recognition of the actors or director. Like all businesses, they have evolved over time. Originally, they were very keen to pick up and support small independent films. But now they have collected years worth of data from their subscribers and are allowing their algorithms and data collection to guide their licensing strategy. It makes complete business sense to rely on what your customers actually watch and license work accordingly. Subscribers want films they have heard of from people they have heard of.

Will exhibitors be brought into revenue sharing for day and date releases?
It is in process now. 4 walling fees have softened the blow for exhibitors so that is why some will allow a day and date to go forward. They also receive 100% of the concession stand revenue. But that method is almost always a loss for the distributor who has to front the cost of 4 walling and all of the promotional costs of the film, even though they get 100 % of the ticket revenue.  Some exhibitors may also discount the cost of the 4 wall fee in exchange for a percentage of the VOD revenue.

In closing, all agreed that there will be major changes to release models all over the world within 5 years. For the full discussion, access the video below.

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