As consumers embrace new ways of finding and watching movies, independent distributors need to make sure that audiences know their brand.
In one model of the new film universe that is being floated, films will be released day-and-date in all media in all territories. Personally I imagine that the theatrical platform will maintain an exclusive window for some years to come, even if it is reduced to, say, four weeks, and many argue that even if a film came out in theatres and online on the same day, the theatrical experience is still powerful enough to bring out massive audiences.
But just as happened in the music industry, the film industry is inevitably offering a more limited range of titles to its consumers by traditional means. In the last few years, we have had too many films opening every week. In a few years time, we will have too few. The reason is simple: it doesn’t make financial sense to open certain types of films in theatres any more with the attendant P&A commitment that entails. Now that DVD and TV sales are on the wane, there is no guarantee that the excesses of theatrical spend can be made up in ancillary. VoD will arguably never make up this shortfall.
This change is already manifesting itself in the output of the major studios which are focusing on tentpole movies which can gross $1bn or more in theatrical revenues. So far in 2011, three studio movies have hit that mark and $500m is a realistic target for many of these big budget films. The mid-budget films – romcoms, dramas, star vehicles – are no longer part of the studio story.
In the independent and foreign language sphere, the situation is somewhat different. There are still hundreds of films being made thanks to public funding, soft money and independent finance. Some of these will be bought by the studio distribution infrastructure, but most will chance it in the independent marketplace.
The question is, if it doesn’t make sense to release many of these films theatrically, how will audiences find them? As far as I can see, wide audiences still depend on traditional sources to become aware of new films – media coverage, TV advertising, billboards. If a film is going straight to VoD or even DVD, how do we find out about it? Distributors aren’t going to spend a fortune advertising a film that goes straight to VoD, nor are broadcasters or cable companies. Breakfast TV stations or newspapers aren’t going to want an interview with an actor whose film is going to appear only on demand.
Which brings me to gatekeepers and brands. This is where the power lies and this is where distributors – and exhibitors – will retain their value in the new world. Consumers already know that they can find movies on iTunes, Netflix, Sky, Canal Plus, Amazon or LoveFilm, but the next challenge is for distributors to ensure that consumers know their brand and the type of film they can expect from it. In the US, IFC Films and Magnolia are creating on-demand destinations for their audiences who trust that they will find good, challenging film through those brands. And that is how audiences will find films in the future – through a well-curated and well-known website or on-demand homepage.
The studios have the advantage here in that their long-standing brands are world-famous. An independent distributor, whether that be StudioCanal or eOne across a few territories or local names like Diaphana or Artificial Eye, needs to connect its brand to audiences as a gateway to good films in every medium. When many films will be debuting outside the theatrical space, audiences need to know where to find them.