Imagine if The Dark Knight or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull initially opened in limited release, and then took a month or so to reach you in "flyover country." But on the same day that they hit those first theaters in New York and L.A., they were also available on your television, via Video on Demand. Would you wait a few weeks to see the blockbusters on the big screen or would you lack the patience and go ahead and download the movies to your cable box? Of course you would choose the VOD route. I probably would, as well.
Despite this column, I cannot claim to be a purist when it comes to theatrical film exhibition. I subscribe to Netflix and even sometimes watch old movies on the Watch Now streaming player. I now own a video iPod, and while I haven't yet tried watching a feature, I have had no problem watching shorts and television episodes on its small screen and am not totally against eventually downloading a whole movie from iTunes. And although New York's Film Forum is currently showing a ton of United Artists classics, many of which I've never seen at all and a number of which I've never seen on the big screen, I haven't been able to make my way to Manhattan to appreciate the retrospective. But I certainly prefer watching movies in a theater to watching them at home (or on the go, in the case of the portable iPod), where I'm easily distracted and/or restless and rarely manage to sit through an entire movie, no matter the length, without pressing the pause button at least once. So, if The Dark Knight or Indiana Jones were available on VOD the same day they opened in my local theaters, there's no way I would stay home. Unfortunately, I know there are a lot of people who would still choose the VOD option. And that's with spectacle-heavy action movies that definitely look better the bigger they're projected.
I know this because there are already a lot of people buying bootlegs and downloading illegal copies, of which blockbusters are indeed the most popular. And there are also a good number of New Yorkers watching VOD versions of films distributed by IFC First Take -- most of which are simultaneously available on the pay-per-view channel IFC InTheaters the same day they open theatrically in Manhattan -- despite the fact that they could easily head over to the IFC Center or another arthouse cinema and watch the film on the big screen (for more money, of course).
At least there will always be a substantial population of New Yorkers who prefer going to the movies, which is evident in the continued success of those IFC releases playing in the city despite their being accessible through local cable service. For example, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is still playing at the IFC Center after nearly three months (maybe when it's been playing for 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 day, they'll have a party), and has grossed more than a million dollars, which is pretty good for a slow foreign film with an unappealing subject matter. Additionally, the film has been offered on VOD in the same time frame and has been IFC InTheaters' most popular title yet.
This week I got to meet the manager of the IFC Center, John Vanco, who I consider one of the last remaining heroes of theater exhibition (how many cinemas choose to show a short film instead of ads before the feature presentation?), and got to hear his defense, as a fellow almost-purist, of the day-and-date releasing strategy of IFC First Take, both as a profitable business model and a benefit to movie lovers.
The first argument is that a film like 4 Months would otherwise take weeks to months to reach people outside the major city areas, long after the media's excitement and discussion of the film has come and gone. Obviously, this is significant in terms of financial success, as it reaches the largest amount of people at the same time it's receiving the most attention, but it is also significant in terms of simply being seen, for the same reason. Plus, for the movie fans, it allows them to be a part of the discussion at its peak.
The second argument is similar, pointing out the difficulties of distributing a film to every corner of the United States theatrically just to make it available to those few cineastes in each and every town. The day-and-date model saves distribution costs while also more-directly reaching the handful of people who want to see 4 Months in any given nook of the nation. And again, it's part of the idea that some films just need to simply be seen.
However, the need to be seen mode of thinking contributes to a number of other problems for both movie lovers and the reputation of theatrical exhibition. This week alone there were two important discussions on this website regarding this subject. Eugene, frustrated with the Philadelphia Film Festival, pointed out how some smaller film festivals are projecting DVD copies of movies, which anyone should know is an improper way to view them. But for the smalltime filmmakers and the geographically obscure audience, it's okay because at least these films are getting to be seen. Right? No way. Not only does the movie look bad, but the term digital projection looks bad, as well. I'd hate to think someone might confuse the quality of DVD projectors with the quality of digital projectors in cinemas.
The other discussion, initiated by Kim, came with this week's release of the English-language dubbed version of Persepolis. This film is specifically more forgiven than others since the filmmakers, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, directed the dub themselves, but it shouldn't be more forgiven just on the basis that it is a film that needs to be seen by as many people as possible, whether they be literate, illiterate or lazily literate.
There is a huge enough difference between a film like 4 Months and a blockbuster like Indiana Jones that it's probably not worth comparing them in a discussion about day-and-date, but I can't help but wonder what would happen to cinemas around the country if suddenly Paramount decided to release its summer tentpole on VOD May 22, the same day it's released in theaters. The idea is not entirely unimaginable; in fact, the head of Rainbow Media (owner of IFC) addressed such a future (using Spider-Man 3 as a possible example) back in 2005, when IFC InTheaters was first announced. And now that the service is proving to be very successful for the company, such a future might not be too far off.
But should it be? Sure, there are a number of non-moviegoers who would get to see Indiana Jones (or whatever) right away -- believe it or not, there are a lot of people who still live too far from a cinema to bother making the trek -- and sure, a lot of people would still actually feel a need to see such a big movie on a big screen, but certainly there would be a smaller theatrical gross than if the movie was only available in theaters. And that means the theater owners will be substantially hurt. Not that the media corporations should care. With such a large percentage of the people reached at one time, day-and-date would be terrific for ancillary revenues from toy sales and Snickers Adventures bars and other tie-in products.
So, what do you think? Is it time for the bigger movies to be released day-and-date?