Movies on Demand: What's Good and What's Missing

This is the season, between the Golden Globes and the Oscars, when die-hard movie fans catch up with award nominees and films they missed that made critics' top-ten lists. Studios and distributors tend to release many of their upmarket candidates for the prize circuit in the closing weeks of the year. So pictures such as Black Swan, True Grit, The King's Speech, and The Fighter are still making the theatrical rounds. But most of the rest of the top tier of features and documentaries are long gone.

As recently as a year ago, Blockbuster and two other video stores were still holding out on our corner of Connecticut, but they've since all closed. Rental kiosks at supermarkets and drug stores, with limited selections, are the remnant of that business. Big box store DVD sales are aimed mainly at the child and teen-age audiences. Netflix has had a terrific year, its mail subscription service is impressively efficient; its stock price is soaring, but lately its focus has shifted to the still relatively small share of households that are streaming movies on the Internet. So where does a movie buff turn to with maximum convenience to see such movies as The Kids Are All Right, Winter's Bone, Carlos, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Tiny Furniture, and White Material (all lifted from the Best of 2010 list of All Things Considered film critic Bob Mondello and others)? One answer is the Movies on Demand channel on cable, which is where I saw most of these films (snow storms and a bad cold helped make the time). At $4.95 to $6.95 apiece, viewing was a bargain, especially compared to theater ticket prices and the $8.00 it now costs for small popcorn and a bottle of water at the metroplex.

Going further back in 2010, Rotten Tomatoes, the website that ranks movies by tracking reviews, scored Fish Tank, A Prophet, and The Town as the top movies in the months they were released. The films (except for The Town, which was directed by Ben Affleck) disappeared from theaters almost immediately, but landed on the Movies on Demand channel instead. In fact, Fish Tank, a quirky British film about a teenage girl's relationship with her troubled family and friends, was available the same day as its (very limited) theatrical release.

One movie, All Good Things, starring Kirstin Dunst and Ryan Gosling, a dramatization of a true-life murder involving a prominent New York real estate family, actually launched through the Movies on Demand channel and, according to the New York Times, sold over $4 million in its month-long release at the higher than usual price of $10.99 for a twenty-four-hour rental. When the film finally opened in theaters (including New York's Angelika Film Center, a mecca for independent distributors), ticket sales averaged about $19,000, which is a "strong performance," according to the New York Times, "by specialty film standards." But its revenues from thirty-five theaters were much smaller than its video on demand sales (the industry term for on demand services such as the Movies on Demand channel and Internet movie downloading is "video on demand," or VOD). As a test of whether films can go from VOD to theaters, All Good Things seems to show that they can.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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