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.

"The idea," said Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia, the film's distributor, "is to turn V.O.D. almost into a paid word-of-mouth campaign--early adopters and people interested in the subject matter will find the film and hopefully tell their friends it is worth seeing in a theater."

From its launch in 2006, IFC on Demand, the industry leader in simultaneous VOD and theatrical release, and later, Magnolia and Sundance Select channels (available in the New York area on Time-Warner Cable and Cablevision) have had a small but steadily increasing audience. The revenue results from these channels are not compiled (or at least, not yet released), the New York Times reported recently. But there seems to be a growing sense that it is worth promoting VOD as DVD sales decline, down 43 percent from the 2006 peak, according to the Wall Street Journal. Huge hits such as Avatar or Sandra Bullock's The Blind Side, which was the most watched film on demand in 2010, are an easy call. The intriguing possibilities are for what Variety calls "indie" films which have little of the promotional momentum of traditional Hollywood pictures. Last spring, a selection of films from New York's Tribeca festival were offered, along with the Sundance Selects, which reported 30,000 downloads in a thirty-day VOD window. Robert Benya, CEO of InDemand, which is a leading supplier of VOD content, told Variety that cable operators are working on new tools to allow for better promotion. "We would love for them to be more robust," he said.

So what more could be added? As a fan of documentaries, I'd like to see more of them made available sooner. The New York Times wrote earlier this month that 2010 was an especially good year in terms of quality for documentaries but that their theatrical revenues were poor. Based on figures compiled by Box Office Mojo, combined ticket sales of $45 million for documentaries roughly equaled the opening weekend for Saw 3D. Waiting for Superman, a powerful Davis Guggenheim film about public education in the United States, has recorded about $6.5 million box office revenues in the months since its September release, but has not yet turned up on the Movies on Demand cable channel. By contrast, Client 9, the film about Spitzer, debuted through VOD the same day it opened in theaters. The complex relationships between filmmakers and distributors probably have a lot to do with the timing of their release to VOD. But I can attest that there is an audience for these films that won't make it to the few theaters where they are showing but would become, as we have, regular consumers of the Movies-on-Demand channel.

The rental business on Apple's iTunes and Amazon, the inevitable arrival of fully developed Google television, and NetFlix eventually will join in crowding Movies on Demand cable channel in the VOD market. From what I read, there are contentious negotiations among distributors, theater owners, and the tech companies over the terms and timing for making films available. But for now, there could hardly be a more satisfying way to see good movies that, for all their critical acclaim, zipped through the theaters before most of had a chance to see them.