Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere in "Arbitrage"

Myles Aronowitz, Roadside Attractions

VOD is suddenly in demand

  • Los Angeles Times
  • January 19, 2013 - 2:19 PM

Not that long ago, premiering a star-driven Sundance Film Festival movie on a video-on-demand channel was an admission of failure. But last year's festival produced two huge on-demand hits, Richard Gere's crime drama "Arbitrage" and Kirsten Dunst's wedding comedy "Bachelorette," which collectively generated nearly $30 million in revenue, mostly from VOD.

As the nation's most prominent film festival kicks off this weekend in Park City, Utah, can history repeat itself?

"The last year has educated people that they can have a hit using alternative distribution platforms," said Tom Quinn, president of the Weinstein Co.'s Radius label, which released "Bachelorette." "This Sundance we'll see how much everyone has learned."

After years of hype in the independent film business, digital platforms have finally begun to bear fruit. Last year's Sundance didn't yield the mega-deals that over the past decade have seen studios pay as much as $10 million to release low-budget productions such as "Hamlet 2" in theaters.

But thanks to VOD, movies bought at Sundance last year for only about $2 million, including "Arbitrage" and "Bachelorette," were breakouts: "Arbitrage," purchased by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, has grossed $8 million at the box office but nearly $12 million on VOD; "Bachelorette" has tallied less than $1 million at the box office but $7.3 million on VOD, according to their distributors.

Several movies from Sundance 2012 did well following more traditional release plans centered on opening in movie theaters, bolstered by strong reviews: the Oscar-nominated "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Searching for Sugar Man."

Each year, scores of independent filmmakers come to the 10-day festival looking for deals that will bring their movies to audiences. Sales agents will haggle not only over how much the films will sell for but also where they will be shown.

Contenders will include "Before Midnight," Richard Linklater's wrapup to a romantic trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy; the porn-addiction comedy "Don Jon's Addiction," directed by and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt; the romantic thriller "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman," starring Shia LaBeouf; "Kill Your Darlings," with Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg; and "Lovelace," about the '70s porn icon, played by Amanda Seyfried.

Star power is key

Experts say celebrity is key to an on-demand hit; it's nearly impossible to lure channel-surfers without a name.

"The VOD model doesn't work without a good cast -- home entertainment is just different that way," said Howard Cohen of Roadside Attractions. "'Beasts of the Southern Wild' would never do 'Arbitrage' numbers on VOD -- no way. And you have to have talent that are willing to support a VOD release and do publicity."

But filmmakers also believe their star-driven offerings will resonate with buyers because they tackle universal issues. "Linda [Lovelace] embodied the evolution of the culture because she was very much about the loosening of sexual mores," said Jeffrey Friedman, the film's co-director. "She's also a great character study -- she's the girl next door who ended up in a very dramatic situation."

Challenges remain. Many filmmakers want a commitment that their movies will play in theaters before VOD, as well as a large up-front minimum payment guarantee. And actors aren't always on board for a release that will play out largely on TVs.

"I think the discussion with talent is a lot easier now," said Jessica Lacy, head of the independent film division at International Creative Management, which is selling titles such as the relationship drama "A Teacher" from the young director Hanna Fidell. "But it's still a discussion."

A chance for new talent

While there are often willing buyers for sexy star vehicles, filmmakers also hope to sell difficult but highly original work. "Searching for Sugar Man," the story of a mysterious Detroit musician by unknown Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, was bought by Sony Pictures Classics last year and has not only joined the list of all-time Sundance documentary breakouts but also has been nominated for an Oscar. Sundance 2012 also yielded "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a magical-realist drama from first-time feature filmmaker Benh Zeitlin that Fox Searchlight purchased; it's taken in $11 million at the box office and landed Oscar nominations for best picture, director, actress and screenplay. Searchlight executives have signed up to make Zeitlin's next film.

"After all these years, Sundance is still a place for discovering a new or unexpected filmmaker," said Rena Ronson, co-head of United Talent Agency's independent sales arm. She is hoping that filmmakers such as Jill Soloway, a writer on the TV show "Six Feet Under" who directed the stripper-turned-nanny tale "Afternoon Delight," and Lake Bell, an actress making her directorial debut with "In a World," a story about a second-string voice-over artist, will be among this year's discoveries.

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