Published on: 03 June 2013 in Longform

Coming soon to several screens near you: the rise of the multiplatform release

Reading time: 11 minutes and 14 seconds

In our previous feature, we explored how filmmakers are making use of new distribution models to engage and entice new audiences to their projects. But it’s not just creative individuals who are taking advantage of these new channels: sales agents of all sizes are themselves experimenting with this modern method of releasing movies.

So, with established players rejecting traditional markets for less tried and tested routes, what are the implications for the future of the film industry? And how happy are directors to be taken on the journey with them?

Reece Shearsmith in A Field in England, which will have the most ambitious and comprehensive day-and-date release the UK has seen this July.

Given its subject matter, it was perhaps apposite that Margin Call was the film that really illustrated the monetary potential of VOD to the rest of the film business. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor and starring Kevin Spacey, the financial thriller was picked up at Sundance 2011 by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, grossing a respectable $5.3 million theatrically in the domestic market. Nothing out of the ordinary there, but cinema sales were only half the story for Margin Call.

Sensing further opportunities online, the two distributors decided to take a gamble on the VOD market with a “day-and-date release”: making the film available in cinemas and for digital download simultaneously. The gamble paid off, with Margin Call grossing an estimated further $5 million online. Made available to view for $6.99 on the likes of iTunes, Amazon and Time Warner Cable, sources say the film garnered 500,000 VOD rentals in total. Suddenly, Hollywood started to pay attention, and other big name titles followed suit: Roadside hit gold again with the same tactic for the Richard Gere-starring Arbitrage, whilst Magnolia adopted the model for Terence Malick’s To the Wonder earlier this year, having previously flirted with innovative VOD on more experimental fare as far back as 2007.

Now it seems the UK is beginning to break free from the shackles of traditional distribution too. Last month the BFI and Film4 announced their plans to exhibit Ben Wheatley’s upcoming film A Field of England in cinemas, free TV, DVD and VOD simultaneously, a strategy so bold it has never before been attempted. Meanwhile a consortium of European production companies including the British-based Soda Pictures is planning their own day-and-date release for music documentary Viramundo: A Journey with Gilberto Gil, which will span across ten countries this summer. And although not quite as daring, Momentum and BBC Films’ decision to release Nick Murphy’s Blood in cinemas for a couple of weeks this month before following with an immediate VOD release illustrates their own faith in all things multiplatform.

"When I saw the impact playing on TV had for Kill List I thought it was a shame that awareness had come so late in the life of the film. Wouldn't it be better for it to get out to all those people at the start?" - Ben Wheatley

In an industry where the phrase ‘risk-averse’ seems to be increasingly worn as a badge of honour, it would be naïve in the extreme to assume these distributors are risking their cash all in the name of progress. So what’s the logic? No doubt British sales agents will have had one eye on the financial success of Margin Call, with the other perhaps on Arbitrage, which managed to outsell it. Such achievements in this nascent market become all the more intriguing when one considers two-thirds of cinemas stateside are apparently unwilling to screen a film that is available to watch online simultaneously.

“We made an estimation that it would be a good movie for the VOD model because people would scroll through the offerings and see a thriller with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon in it”, said Roadside co-president Howard Cohen of Arbitrage in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “That's a pretty good bet”.

The bet paid off. Thanks to a successful charm offensive with a number of US ‘theater’ owners, and more than a little advertising spend, Arbitrage would go on to play in 250+ cinemas in America, grossing $8million in total. And while cinemas generally return half of box-office grosses to distributors, the split is much sweeter when it comes to VOD revenue, with the distributor said to receive around 60–70% of the profits – or, in this case, 60-70% of $14million, the amount Arbitrage is said to have earned online.

“I believe we got a large number of people to watch it on VOD who weren't going to go and see it in a theater and may have forgotten about it four months later when it came out on DVD”, said Cohen. “That's why we are interested in this space”. Another point for multiplatform: mutually beneficial advertising, whereby the VOD release drives people to the multiplex, and the cinematic release raises awareness for VOD. “You’re only creating more audience by showing your movie”, says Tom Quinn, co-president of the alternative distribution company RADiUS. “If it has good word-of-mouth, then you should show it to as many people as you possibly can”.

Nick Murphy's film Blood, which stars Paul Bettany, debuted in cinemas for a two-week period before an immediate VOD release.

Worth noting too that, in a week where illegal downloads in the UK were reported to be on the rise, day-and-date could have a seismic effect on the war against piracy. Almost a third of UK internet users who stream or download music, TV and films did so at least once illegally in the quarter to the end of January, perhaps in part due to a lack of availability. The rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix is making a virtue of our impatience, with viewers increasingly expecting the latest releases to be accessible at the touch of a button. Day-and-date answers the prayers of the stay-at-home cineastes – for a small fee.

A Field in England’s bold multiplatform release strategy should sate the appetite of the more hermitic Ben Wheatley fans. It’s also satisfied the director himself, who told he was involved with the distribution strategy from the very beginning. When questioned why he, the BFI and Film4 had decided on this model, Ben told us, “When I saw the impact of playing on Film4 and Channel 4 had for Kill List I thought it was a shame that awareness had come so late in the life of the film. Wouldn't it be better for the film to get out to all those people at the start?”

Ben had been frustrated by more traditional models for distribution earlier in his career. “Down Terrace [Ben’s debut feature] had great press but people couldn't see the film because of its limited release. If people can't see it then there’s no word of mouth. And if there’s no word of mouth, there’s no audience”. A Field in England will have a similarly minor cinema release – 12 screens in total – and as such Ben felt the day-and-date model wouldn’t impact on box office severely: “If the film was on general release then there might be an argument that the box office will be damaged. A TV screening usually drives DVD sales as well”.

The Sightseers director only really had misgivings over screen size. “The film should be seen in the cinema - all films should be”, said Ben. “The proportion of the picture and the sound are designed for that space. But if in the end no one sees the film then what’s the point? I don't have a problem with the different platforms, if it gets more people to see the work”.

"We work very hard to build something to work on the big screen. Now I discover that almost everyone who ever sees it will see it on something no bigger than a tea towel" - Nick Murphy

Armchair film fans won’t have to wait too long for BAFTA-winning director Nick Murphy’s latest film, Blood, to find its way into their homes: it plays on selected screens from 31 May – 10 June, at which point it’s available to rent on VOD. The situation arose after the initial financier Momentum was acquired by EOne, making Blood one of around 45 titles they had to release this year. After some initial positive reviews but scepticism from cinema chains about the commerciality of the title, the decision to opt for a multiplatform release was made.

Unlike Ben, Nick had minimal input on the decision, but on that the director was philosophical: “I don't mind in the least that they ultimately don't listen to what directors have to say about this sort of thing because it's not our field”, said Nick. “I know we like to think we know it all but the movie business works on pockets of expertise doing their stuff; stuff we have no idea about. Until EOne prove they know less about movie distribution than I do, I have to listen to what they think”.

Nick was also optimistic about the opportunities these new distribution strategies can provide for a certain kind of film. Speaking about the possibilities opening up for less commercial fare, Nick said, “Without release strategies like this it's fairly clear distributors will seek ever more mainstream projects and that would be tragic. Multiplatform might just be the lifeline that indies have been hoping for as they've watched the systematic takeover of the majors - the more screens, fewer movies syndrome”.

“I remember in my twenties”, Nick went on, “sitting in front of a Steinbeck in the basement of Stephen Street BFI watching Rain People because it was the only way I could get to it. Sure I would prefer Blood to have a riotous opening in a thousand screens but DVD etc. will be where it spends most of its life: if it must go there sooner, so be it. We're lucky, Lumet made Dog Day Afternoon and 'puff!', as far as he was concerned it was soon pretty much gone forever”.

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's latest film, A Field In England, distributed by the BFI and Film4.

However, Nick also has reservations. He mentioned how it was a blow to the ego that fewer people would see it on the big screen (“but one has to get over that”), and he shared Ben Wheatley’s frustrations over format: “We work very hard to build something to work on a certain scale; the composition, pacing and even the mix, grade and score are constructed to be on a big screen. Now I discover that almost everyone who ever sees it will see it on something no bigger than a tea towel”.

Nick was sceptical about the impact of the film, too. “If Withnail & I were released today it would get the release Blood is getting”, Nick told us. “It would make less of a word-of-mouth splash, less subsequent impact in the VOD stores and quite probably fewer people would now look at a chicken and say 'How do we make it dead?'. That's too awful to think about”.

Away from artistic and commercial concerns, Nick was also anxious that audiences were being deliberately misinformed through the film’s marketing, and he expects a reaction. “The small theatrical release followed by VOD exploits the tactic of marketing as if it is in cinemas everywhere; posters, TV spots etc. All this with no mention of the impending VOD release. Then, 10 days later, it hits the VOD market as a premium title. Premium because it feels like a theatrical movie reaching the customer early. That is fundamentally a deception that the audience will twig in a short time. You can't keep saying a given product is 'luxury' or 'exclusive' or 'value' when it isn't. Marketing execs the world over will tell you that will very soon wear thin and you'll be punished”.

Finally, Nick revealed, “the other thing that concerns me is nobody has been able to cite a movie that has done really well with this kind of release - apart from Margin Call, ironically also starring Paul Bettany. 'It did great VOD business' they say. But doesn't that suggest they were daft to put it out that way? That it was in fact a terrific movie with a big cast that would have done even better with a good theatrical release and they made a damn silly mistake?”

Nick’s mixed reaction to multiplatform is one likely shared by a number of his counterparts. But, mistake or not, sales agents’ experimentation with distribution strategies looks set to continue. Which (if any) becomes truly successful, and whether one in particular becomes new industry standard, remains to be seen. As much as ever, that decision rests with the audience.