The Media Equation Next Big Film Has a Premiere in Your Living Room
By DAVID CARR Published: March 15, 2009
On Saturday night at the Paramount Theater here, “Alexander the Last,” a small but highly anticipated film by Joe Swanberg, had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival. At the party afterward at the Karma Lounge, there was all manner of insider chatter about the film, with hundreds of critics, bloggers, industry types and hard-core cinéastes all in the know about a film that just had its first showing.
But in fact, the film had been available all day at the push of a button in millions of homes all over the country. And not via illegal downloads, but on IFC Festival Direct, an on-demand service provided by IFC Entertainment that is on Time Warner, Comcast and Cablevision, among other cable systems. (IFC in Theaters, another pay-per-view service, is also available on those systems and DirecTV as well.)
Standing amid the throng at Karma, Mr. Swanberg was chatting up all the well-wishers over the thump of house music, but they were not the first.
“Late last night when the movie went up on IFC, I started getting all sorts of e-mail messages from people that they had seen and liked the movie,” he said of the digital premiere that began the same day his film was scheduled to screen here.
In an era where more and more films are vying for ever more precious big screens, little movies like “Alexander the Last” are beginning to show up on small screens at the flick of the remote. With the multiplex full of $100-million-plus superhero epics and studios pulling back from small movies, independent filmmakers need to dig a new route to their audience: no red carpet premiere, no splashy ad campaign, no Burger King action figure.
Historically, movies have to be shown in theaters for a week in New York or Los Angeles to get a review in the national media, but “Alexander the Last,” which was shot digitally and had yet to be seen inside the movie house, was written up by David Denby in The New Yorker last week and was reviewed in The New York Times by Manohla Dargis on Saturday. (She suggested Mr. Swanberg had improved with each new movie, among other things.)
“Joe will have his world premiere here, a lot will be written about it and people will want to see it right away,” said Janet Pierson, producer of the South by Southwest film festival. “Publicity is very expensive, and this is a very economical way to reach and grow the fan base.”
It amounts to what could be a new future for film — one that has nothing to do with movie theaters and studio lots but everything to do with the audience. Creating movies, historically a cumbersome, expensive enterprise, has become far more accessible by dint of cheap digital filmmaking. And the results are not always diminutive — “Slumdog Millionaire” was shot digitally and won the Oscar for best picture and has surpassed $130 million in sales.
But the fact that almost anyone with a credit card can now make a movie means they often do, creating a huge surplus of small films. Even after running the gantlet and making it into one of the premier American festivals (a very long shot) and getting picked up for distribution (lotto territory), finding a slot at the movie house is a very expensive proposition.
So IFC is working on a hybrid model where movies pick up sparkle and reviews at film festivals and are then pushed out through an on-demand grid. There may come a day when much of the film business is a digital-in/digital-out affair, with all manner of “films” showing up on all manner of devices, and a consumer algorithm — think Netflix — driving what people end up seeing.
Mr. Swanberg is a young auteur of the so-called mumblecore movement, films that are generally shot quickly and inexpensively, usually featuring a few characters. At the tender age of 27, he has completed his sixth feature film, and hence the so-called day-and-date release with an assist from the festival here suits his needs from a financial and artistic perspective.
While many directors insist that their work must be seen in the churchlike confines of a movie theater with a big screen and great sound, Mr. Swanberg is far less picky as long as he is able to continue working.
“I don’t care what kind of screen they watch it on,” he said by phone the week before the festival. “New films are having a hard time finding an audience, and as a filmmaker I don’t really care how the audiences access the work.”
It’s not as experimental as it sounds. Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” which opened at Cannes and had a limited run in theaters, has already reached 150,000 viewers through IFC’s video-on-demand service. Mr. Soderbergh is an acclaimed director whose work includes the “Ocean’s 11” franchise, so he’s not exactly hurting for outlets, but for a certain kind of film — say a subtitled one about a guerrilla leader that’s in two parts and lasts four-and-a-half hours — the alliance with IFC and its outlets makes sense.
“We are partnered with Joe, utilizing the attention of the festival and the press that goes with it and trying to leverage that moment by releasing it on-demand at the same time,” said Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment.
Mr. Sehring points out that IFC has its own exhibition space in Manhattan and its parent company, Cablevision, operates Clearview Cinemas. But he is looking for distribution beyond the movie house: both he and Mr. Swanberg envision a time when his movies will have their premieres on iTunes and Amazon’s Unbox video player, as well.
Given the installed base of giant HD screens in American homes, it’s hard to argue that video on demand is an inferior option to lining up at the theater.
“Right now Joe’s movie is blowing up on Twitter,” said Barry Jenkins, the director of “Medicine for Melancholy,” another film IFC is showing here and on demand. Standing apart from the party waiting to get in, he pointed out that “many of the people who hear about it can just see it right then and there, not five months from now when all of the excitement has calmed down. And that’s amazing.”
The IFC approach also broadens and democratizes access to independent films beyond certain neighborhoods in downtown New York. Many people who live in so-called B and C markets no longer have to cross their fingers and hope that the next small big thing makes it to their town. Now the art house lives in the remote.
“I have a lot of films that I’d like to do that don’t require a lot of money or people, so I’d like to get the work out there,” Mr. Swanberg said. The revenue streams coming off of a single film may be small, but someone as prolific as Mr. Swanberg can end up sitting on a catalog of films. And as any studio executive can tell you, at a time of multiplying V’s — DVD, VOD, PPV — the catalog business is where the money is.
“We are getting to the point where the means of production are cheap enough so that a filmmaker can work like painters or writers,” he said. “And it should not take millions and millions of dollars to find an audience for that work.”