In the last couple of weeks, I saw two indie movies that, under what used to be ordinary circumstances, I would be telling people to run out and see. One of them was fairly high profile: Chris Kelly’s Other People, a heartfelt, beautifully rendered comedy-drama about a gay man coping with a disintegrating relationship while caring for his dying mother, that stars recent Emmy nominee Jesse Plemons (Fargo) and Molly Shannon, and was chosen to open the dramatic competition of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The other, Julia Hart’s Miss Stevens, gives New York stage stalwart Lily Rabe her first great screen role as a high-school teacher escorting three students to a drama competition, and is one of the best-acted indies I’ve seen this year.
But there is no “run, don’t walk” recommendation I can give, except “run to your couch.” Although both of these films received theatrical releases, Other People grossed just $93,000, and Miss Stevens took in $4,000 — which means it sold tickets to friends of the people involved and almost nobody else. In another era, that would have made these movies bombs, but their primary destination was never theatrical release. Like the vast majority of people who have seen (or will eventually see) them, I watched both movies on video-on-demand (VOD). Did that turn them into hits? I have no idea, nor does anyone but their distributors. And that lack of knowledge — that immense void of information — about the place where most indie movies now find their audience is doing them and all of us an injustice.
VOD, in the broadest sense of the term, can mean many things — that a movie is streaming on a service like Netflix or Amazon, that it’s available on iTunes, or that it’s available as an à la carte purchase by TV viewers who subscribe to a cable company. What it does not mean anymore is what “direct to DVD” meant a decade ago — that a movie has been judged to be so unworthy, poor, or limited in appeal that a theatrical release isn’t merited. These days, distributors look at a film, their own budgets, the acquisition cost, the potential audience, and the projected publicity and marketing expenditure that comes with a theatrical release, and then decide which way to go. Increasingly, they’re choosing VOD. Of the 14 Sundance dramatic competition movies to be acquired at or after the festival in January, seven have been primarily VOD releases, including Clea DuVall’s The Intervention and Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America, both of which won acting prizes. For the most part, those films still get a New York/Los Angeles theatrical release, which guarantees them a review in the New York Times and awards eligibility. But most are available on VOD the same day, and some even earlier. That’s where they really live.
Which doesn’t mean they live well — or that they’re easy to find. Many cable subscribers don’t even know that they have VOD, and unless you’re a deeply dedicated consumer of movies, neither the indie nor the cable worlds make it especially easy for you to find out. As a Time Warner Cable subscriber in New York City, I have to make my way to Channel 1000, then skip the “All New!” menu — which is where you’d think indies would be — and scroll over to a different menu counterintuitively (and, in most cases, inaccurately) labeled “In Theaters.” From there, I might be able to find the indie I want under something called “Early Screening,” or maybe “IFC In Theaters,” or perhaps “Pre DVD” (which is weird since we are now swiftly moving toward a post-DVD era).
That’s more effort and guesswork than something that wants to be a new business model should permit — on Amazon or Netflix, at least you can just search by title — and the problems don’t end there. Even casual moviegoers know that new movies open and are reviewed every Friday, but do you know what day of the week new VOD movies arrive? It’s Tuesday — apparently for no better reason than that, 10 or 15 years back, that’s the day that new DVDs would get shelved in stores. Even most publications with dedicated arts coverage don’t cover “New on VOD” the way they cover new movie releases. And paradoxically, the insistence on maintaining the façade of a theatrical release, whether because of awards eligibility or contractual obligations, has created an outdated system in which the Times and other publications feel obliged to cover these movies as fourth-rate theatrical releases rather than as first-tier indies that are immediately nationally available to home viewers. A VOD release has to make as much noise as Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary 13th, which opened this year’s New York Film Festival, to merit serious editorial consideration. And that almost never happens.
But as much fun as it’d be to blame the media for this dearth of attention, I’d like to make the case that this is not primarily our fault. People in the film business may decry the obsessive/excessive attention given to movie box office — just as many critics deplore the obsessive/excessive attention given to awards season — but both can be useful gateways into giving films the kind of sustained press attention, from articles and interviews to tweets, that can help movie audiences find their way to them; reviews are generally a one-and-done opening-weekend proposition, but indies, especially, need all the help they can get to build word of mouth over several weeks, or even months.
And here’s where the system lets us down. Because neither indie distributors nor streaming services release audience numbers for VOD movies, our hands are tied: We have no idea what constitutes a hit or a flop on VOD — how many thousands, or maybe it’s tens of thousands, or maybe it’s hundreds of thousands — of people will watch a movie during its VOD run. While on rare occasions a distributor has reported VOD revenue for a movie, that information arrives so infrequently that it’s impossible to contextualize. In fact, we aren’t given any data that would make covering VOD movies more viable, that would help us point people toward the right movies at the right time, that would allow us to engineer coverage that conforms to a movie fan’s viewing habits. It’s not just that we aren’t given the tools to measure success; we aren’t given the tools to measure anything. What time of day do most people watch VOD releases? What days of the week? Once they rent a VOD movie, what percentage of viewers watch it all the way through? Do they start and stop a lot or watch it as they would a movie in a theater? Does a VOD movie get the lion’s share of its audience in the first week of its release, or is it a slow and steady build over two or four or six weeks? Since VOD marketing barely exists, what are the means by which a viewer chooses a movie — do they remember a review, or watch a trailer, or look for a familiar name in the onscreen plot summary, or search by genre?
Answers to any of these questions would not just help indie movies get the coverage and attention they are now failing to receive; they would open a dialogue about these films that is essential to the ongoing health of the indie category. Movies like Sully and The Girl on the Train will always plow into thousands of theaters with tens of millions of dollars of marketing money and waves of free infotainment publicity supporting them; indies will never have that, so press attention is exponentially more important. It’s understandable that many still cling to the dream of multi-city releases in dozens or hundreds of theaters, and there will always be some indies that can achieve that, whether quasi-studio films like Lionsgate’s Hell or High Water with serious marketing money behind them (gross: $26 million) or genuine off-the-grid oddities that break through, like the Orchard’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (gross: $5 million). But for the majority of indies, VOD is the brave new world. And it’s a vast disservice, both to filmmakers and to movie lovers, that the very companies that have created that world don’t want it understood. They’re building a future for these movies; it’s time for them to stop acting as if they’re building a ghetto.