Living room rollout

At the very moment Jacob Tierney's award-winning comedy The Trotsky will have its U.S. premiere at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, VOD subscribers across the U.S. will be able to watch the Montreal-made flick from their armchairs.

At the very moment Jacob Tierney’s award-winning comedy The Trotsky will have its U.S. premiere at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, VOD subscribers across the U.S. will be able to watch the Montreal-made flick from their armchairs.

The question is, will they want to?

Co-founded nearly a decade ago by Robert De Niro, the Tribeca Film Festival (April 21 to May 2) is breaking ground this spring with its plans to simultaneously screen movies on site and through VOD. (‘Travel to Tribeca without leaving home,’ says their promo material.)

Does Tribeca’s plan mark a new and improved way for independent filmmakers to reach audiences? Or is their idea another nail in the coffin of cinema as we know it? (Sure a 42-inch flat screen TV isn’t a cell phone, but for some filmmakers and cinephiles it’s almost as creepy.)

The Tribeca fest has signed deals with American cable providers to create a Tribeca-branded VOD menu, giving a potential audience of 40 million households access to the event.

The festival is able to do this because it has formed a distribution arm, Tribeca Film, which has acquired 10 features, including The Trotsky, seven of which will be available through VOD day-and-date during TFF. Other Tribeca VOD launches include the world premiere of the Birth of Big Air, an ESPN documentary produced by Spike Jonze and Johnny Knoxville about extreme sports athlete Mat Hoffman, and the first North American screening of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, the story of punk rock pioneer Ian Dury.

After the festival, Tribeca Film says it will expand the launch to include theatrical distribution, home entertainment, airline, hotel and other platforms. But independent filmmakers beware: it’s unclear how many of Tribeca’s new acquisitions will have a cinema afterlife. Tribeca Film has said it will do theatrical releases on a ‘case-by-case’ basis.

‘I think of it as a new way of getting attention for movies that otherwise would have to spend money to get any attention in marketplace,’ says Trotsky producer Kevin Tierney. ‘I would much rather this than a straight-to-DVD deal. It’s a prestigious festival.’

But the distributor of Cannes darling Xavier Dolan’s J’ai tué ma mere (I Killed My Mother), K-Film Amérique’s Louis Dussault, is dismayed by the Tribeca plan.

‘Launching a film on VOD will kill it, and to think that won’t happen is to believe in miracles. Why would anyone watch an independent film on TV that they hadn’t heard about before? And no theater is going to want to screen a film that’s already been released on cable.’

For Dussault, who specializes in auteur titles, the purpose of a film festival is to generate the media buzz necessary for a successful theatrical release. The art film distributor has little faith in a business model which skips theaters and goes directly to TV. ‘I’m a distributor, not a broadcaster. Films were meant to be seen in theaters, not on TV screens. Perhaps it’s better than nothing, but I would refuse such a deal.’

VOD does seem to be the way of the future. In mid-March, major U.S. studios such as Universal Pictures, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox and cable companies Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications launched a $30 million marketing campaign to tout the convenience of renting movies from home. Eight of the top 10 films of 2009 – including Bride Wars, He’s Just Not That Into You and Twilight – were offered on cable VOD as soon as DVDs reached stores.

Studios are motivated by that fact that DVD sales are down. According to Digital Entertainment Group, there was a 63% increase in the number of consumers using VOD in the fourth quarter of 2009, compared with a year earlier.

But what makes the Tribeca plan so radical is that it’s offering premieres to cable subscribers. Could this happen in Canada? Could the Toronto International Film Festival or Hot Docs partner with Rogers or Shaw to simultaneously broadcast festival premieres?

Rogers Cable VP David Purdy believes the time to release films across all platforms simultaneously is now. ‘We think it makes tons of sense for people to be able to watch features day-and-date with the theatrical release, especially if they have just invested in that huge high-definition TV.’

Purdy says he’s been approached by American studios and Canadian distributors interested in reaching cable subscribers through VOD.

The cable executive says Rogers would love to work out a deal with a major studio or with TIFF to stream fest films to people’s living rooms. ‘Many of our customers have told us that their ability to go to the theater just isn’t there and they are willing to pay a little more to see first-run films.’

The only issues to work out, says Purdy, are how much it would cost, and how to make the system secure so the film isn’t stolen or copied. But of course those aren’t the only issues to work out. Most of the theaters in Canada are owned by Cineplex, and it won’t touch a film that’s already been released on cable.

And while TV viewers might be willing to pay to watch Avatar, will they spend money to screen a film by a Montreal director they may never have heard of? Some observers are banking on the prestige factor. Film fans will pay to watch the films under the Tribeca Film Festival banner because the event is a trusted brand, as marketers would say.

The American independent film community is abuzz with talk of the Tribeca venture. Some bloggers see the plan as a means to expand their fan base. But many worry that without prior promotion of the films, a VOD launch could also spell disaster for a film.

Reached at the ShoWest movie theater trade show in Las Vegas, Cineplex Canada spokeswoman Pat Marshall said she’s doubtful filmmakers and their audiences will opt for such a remote festival experience.

‘Earlier today I listened to major filmmakers talk about their work… Their dream, and this is something I’ve heard over and over, is to see their films on the giant screen with an audience of 400 and the kind of energy and excitement that generates. I don’t think that can be replicated in another environment.”

Only time will tell.