Taking stock of the on-demand release

Canadian distributors like PNP and Northern Banner Releasing discuss how shifts wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted business. (Unlocked)
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In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, another Canadian title is by-passing the big screen and heading straight to VOD.

Sci-fi comedy James vs. His Future Self will be released onto iTunes, Bell and Shaw by Toronto-based distributor Raven Banner Entertainment’s indie specialty arm Northern Banner Releasing on what would have been its big Canadian theatrical moment. On April 3, it was set to open in Cineplex cinemas in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary and Vancouver.

Co-written by Jonas Chernick and director Jeremy LaLonde, the Canadian Screen Award nominee follows an uptight time travel-obsessed scientist (played by Chernick) who supposedly encounters a future version of himself.

Following the film’s release on iTunes, Bell and Shaw, James vs. His Future Self (pictured), produced by Banana-Moon Sky Films, Neophyte Productions and JoBro Productions, will also land on Rogers and Telus soon, according to a press release about the change.

Raven Banner Entertainment managing partner Andrew T. Hunt told Playback Daily that at this point, James vs. His Future Self is the only title it plans on releasing via VOD ahead of time. For now, other Canadian titles in its roster like Warren Sonoda’s Things I Do for Money and fellow Raven Banner head Michael Paszt’s directorial debut Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro are being pushed back. As well, the company is also coordinating with its U.S. partner IFC Films on the release of director Vaclav Marhoul’s feature The Painted Bird  (Czech Republic/Slovakia/Ukraine).

The executive also acknowledged that with various productions either shut down or postponed, and with demand for VOD and streaming through the roof, the international sales market has significantly heated up. “Since we were only a couple of months away from The Cannes Film Festival all of the distributors and buyers are in their primary acquisitions period. The current talk, of course, is postponing Cannes until July, but I think we’re going to see a lot of buyers making deals as soon as possible so they’re not empty-handed down the road,” he said.

Touching on the shift to on-demand theatrical releases in the midst of COVID-19, Chernick told Playback Daily that the strategy is the best, and currently only way for audiences to access Canadian films, noting that “we’re all looking for new content, so I feel very lucky that our film will be one of the choices.” And in terms of the film’s U.S. release? Chernick noted that the comedy’s U.S. release via Red Arrow Studios’ Gravitas Ventures is still on, however, he expects that this may have to change in the coming weeks.

James joins writer/director Geordie Sabbagh and producer Ashleigh Rains’ cannabis-themed comedy Canadian Strain, distributed by Pacific Northwest Pictures (PNP), and writer/director Johnny Ma’s To Live to Sing, distributed by Game Theory Films, which also had to embrace VOD as theatres closed nationwide last week.

“For Canadian films, there is a big barrier – it’s hard to get attention for direct to VOD releases, especially as huge U.S. movies rush to home release on their own platforms. We hope that Telefilm will respond to the urgent need to support Canadian filmmaking and distribution through yet another significant challenge,” said PNP president Mark Slone in a statement.

For now, the PNP head said that for other Canadian titles like Canadian Strain, which were booked and ready to open, the company has managed to pivot most of its efforts to VOD. He also acknowledged that his company is now moving quickly to shift titles like Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You (U.K./France/Belgium) from closed cinemas to VOD and that it is in discussions with its customers, vendors and U.S. partners every day to speed up the process. “Ideally we’ll be able to maintain some of the momentum from theatrical marketing and great reviews but we’ll certainly lose money from lost ticket sales and marketing efforts,” Slone said.

Meanwhile, Toronto-headquartered distributor and prodco Elevation Pictures has moved up the VOD release dates for Brahms: The Boy II (U.S.), writer/director Ricky Tollman’s Run This Town and director Albert Shin’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill. Originally, Brahms: The Boy II and Disappearance at Clifton Hill were set to be released in late May, while Run This Town was set for June – with this update Brahams now expected to hit VOD on April 28, Run This Town on April 21 and Disappearance at Clifton Hill on May 5. The company has also lowered the iTunes prices on some of its titles like Hustlers, Shaun the Sheep: The Movie and Missing Link.

All told, the tide started to turn for distributors last week when NBCUniversal’s Universal Pictures made the decision to release Emma (2020), The Invisible Man and The Hunt on-demand on Friday (March 20). All three – which were currently in theatres – became available for US$19.99, with the company planning a day-and-date release for Trolls World Tour on April 10. Sony’s Bloodshot, another theatrical title, also became available to purchase for US$19.99 this week.

Howard Lichtman, president of Toronto-based management consulting firm The Lightning Group and former EVP of marketing and communications at Cineplex, told Playback Daily that in unprecedented times like this some people will play the long game, while others will put their efforts into the short game. “The other studios are playing the long-game, they’re understanding that in times of crisis, what you have to do is work with your customers and with your suppliers and be supportive and not abandon [the theatrical industry],” he said regarding Universal’s decision.

Touching on the homegrown situation, Lichtman explains that because of Universal’s move, Canadian distributors – which operate on a different scale compared to the conglomerate – likely believe it’s fine to focus their efforts on on-demand theatrical releases.

As well, in terms of this on-demand theatrical release trend moving forward, there are a number of different factors at play. One of them being how long the coronavirus will require audiences to practice social distancing; distributor’s decisions to either postpone releases or capitalize off of the pent-up demand to see films after the crisis; and inventory, since most film productions have shut down due to COVID-19. “I actually think it’s a smart move to preserve your films for the time of the return to the movies,” he said.