The movie 360, a dramatic roundelay of interlocking stories set in Vienna, London, Denver, Phoenix and beyond, boasts an impressive pedigree. Written by Peter Morgan (The Queen), directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God), starring Rachel Weisz, Anthony Hopkins and Jude Law, it's just the kind of film I love to watch at the local art house, popcorn in hand.
But when 360 opened in Washington two weeks ago, I had an unusually crammed schedule: writing deadlines, the return of a summer camper, preparations for a busy weekend. So, I did what film goers are doing in increasing numbers: I fired up my computer, went to my satellite TV service's Web site and ordered 360 on demand for $6.99. On opening day, I was on my couch watching 360 — with no popcorn or coming attractions, but grateful that I hadn't gone to much trouble to see what turned out to be a modestly engaging but non-world-rocking movie.
I like to consider myself a movie purist — a fan of film as both experience and material object, with a romantic attachment to its grainy texture, mythic scale and enveloping sense of grandeur and collective worship. I have fulminated against the encroaching tyranny of technology, from the diminished visual values of digital cinematography to the bland close-up-dominated grammar of a medium now as likely to be encountered on a 3-inch phone screen as in a spacious movie palace.
Put simply — and to paraphrase Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard — my aesthetic expectations have always been big; it's the pictures that got small.
But in recent years, forces have converged to make me reassess my stance. Obviously, TV screens and sound systems have gotten bigger, flatter and more sophisticated, allowing them to more closely approximate theatrical projection. With audiences texting, talking, beeping and buzzing through a movie they just shelled out nearly $20 to ignore, a compelling case can be made that watching a movie at home — even with kids, electronic devices and easy bathroom breaks — is more immersive and less prone to distractions than going to the multiplex.
Some industry analysts have suggested that it's precisely those considerations that led viewers to wait to see John Carter, Battleship and Dark Shadows on video on demand, or VOD, rather than in theaters, a calculation that made them all box-office flops.
But in another corner of the movie business, where low-budget independent films huddle for warmth against encroaching extinction, the simultaneous release of films in theaters and on VOD — rather than the traditional months-long window between the two — has proved to be a sustaining, even crucial survival strategy.
In 2006, I interviewed Steven Soderbergh the day his experimental thriller Bubble made its premiere in Parkersburg, W.Va., where it was filmed. Soderbergh and the film's distributor, Magnolia Pictures, were embarking on what was considered an audacious release strategy for the film, making it available on DVD and the HDNet Movies cable channel at the same time it opened in theaters (called "day-and-date" in industry parlance). Soderbergh — who has never been particularly worried about the sanctity of his images — wasn't concerned about whether his work was seen on a 70-foot theater screen or on someone's tiny television. "I really don't care how people see my movies, as long as they see them," he told me. "I'm just not interested in controlling how somebody experiences one of my films."
Bubble didn't turn out to be a hit. But Soderbergh's willingness to meet his audiences where they were, and not try to control where or how they saw his films, proved prescient.
By 2008, the crime drama Flawless, starring Michael Caine and Demi Moore, would earn more than $1 million in its on-demand window during a contemporaneous theatrical run. In 2010, The Killer Inside Me, an ultra-violent adaptation of a pulp novel by Jim Thompson, earned about $4 million from people who watched it on demand. That same year, All Good Things, a true-crime drama starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst, earned a whopping $6 million. (By contrast, the film earned about $600,000 in theaters.) Last year, Margin Call, J.C. Chandor's taut Wall Street thriller, made its VOD debut day-and-date with theaters. The film wound up earning about half its $10 million total returns in video on demand.
The message was clear: What was once considered a marginal or even stigmatized part of the distribution world had clearly earned a second look.
Whereas people might once have been suspicious of a movie that showed up on their cable system's on-demand menu the same day it opened in theaters, when the synopsis includes names such as Caine, Moore and Gosling, that stigma significantly evaporated.
"Stars definitely matter," says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which released Flawless and All Good Things. "Because frankly, it's a menu, ... and you only have a certain amount of information you can get across." (An indie filmmaker advised another way to finesse the menu: Choose a title that begins with "A," so it has a chance of being seen first.)
Another essential element, Bowles says, is genre: Even the scrappiest no-name action and horror films can do very well as on-demand offerings, regardless of who's in them. "People aren't going to rent something unless they have some notion of what it's about or what it's going to deliver," he says. "If it has a (type of) story or stars no one's heard of, that's a tougher sell."