Part of the fun of SXSW is not just the sessions, the films, the Chevys and the parties but the people you meet, waiting in line for films. Such was the case for Jonathan Marlow of online distribution platform Fandor and me. We were waiting to see press screeners at this year’s SXSW and voila an interview was born! Check it out below. It’s in 5 parts. This is Part 4. Check out Parts 1, 2 and 3.
JM …That is one of the issues with the complexities of rights. Unless you’re working directly with the filmmaker and they’ve retained all of their digital distribution rights, it becomes necessary to piece the assorted rights together from numerous locations. For instance, we’ve recently licensed the short films of Jay and Mark Duplass. I’ve adored their short films since the first time that I saw them. I would like to license their features, too, but each one has a different distributor. It is rather difficult to create a comprehensive selection of their works. The same is true with David and Nathan Zellner. We have nearly every short film they’ve ever directed. We also have their second feature on the service. Their third feature is available from IFC and we do not presently have a licensing pact with them. The Zellners’ latest film, Kid-Thing, is in theaters now through Factory 25. We have a great relationship with them and, at some point, Kid-Thing will debut on Fandor, too. But the entire process is particularly convoluted. To do this correctly, it represents a ridiculous amount of work.
BTBO: So you tend to get films after somebody else has them?
JM: Not necessarily. I noticed that you scribbled down the word “windows.” The interesting thing about windows is that they’re entirely arbitrary these days. It really doesn’t mean much of anything. One aberration of this is “Ultra VOD” and the pre-theatrical window; it is sometimes called “Premium VOD” instead. Whatever you call it, it’s all fiction. It’s fabricating scarcity.
We have done a number of “coordinated premieres” where we make films available concurrent with their theatrical release. If a film is opening in New York and it’s being reviewed in the New York Times–and there are more readers of the New York Times outside of New York than in it–it presents an opportunity to reach an audience that might be reading that review. The reader can act immediately rather than waiting for the film to arrive in their town. On some occasions we’ve made the film available for a single day. Sometimes we put it up for a weekend. Other times we publish the film on the service and continue to make it available thereafter. Most recently, we debuted Caveh Zahedi’s film The Sheik and I when it opened in New York and we premiered the German documentary Zero Killed on the service the week prior to its release on home video.
BTBO: And that worked well? It wasn’t an issue?
JM: It works. Anything that raises the visibility of a release is generally worthwhile. However, theatres still have reservations about the idea. They generally do not like it because they believe it cannibalizes ticket sales.
Our first “coordinated premiere” occurred two years ago with the release of the remarkable documentary sleep furiously. The film first premiered in the U.S. at Telluride; one of the co-founders of the festival, Tom Luddy, recommended it to me and he was absolutely right to suggest it. It is a fantastic film. Microcinema International opened it in New York more than a year later and we debuted it on Fandor for merely the opening day of that release. As it happened, the night of the premiere was also the biggest day of the film grosses during the run. This notion of cannibalization is wrong and we’ve disputed that type of thinking since the beginning. We’ve also demonstrated results opposite to their expectations again and again. However, theatres are usually very territorial, very stubborn and very defensive. The theatrical business isn’t getting any easier. It is essential to figure out the proper care and feeding your audience.
If you asked the folks at IFC or Magnolia about opening a film theatrically and concurrently putting it on Comcast as part of their “In Theaters” effort or elsewhere, they’d likely tell you that digital delivery is not taking money away from theatrical. They represent two different audiences. There’s the audience that wants to go out and do something and then you have the audience that, in many cases, just can’t go out and do anything. Whether they’ve got kids or they just don’t have the inclination to go sit next to noisy people at the cinema; whatever the reason, they’re just not going to go out.
Magnolia would be a good case study since they’ve done this better than just about anyone. “See it before it’s even in theaters!” This makes it seem special. But how long can that really last? The idea is special at the moment because there are still relatively few films from which to choose. Whenever the studios start joining the process, they’ll crowd out the selection. When every film is available in the pre-theatrical window, the problems of yesterday become the problems of tomorrow. What next, then? “See it before the film is even finished?” Maybe. You could start seeing films in the production stages as works-in-progress.
Drafthouse Releasing recently opened Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary documentary The Act of Killing. There is an under-two hours”festival” cut and an unexpurgated 159 minute version. The filmmaker prefers the longer cut. He feels that the longer version is much truer to the film that he was trying to make. But theaters historically would gravitate to a shorter feature in order to squeeze out another screening or two each day. Having multiple versions of a film is not necessarily a bad idea, though (particularly for documentaries). In our case, we respect the wishes of the filmmaker to the extent to which honoring what they’ve requested is possible. We want to publish works on the Fandor service that are representative of whatever version the filmmaker wants to offer. We’re not in the business of offering two versions.