EDITORIAL: The growing Video On Demand movie market

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On the heels of my recent reviews of Only God Forgives and The Company You Keep (and soon Drinking Buddies and more), I've had my eyes opened wider within the last two years (Take This Waltz and Melancholia as well) to the increasing market of films that are using Video On-Demand (VOD) services to broaden their audience reach.  So much of it makes sense and yet so few people know this new avenue and market for movies.  Let me try to shed some light on it.

I'm not a TV watcher or cable subscriber (shocking, I know) where people use VOD all the time on shows.  I didn't hear about VOD until Tower Heist was hitting theaters two years ago.  That doesn't include the lame "still in theaters" pre-DVD hotel movies we see on vacation.  I was surprised to hear that a high-profile movie such as that was going to make itself available on VOD at the same time as its wide theatrical release, purely as a test case for such a dual distribution move.  When I saw that its rental cost was going to be $59.99, I quickly dismissed it and knew the test would fail.  No one other than a tech-savvy family of seven was going to save money with a $60 rental.

Later on, I heard that a few theater chains, most notably Cinemark Theatres, were boycotting Universal Pictures, the producing and distributing studio for Tower Heist, for impeding on their ability to generate and earn ticket sales because of the VOD availability.  While the argument itself made sense for the theater complaints, I'm pretty sure they weren't going to lose out for a $60 rental versus their $9 ticket.  They were going to win.  The Tower Heist test case ended up going down as fizzled experiment.  No large scale movie has tried it since, but the VOD landscape has been a ripe field of viewership for smaller, more independent films that aren't charging $59.99 for a rental.

Much like Only God Forgives, more and more smaller-scale films lately have employed a VOD release either concurrently with a theatrical release or, in some cases, even ahead of a theatrical debut.  In using services like VOD.com, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, or streaming rental services from major cable providers, little movies are spreading their availability and buzz to a wider audience than what was possible before.  Back in the day, those smaller films could only hope that a limited theatrical release in big city artsy locations away from the multiplexes would increase a weak hope of expansion to wider markets.  Now, with VOD, everywhere can be their market, not just the urban in-crowd.  From a quality standpoint, sometimes you find a diamond-in-the-rough and other times you see why these little movies aren't good enough for the main stage, so to speak.  Still, they get seen and that was their goal.

I'll say it now.  As much as I love the experience of going to a movie theater and watching a movie with an audience, I'm quickly become a VOD fan.  On the front of being an amateur movie critic, I can see films I normally wouldn't have the access or time to see.  Also, in those pre-theatrical release cases, I can sometimes be ahead of the curve to offer a full review of something before its true release like a real professional critic.  It's the closest I'll ever get to a "scoop."

On the front of being a new money-saving father in a now single-income household, I can't go out like I used to.  I can't see every movie all the time.  I have to choose my spots.  I save valuable money and time with VOD.  For about $6, I can see an interesting film on my own time and on my own device without leaving the house.  I can do so for less than half the cost of a downtown theater ticket, parking in the expensive city of Chicago, and/or the price of transportation (gas or public transportation) to get to the artsy theater.  Between both of those fronts, that's a deal I can buy into.

Now, I'll make the bold prediction.  At some point, the right film is going to come around on VOD that blows up with popularity, becoming the must-see cult hit on the scale of something like Silver Linings Playbook.  The right movie from VOD will become an Oscar contender and the VOD route will be the head-turner for other movies and studios to expand on that distribution route.  They won't make the same $60 mistake that Tower Heist did two years ago.  Some studio is going to get tired of losing their cut of profits to movie theater chains, offer their own VOD service, and get brave enough to put a big movie on VOD for under $20 at the same time that the rest of us are heading to the multiplexes.  It's going to happen and then VOD won't just be for little movies.

Movies now are already being streamed digitally to movie theaters for the big screen.  Film canisters, physical prints, and projectors have been going digital for years.  Why not just send it to someone's small screen at home too?  Someday, for a price, you might just be able to see The Avengers 3 or something at home via VOD on the same day and date as the theatrical premiere down the street.  Again, it's going to happen.

All of the other reasons why it will work will be in the realm of convenience.  People are watching movies now as much on their phones, tablets, mobile devices, and computers as much as they do on TV or at a theater.  Wi-fi connective players like PlayStations and Blu-ray players combine with Smart TVs to bring streaming content to any home with an internet connection.  VOD services can reach those places and tap into that market.

Mobile convenience might someday trump escalating ticket prices.  The right studio is going to pour the right snake oil in the ear of the home/mobile video watcher.  They know that people have cable and they know that plenty of people spent good money on a big flat-screen TV and surround sound home theater system in the living room.  They will say skip the theater for a small price and watch what you want at home on the stuff you already paid for.  By adding the comfort of home or on-the-go to the tantalizing ability to cash in on the real power of that home theater system, movie studios might twist more arms than we think.  Independent movies are winning that arena now.  Big movies just have to make the leap smarter than Tower Heist did.