Independent film distribution : why day & date releases work
To understand the release-window business model many in independent film distribution still rely on today, we need to rewind to the start of a begone era: the rise of (physical) home entertainment. Thanks to the arrival of VHS players in most households, film distribution bloomed & blossomed with another profitable outlet. Distributors started to feel more confident to spend large sums of money on film marketing in cinemas as they would recoup their investment with physical sales. Time-windows kept these releases from competing with each other, allowing films to take advantage of different markets at different times. In the late nineties DVD organically replaced VHS as people continued to have no other choice but wait for months until films were available in shops if they missed it in cinemas.
This all changed with the rise of digital. Initially, digital sales were recognized as ANOTHER way to exploit content, on top of the existing routes & tagged as a new window at the end of the line. But more & more the collective psyche of the people started to change and we evolved from a passive audience into a democratic one: we want to decide when we watch what and where.
In July 2009 we released Slumdog Millionaire on DVD in the Netherlands, less than 5 months after its release in cinemas. We were at a deadlock; the film was still screening at a good number of theatres throughout the country but a summer release for the DVD was out of the question. Waiting until September was not an option either as we would loose momentum and risked harsh competition for retail space. For the first time we shrunk our window and planned for a mid-June release. When announced the phone rang off the hook with retailers wanting to advance the release on one end – mid-June can still be tricky – and theatre programmers worried about empty cinema seats on the other. But DVD sales and theatre admissions proved great results in its first weekend with even some screens selling out!
What we all feared had not happened: DVD did not cannibalise cinema. When I come to think of it now, this is not surprising. The experience of watching a film while nestled in cosy red pluche is very different from the comfort of your home. So why not let people decide themselves where and how they prefer to watch your film? In fact, it’ll discourage them to download illegally and it could actually increase your film’s revenue as your maximising on the impact of your marketing campaign. Because let’s face it, few of us in independent film distribution have much to spend, let alone on multiple release moments.
I am a true believer this will be the future of film distribution. Independent filmmakers and producers who self distributed their film have already widely adopted this strategy together with some indie film distributors. Artificial Eye’s recently rebranded Curzon Home Cinema day-and-date releases major independent titles like Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet as well as documentary distributor Dogwoof, both paving the way for other film distribution companies to follow.