Who’s afraid of ‘Veronica Mars’? Video-on-demand strategy an experiment for Hollywood
Movies • A major studio experiments with releasing a movie in theaters and online the same day.

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: March 17, 2014 10:39AM
Updated: March 13, 2014 04:36PM
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This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Ryan Hansen, left, and Kristen Bell in a scene from "Veronica Mars." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Robert Voets)

It’s a puzzler worthy of Veronica Mars: Will a little movie based on a canceled TV show, a movie paid for by its devoted fans, rewrite the rules for how Hollywood gets films to the public?

That’s the question the movie industry will be pondering Friday, when “Veronica Mars,” the movie, opens in 270 theaters nationwide (including one in Utah: the Layton Hills 9 in Layton) — while also being released to buy or rent online, through Amazon or iTunes or other portals.

Warner Bros.’ simultaneous release of “Veronica Mars” in theaters and online — what the industry calls “day and date” — is a first for a major studio. And it’s controversial with Hollywood studios and with theater owners.

“We feel that there is great value in showing pictures on the big screen,” said Blake Andersen, president of the Utah-based Megaplex Theatres.

That sentiment echoes the policy of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), which stresses the importance of a theatrical “window” — a period of time when a movie is available only in theaters.

For the major studios, according to NATO figures, that “window” is an average of four months between a movie’s theatrical release and its home-video release. That “window” has been shrinking — it was nearly six months back in 1997 — but has held firm for the past couple of years.

“We are the platform that sets off this demand for everything else out there — including video-on-demand,” Andersen said.

For the “Veronica Mars” release, Warner Bros. has found a work-around to the traditional theatrical “window.” The studio is renting 270 screens, 260 of them in the AMC Theatres chain — a practice called “four-walling.” (Layton Hills 9 is the only AMC screen now operating in Utah.)

With “four-walling,” the theater gets paid a flat rental rate, the studio keeps 100 percent of the ticket sales and the theater doesn’t violate the industry’s theatrical “window” policy. And 270 theaters is small potatoes, considering a major studio release may play on 3,000 screens or more on an opening weekend.

According to the Hollywood trade paper Variety, one reason Warner Bros. opted for a theatrical run for “Veronica Mars” — rather than just a direct-to-video release — was to make it an event for the show’s fans, some 90,000 of whom ponied up $6 million via the crowd-funding website Kickstarter.

The Megaplex theaters tentatively are scheduled to “four-wall” the “Veronica Mars” movie starting March 28, if it’s successful this weekend. That’s also when Salt Lake City’s independent Broadway Centre Cinemas is scheduled to open the film.

While a “day and date” release is an experiment for a Hollywood studio, it’s not new in the independent-film world.

“Filmmakers have been doing this for the last decade on their own,” said Chris Horton, director of the Sundance Institute’s #Artist Services program, which helps advise indie filmmakers about funding, marketing, distribution and other issues.

Independent distributors like IFC and Magnolia often make titles available in major-market theaters, while at the same time serving them up on digital platforms.

“It’s just capitalizing on a concentrated marketing effort,” Horton said, “where the dollars can be spent more effectively at once.”

For marketing economy, Horton cited Greg Whiteley’s documentary “Mitt,” which chronicled the behind-the-scenes doings of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. That film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 17, reaping a lot of publicity, and debuted seven days later on the video-streaming service Netflix.

“By all accounts, it seems to be a big success for them,” Horton said.

Another success story Horton cites is that of filmmaker Shane Carruth and his head-scratching science-fiction drama “Upstream Color.”

Carruth, Horton said, made “a very pointed effort to release the film on his own, on his own terms.”

After premiering “Upstream Color” at Sundance 2013, Carruth released it at one New York theater on April 7, 2013. It had the highest per-screen average of any movie released that week, Horton said.

In a short national roll-out (which included the Broadway), the movie made $444,098, according to the website Box Office Mojo — which is fairly strong for an art movie with no-name actors. Then, in early May 2013, “Upstream Color” was released on digital platforms.

Even when indie films are available at home, moviegoers still go to the theater, said Tori Baker, executive director of the Salt Lake Film Society — the nonprofit that runs the Broadway and Tower theaters.

“[People say,] ‘I want to go out tonight, I don’t want to sit on my couch,’” Baker said. “You’ll still choose to go out of your home for cinema, because you want that cinema experience.”

This is especially true for issue-oriented films, Baker said. “They don’t just want to see the anti-war movie,” she said. “They want to go talk to people about their anti-war views.”

Andersen, at Megaplex, noted that this isn’t the first time Hollywood fretted about new technology destroying the theatergoing experience. In the 1950s, it was television. In the 1980s, it was home video. And now it’s video-on-demand.

Movie theaters have always countered with bigger movie experiences — such as CinemaScope and 3-D in the ’50s, blockbuster films in the ’80s, and now massive digital screens and 3-D (again).

“It might be fun at first” to watch a movie at home or on a smartphone, Andersen said, “but they’re going to long for the big-screen experience. … People will always want a night out.”

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