Until recently, if you wanted to work on your indie cred by seeing the Next Big Thing in independent film, you had to hop on a plane to Sundance, Toronto or Tribeca. But a growing number of independent films are also available on cable across the country as video-on-demand rentals -- even while they're playing in theaters and at film festivals.
Case in point: the much-buzzed-about millennials romantic comedy Breaking Upwards, in which 20-something stars Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones breathe life and humor back into a genre you might have given up for dead. Even before the film opened on the big screen in New York, you could watch it all over the country on cable TV, as a video-on-demand rental.
"It definitely helps build buzz, which is a big pro for a small film like ours," says Lister-Jones, who also directed the film and co-wrote it with Lister-Jones.
There was a time when filmmakers like Lister-Jones and Wein might have feared that releasing a film through video on demand, or VOD, would hurt its artistic credibility. But they don't seem worried.
"If someone at home rents it for six bucks, that's something that might be more appealing to them so they don't have to leave their house and go spend $12 in the theater," calculates Wein, "and then if they like it, they tell their friend, who may actually prefer to go see it in the theater. So that right there helps us."
Thanks to movies like Breaking Upwards, there's a dramatic shift under way in how the industry views VOD. It used to be conventional wisdom that making a movie available for home viewing while it was still playing in theaters would hurt your take at the box office. Not anymore.
"I don't see any cannibalization. I see it actually expanding the audience," says Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment, which released Breaking Upwards. IFC was an early champion of releasing movies in theaters and on demand at the same time.
These are tough times in the independent film business. Many Hollywood studios have folded their specialty-film divisions, making it harder than ever for low-budget films to find theatrical distribution. That means films need to capitalize even more on the screenings they do get at film festivals.
Consider sex & drugs & rock'n'roll, a biopic of British rocker Ian Dury, starring Andy Serkis. The movie played last month at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was also available to people who couldn't make it to the screenings in New York via video on demand, according to Geoff Gilmore, Tribeca's creative director.
"How many times have filmmakers come back to us and said, 'The point of my greatest visibility was definitely when I was at the festival'?" Gilmore asks. "That's what we're helping to amplify -- we're amplifying that buzz."
The Sundance and South by Southwest Festivals also offered video-on-demand rentals this year. But don't expect VOD to replace the traditional art-house theater just yet. Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones say they fought hard to get Breaking Upwards into at least a few theaters; if they hadn't, Wein says, there's no way they would have gotten a rave review in The New York Times.
And even though Lister-Jones is of a generation raised on Netflix and YouTube, she says there's still something about the big-screen experience that can't be duplicated at home.
"The ritual is lost," she insists, "and the sort of event of going [out] to see something that is special."