In the summer of 2000, four college friends and I grew mustaches, bought highway patrol uniforms and shot a $1.2 million budgeted independent film called Super Troopers. In January, 2001, at the Egyptian Theater in Park City, Utah, we screened the film for a packed, drunk and stoned, midnight crowd and sold the film to Fox Searchlight for $3.25 million. And we celebrated.
Fox would spend an estimated $10 million to release a film with no bankable stars in it. The film was released on 1,800 screens, and would go on to gross roughly 19 million dollars in the U.S. But the real success story for the film was DVD. Over the next few years, Super Troopers would go on to gross somewhere between 65 million -- 80 million dollars on DVD and video to become one of the most successful independent films of all time.
That was then. The film distribution business has gone through a lot of changes.
A year ago, my producer friend Jason Blum called me to his office to discuss possible movies we could make. Jason has made a name for himself producing the enormously successful low-budget horror films, Paranormal Activity (the film and its sequels) and Insidious. The films were made for modest budgets, but had big commercial hooks that allowed them to compete with studio slates. He asked if we could do something similar with a comedy. I showed him the script for The Babymakers, which is a film about a couple trying to have a baby. During the course of the film, we find out that the husband's (Paul Schneider) sperm is no good due to recent testicular trauma (Yeah, nut hits). We then find out that his sperm used to be good because he used to donate sperm when he needed extra money for his wife's (Olivia Munn) ring. When he tries to get his old sample back, he is denied. So, he and his pals stage a sperm bank heist. It's Ocean's 11... with sperm.
We made The Babymakers for a modest budget and then sold it to Millennium Entertainment. Millennium Entertainment is not a massive company with a limitless advertising budget. So, they are going to release the film using what many hope will be "the new model" of releasing for smaller films. It's called "Day and Date" releasing. And it means that the film will come out theatrically in 10 major cities and be available on iTunes for download and also Video on demand, on the same day. The theory is that we can focus our advertising budget on one release date, and let audiences watch the film however they want. Want to go on a date night with your significant other to the movies? Great. Want to smoke grass and watch it with your friends at home? Terrific. Want to download it to your iPad and watch it at the gym? Wonderful. We don't care, as long as you don't steal it.
We are in a moment of transition in the distribution business. DVD is no longer the workhouse it used to be. Blockbuster Video has cut down on its outlets. Wallmart and Best Buy still sell a lot of DVDs, but everything seems to be moving towards downloading to iPads, computers, phones and to Internet TVs. It's a sea change. I, myself, downloaded and watched The Wire, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Mad Men and The Walking Dead, on my iPad, while walking on a treadmill. I never turned a TV on once. I never inserted a DVD. Viewing habits are changing.
Conventional wisdom is that to release a studio comedy wide (3,000 screens), you need to spend $20-25 million for prints and advertising. Production budgets on studio comedies range from $15 million on the low end to $100 million on the high end. These are big bets, which have made the studios more cautious about which films get green lit. Specifically, the studios have become nervous about advertising costs on smaller films, and so they are green lighting far fewer of them. But many of the greatest, funniest, most interesting films of the past decade fall within that range. Would American Beauty be made today? Maybe not. When you cut these smaller movies out, you're left with the feeling that everything Hollywood is doing is either a super hero movie or a TV remake. A new model has to emerge.
In the past, the independent world picked up the slack. There used to be lots of legitimate independent distributors: Fox Searchlight, Miramax, Lionsgate, Warner Independent, Focus Features, Paramount Vantage, Picturehouse and Fine Line.
Most of them have closed.
Of those, only Fox Searchlight, Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company still market specialized films in wide release. This has created a gap in the business, which Millennium Entertainment and some other new distributors are hoping to fill with new release models like "Day and Date" releasing.
Let's be honest. There has been a stigma around letting movies be seen on home screens on the same day as theatrical screens. Universal said they were going to do it with Tower Heist, but they backed off when challenged by the theater owners. I understand where the theater owners are coming from on big studio movies. They're worried about people skipping the theater experience.
But for smaller films, the stigma has to go. The film Margin Call, starring Kevin Spacey tried the "Day and Date" model and was financially successful. If independent films are to be able to compete, something like this is going to be the way forward.
And so into the new world of distribution we go. Will people go to the theaters to watch The Babymakers or will they download it on iTunes or On demand? Should I care? Based on the history of how most people saw Super Troopers, and based on my desire to continue to see small, interesting films, the answer has to be no.
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