Major blockbuster franchises like The Avengers and The Hunger Games help keep Hollywood studios afloat (hence, the term “tentpole”), but awards season is just as much a part of the industry’s DNA as the big-budget blockbuster release schedule. Every year, millions of people tune into the Oscar telecast and spend the months leading up to the ceremony discussing what films are worthy of a win.
However, The Academy Awards have been hit with the stigma that they are “out of touch” with the taste of the modern moviegoer. To the organization’s credit, they have worked on bucking that notion in the past couple of years, as Best Picture nominees like Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Gravity, and The Wolf of Wall Street (among others) proved to be commercially viable as well as garnering critical acclaim.
However, in 2014, the bad reputation has reared its ugly head once again. A number of the films that are currently touted as the ones in consideration - including Whiplash, Foxcatcher, and The Imitation Game - are playing only in a limited theatrical release, meaning that unless you live in one of the select markets, certain viewers won’t be able to see them until they hit home media several months after their initial debut.
Why is this a problem? For starters, it limits the number of cinephiles who can see a given movie after it is released, and during awards season, film buffs are interested in any and all titles that come with the phrase “for your consideration.” In the case of the Oscars: If a majority of the population have not seen and discussed the movies that have been nominated, it makes drawing people into the Oscar race that much harder.
But that’s only the surface of this issue. Limited theatrical release is an antiquated practice that just doesn’t vibe with the landscape of modern society. Before the age of Twitter and Facebook, these “smaller” films relied on the strategy to generate interest. Written reviews by nationally recognized critics would help spread the word about a film’s artistic merits, and the per theater average at the box office would give studios an idea as to how successful their movie would be with the moviegoing public. Based on the response, they’d either keep it in limited or expand it.
Nowadays, however, the way word-of-mouth spreads has changed drastically. Moments after the first press screening, social media can be a powerful tool in determining the widespread interest of a particular release. Critics have the ability to share their thoughts with the world immediately after seeing a film - and coupled with the presence of trailers on the Internet, it leads to certain Oscar-buzzed works being in high demand within a short period of time. Only, many people still can’t see the films even when the interest has been generated.
One quick look on Twitter can show studio executives that a considerable audience would like to see their film, so the question of response isn’t up for debate. That said, theater distribution costs can run extremely high, and there’s no guarantee that a smaller flick is going to crack the mainstream in a way that would warrant such an expense. Luckily, there is an option out there that would be beneficial for all parties involved: On Demand rentals.
The On Demand Solution
Earlier this year, the sci-fi film Snowpiercer was released to great acclaim. Despite making just $4.5 million in 356 theaters, it still became one of the most talked-about films of the summer. The reasoning for that was because the Weinstein Company decided to distribute the movie to On Demand services just a few weeks after its initial theatrical debut. In the first two weeks of the On Demand experiment, Snowpiercer pulled in $3.8 million, illustrating that this is a model worth pursuing.
By taking advantage of the modern technologies available to them, the studio’s move produced a two-fold positive effect. Not only were they able to make more money on their investment, but also more movie fans were able to see the film and spread the word about it to their friends. Getting to enjoy a new film from the comfort of your own home is a luxury we all dream of - with increasing frequency, these days.
The one issue with making the On Demand (or even iTunes rental) simultaneous release more widespread would be the threat of upsetting theater owners who are not pleased with the notion of their institution being cut out. That said, the numbers show that they wouldn’t exactly be missing out on a goldmine should indie or 'awards-bait' films skip the movie houses. Whiplash has been out in theaters since October 10 and has made a grand total of $3.9 million in those eight weeks. Meanwhile, as talk about the movie surges in critics voting circles around this time, how many cinephiles are still unable to actually see what all the talk is about?
It’s not out of the question to envision On Demand leading to prosperous results for other limited release titles from this year. Again, these are movies that have received plenty of attention on the awards circuit and we’re willing to wager that a cinephile or two would be more than happy to pay a surcharge in order to see what all the fuss is about. If Snowpiercer was able to bring in millions, Best Picture hopefuls could easily make just as much, if not more.
Obviously, this wouldn’t need to apply to every single awards contender that hits the screen during the season. Certain projects enter theaters with a healthy dose of mainstream appeal (Gone Girl, Unbroken) that make it easy to justify a nationwide release in thousands of theaters. However, not all Oscar titles will be able to achieve that crossover status, so using On Demand to get the films in front of more people would be a smart and convenient way to include more viewers in the awards race discussion. It just makes sense.
The limited release problem is one that won’t be going away anytime soon. On December 31, A Most Violent Year, which is another film looked at by many as a legitimate awards contender, will screen in theaters in New York and Los Angeles only. They say an expansion is planned in January, but as the “expansions” of other movies this year have shown, that doesn’t necessarily mean “nationwide.”
As we progress towards Oscar night, Hollywood studios need to take a good hard look at this dilemma and figure out what they can do to make these in-demand films available to as many as possible. Fortunately, there’s a solution right in front of them. The onus is on Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight, and others to embrace 21st century viewing habits and make synchronized Limited Theatrical releases and On Demand premieres a major part of the industry.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.