There has been a recent trend in Hollywood to try and generate buzz for low-budget films by giving them a limited release. This is most often done around awards season because the Academy tends to nominate films that are in more of an art house tradition. Some films that are released earlier in the year get a limited release that grows as its per screen average ticks up. 12 Years a Slave is a good example of this. Still, it wasn’t until the end of December that a movie theater within a fifty mile radius of my house was showing that film. That’s insane if your goal is to make money from ticket sales, but that isn’t what the industry is all about anymore. DVD sales and digital media account for a larger slice of the entertainment pie than ever. If you’re smart and you release a big buzz movie like 12 Years a Slave earlier in the year you could theoretically launch the DVD version of the film right before awards season. If you can make more money off DVD sales than you can from the box office take then this strategy makes sense for both the filmmakers and the studio.
What prompted me to ask this question in the first place was the slow trickle in which DVD screeners have become available over the past couple of weeks. You can find screeners online using a basic BitTorrent engine. What surprised me about the availability of these screeners wasn’t the mere fact that they were out there. They’re always out there. What I was surprised by was how two screeners never became widely available on the same day. Oftentimes you will see one film become available like say the Hobbit and then you’ll see an art house film become available a week or two later like Her. What peaked my curiousity the most was that there were screeners of Saving Mr. Banks available before the film launched in theaters. That film has a great cast and market appeal if you have a decent marketing strategy. How many Tom Hanks films gross under $100 million? Not many. A Tom Hanks film about Walt Disney? Yeah, that would tend to get some attention in a normal film environment. Alas, we are not in normal times however. The entertainment industry is losing a huge amount of revenue due to the massive availability of torrents. If you have a computer you can download music, movies, TV shows, even video games and the industry has been unable to load their content with tons of tracking content so it is still difficult to catch people who are proliferating this stuff on a massive level. This should strike you as odd seeing how easy it is for the NSA to install malware on your computer without you knowing about it. Why is the government better at keeping tabs on you than the free market? Google knows what I’m doing. Why doesn’t Sony, Paramount, or 20th Century Fox?
The simple answer to the question posed above is that they do. Indeed, it would be naive to suggest that an industry that can track every click you make on the internet is somehow unable to stop you from pirating movies and music. It would make more sense if they were monitoring your activity so that they can get you to spend money on other more profitable things. Making movies is not that profitable for filmmakers. Studios only make big money on independent films like Paranormal Activity that can gross a huge amount of money relative to the production costs or a film like The Hobbit or a James Bond film that – although it will cost upwards of $250 million to make – will likely generate over $1 billion at the box office. Making movies that can get you a 4:1 rate of return will help your business but if that rate is closer to 1:1 then why bother? The answer is that you need to have original content in order to maintain public interest and Hollywood learned long ago that it cannot make creative blockbusters (outside of animation) that will appeal to a wide audience. So, they continue to produce high-quality content, but make it tougher for consumers to get their hands on it. This fulfills to basic needs of consumers: the want to see buzzworthy content and a way to access it quickly and affordably. If you’re watching a film like Spike Jonze’s Her there isn’t a huge difference between seeing it on the big screen and seeing it on your sixty inch LCD at home. Indeed, even gravity wasn’t that spectacular on screen vs. my home entertainment system.
The bonus incentive for production companies to leak screeners comes in generating interest around the studio and not the film. You know how on a DVD screener it always lists the production company every ten minutes? That’s not done by accident. Typically DVD screeners are only given out to members of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences. Virtually anyone who is an artist in Hollywood who has any money can be a member of the Academy. So the people who are watching these screeners are creative types who are likely looking for funding for various content that they’re producing. How convenient that the best films of the year also get to advertise which studio “took a risk” on this original idea. This practice of selectively leaking DVD screeners also makes consumers feel like they have insider information when award season comes around. Many people complain that they haven’t had the opportunity to go and see many of the Best Picture nominees in theaters. Little do these people know that this is by design. Studios can do more for the films they produce by putting little money behind a marketing campaign, creating a positive word of mouth campaign among consumers and then relying on the market to flood with their product via strategically timed leaks. This idea isn’t all that different than what WikiLeaks did. The only difference is that studios aren’t leaking secrets, they’re trying to make you feel like you’re “in the know” all the while casually reminding the creative types who devour the best content Hollywood has to offer where to take their products and services. It’s one of those unique win-win-win situations.