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Tuesday, 22 April 2014 17:19

Joss Whedon Tests New Distribution Model

Written by  Gordon Meyer
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As evidenced by his groundbreaking TV series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” writer/director/ producer Joss Whedon is no stranger to thinking outside the box and having it work.

His latest feature project, a movie called In Your Eyes, which he wrote and executive produced, had its World Premiere on April 20 at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s the second feature from Whedon’s Bellweather Pictures, a company he started with his wife, producer Kai Cole, to make micro-budget passion projects like “In Your Eyes” and Whedon’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

But rather than pursue traditional theatrical distribution with all its complexities and expense, Whedon has taken a different route. The day after the movie’s Tribeca premiere, he made it available worldwide on the internet.  For $5.00, anyone with a high speed internet connection and a current browser can purchase a 72 hour viewing window for the movie on the movie’s website with embedded video from Vimeo, a streaming video competitor to YouTube.  The site offers the opening credits as a preview and the full feature.

Because of high profile successes like “Buffy,” “Dollhouse,” and the Marvel blockbuster feature, The Avengers, Whedon has developed a substantial brand for himself and a passionate fan base, which gives him a substantial advantage when it comes to playing the self-distribution game.  Every form of distribution is a numbers game of sorts.  It’s all about creating first awareness, then interest and ultimately excitement for your project.  The more people learn about the movie in a positive light, the more likely they are to buy tickets – or in this case, online rentals.

To a large degree, theatrical distribution is still mired in a business model that’s almost a century old. Because of the finite number of screens available, exhibitors are most open to supporting movies with strong (and expensive) marketing campaigns.  How long they remain on those screens is determined every Monday by exhibitors, based on how many tickets they sold.  It’s a sink or swim environment that makes it challenging for smaller pictures to find and build an audience.

By bypassing traditional theatrical exhibition, Whedon and his colleagues save on substantial expenses like prints and revenue sharing with both exhibitors and a distributor. Because their distribution overhead is practically (but not completely) nil and the lion’s share of the revenue from those $5.00 rentals goes directly to Bellweather Pictures. They also have the luxury of being able to take their time in building word of mouth with an audience without having to worry about how many screens they can retain.

But they still face the challenge of getting the word out.  Whedon has some major advantages over most indie filmmakers.  He’s a recognized brand with a large and enthusiastic fan base, who are adept at using social media to get the word out.  His cast includes a number of attractive and popular up and coming actors like Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks, The Pretty One) and Michael Stahl-David (Cloverfield, The Black Donnellys), each with their own growing and social media savvy fan base. So even though Bellweather may be spared the tremendous expense of advertising in traditional media, especially television, they still have a number of low cost ways to promote the movie that may not be available to other indie producers.

The more successful Whedon is, the more likely it is that we’ll be seeing more and more high profile artists producing and digitally self-distributing their passion projects. Still, if Whedon and his colleagues can get In Your Eyes to just break even from their VOD revenues, much less generate a healthy profit, he’s way ahead of the game because he still has potential revenue streams from packaged media, cable sales, and distribution through digital streaming services like Netflix.  But you can bet that all these outlets, especially DVD/BD labels, will be looking very carefully at how the movie’s VOD availability will affect their bottom line, which in turn, will affect how much revenue those other distribution outlets will generate for Whedon.  The story is just beginning.


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