This is not about Blue Ruin as a film. It’s not about how it’s paced, or how the thriller works/does not work in an indie environment, or about the statements that it makes, or it’s cast n’ crew. This is about how it is distributed and why this will mean the end of the $14 movie ticket.
Stay with me, here. This is important.
For a long time now, independent features and their creators were beholden to the old system of film distribution. Enter festivals, work over distribution companies like they’re a grandmother determining who gets the inheritance, make a run on <300 theaters, pray that your connections get you noticed for awards season, and then sell the hell out of your DVD. That’s where the real money is, away from the percentages of theater owners, distributors, NATO, etc. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as all that.
Most award shows require a certain period of time between theatrical release and home release. This is to protect both the theater owners investment (“Why would somebody come to a theater when they can see it at home?”) and studio’s stranglehold on the system.
There have been attempts to break from this pattern, of course. Mark Cuban tried to get indie filmmakers to release DVDs day-of so that he could sell them at a reduced price to people coming out of screenings at his Landmark theatres; it has had modest success. Neil Gaiman, Kevin Smith, Veronica Mars, and others have gone the Kickstarter/roadshow route to a bit of a better tune, though it helps if you have a big name attached.
Now the big one has come, as evidenced by the loving ode to Blue Ruin above: video-on-demand, in the form of iTunes, Vimeo, and a host of other streaming sites that allow for the purchase/rental of a feature. Only God Forgives, Margin Call, Drinking Buddies, Upstream Color: these are just a few of the major releases that have succeeded with this model. Now even ultra-low-budget films are seeing the light.
So, what has caused this shift?
Switch to Digital over Film – One of the biggest hidden costs of pre-digital filmmaking was the printing and distribution of the actual reels. Switching from film to binary code (only 90 theaters in 2004 but 84% of all US screens in 2012) has pushed a lot of art-house and independent theaters to the brink and beyond of bankruptcy. That means fewer screens for indies and an even larger reliance on non-theater revenue.
HD Expansion in All Markets – Technology is not entirely bad, though. HD costs for TVs and mobile devices, along with cameras and production equipment, have dropped by over 50% in a decade (there is some debate about the actual definition of HD and the total numbers; suffice it to say that its substantial). As consumers watch more and more of their media on phones, tablets, and at home, they no longer need the “theater experience” to relish in high-definition viewing. Plus, why would someone want to spend $14 bucks, plus $6 popcorn, for a movie when you can buy it for half the cost and watch it home with a brew?
The Studios’ Push to Alternate Revenue Streams – With the studios also ever-shortening the time between release on screen and DVD, festivals and award shows have largely begun to give up on strict rules in favor of token homage. TV Movies and straight-to-DVD pieces are still largely out of bounds, but even a modest theater run is enough to get in at this point (helped, oddly, by the near-universality of digital theatres).
People’s Lack of Patience – People expect streaming content delivered to them quickly and without fuss. This may cause a little bit of a speedbump in the future, but the cat’s out of the bag. People aren’t going back to waiting around for their content to reach them. Netflix considered releasing both House of Cards and Arrested Development in weekly slots before caving to fan-demand and throwing every episode online at once.
What you wind up with is cheaper and easier delivery, higher profits, and greater visibility. True, this is methodology is not without some drawbacks and wit will almost certainly take a while, but there are always growing pains when new paradigms emerge. What it will mean in the long-run for the consumer, however, is more films at more inexpensive prices. People will look back at this time period as the last days of when people were willing to spend a ton of money on a “spectacle” film that they “had” to see because all of their friends were going to watch it. Soon, anybody will be able to watch anything, anywhere, anytime, for less than the cost of a McDonald’s value meal.
If you’re a studio, you should be concerned. If you’re an indie filmmaker, you should be grabbing your camera.