The VOD Trailblazer: An Interview with Jonathan Marlow
GreenCine has cemented itself as a staple of the indie film scene. Its blog, the GreenCine Daily, is required reading. Its VOD service defines itself by offering independent and international cinema that is previously unreleased in the United States. Offering non-exclusive deals to filmmakers, GreenCine provides a cost-efficient ways for indie filmmakers to reach an audience. There are surely more lucrative ways to survive and thrive in world of online distribution, but the folks at GreenCine believe they are fulfilling a purpose by allowing these unique voices to be heard.
Jonathan Marlow, GreenCine’s direct of content acquisitions and business development is, in my humble opinion, one of the more forward thinking dudes, in the biz. He sees online technology as a constant and growing source of opportunity—be it VOD, set top boxes, a VOD/DVD hybrid release—for indie filmmakers to reach audiences. I had the opportunity to pick his brain, appropriately via email, about the future of VOD for indie filmmakers and what lies ahead for GreenCine. Below is the transcript. His comments are untouched. Only my long-winded questions have been mercifully cut down.
There are probably more lucrative ways for GreenCine, but you remain committed to indie films. Where does this sense of mission come from?
We have always championed the work of lesser-known filmmakers. In part, this is a reflection of our own interests. We are simply more attracted to these films than the majority of movies that find their way to the multiplex. There is also a larger strategy at work. With our virtually unlimited shelf-space, we can feature titles that bricks-and-mortar locations are unable to offer. I suspect that it is natural for GreenCine to gravitate to these films versus the movies that are available everywhere. Did we choose the independent route or did it choose us? In a sense, the answer can be found somewhere in-between.
GreenCine, to my knowledge, is one of the only, perhaps the only, VOD sites that advertises itself as an exhibitor of independent films that have not previously been released. Do you feel that VOD will soon become a profitable distribution path for indie filmmakers? Aside from the obvious gratification of having one’s work seen, what is the advantage of VOD for the indie filmmaker?
I certainly hope that Video-on-Demand will grow into a lucrative distribution model for individual filmmakers. Currently, it only functions as a modest supplemental component to traditional distribution pathways. The revenues for VOD continues to grow but these figures are presently eclipsed by theatrical and DVD revenues. I suspect that will remain the case for at least the next twelve to eighteen months.
What has the audience been like for these films? Has it been mostly the art house crowd, or has it moved beyond this niche?
It depends on the title, of course. For documentaries and international films in particular, the audience mirrors the typical theatrical audience for these genres (although skewing a bit younger than their offline counterparts).
When I interviewed you for MovieMaker you mentioned the possibility of using VOD, in collaboration with a theatrical release, to create a national release for an art house film. This idea of yours always struck me as visionary, the future of exhibition for art house films. Will you be putting this plan into action anytime soon?
We're still working on it. Every time we get close to launching a true day-and-date title, the producers back-out as the theatrical date approaches. Now that the very visible release of Bubble occurred (along with the public perception that the experiment was a failure), we're not as aggressive about day-and-date. We're doing it with a number of titles with simultaneous DVD and VOD, however. Within a few years, it will likely become a quite normal method for independent film distribution to do a simultaneous theatrical, DVD, VOD and Pay-Per-View TV release. The model won't apply to blockbusters, at least not in the short term, because there is too much money at stake.
Blogs have emerged as a cheap—even free—way to self-publish your own work. For non-commercial artists like poets, this form is a godsend. Is there a cinematic equivalent to the blog?
From the self-publishing standpoint, you could say that sites like IndieFlix and CustomFlix allow filmmakers to distribute DVDs without committing to large replication runs. GreenCine, of course, allows for much the same opportunity from a purely on-demand standpoint. These are all low- to no-cost avenues for distribution.
For decades Roger Corman cornered a lucrative corner of the industry—the exploitation market. He thrived through hundreds of projects by sticking to a simple equation—if he made a movie for a certain amount of money about a certain topic (usually something related to a current issue, mixed with some violence and sex) a certain number of people would see it and he would turn a profit. Who will be the Roger Corman of the Internet? Will a filmmaker emerge who figures out a consistently profitable way to create content specifically for VOD or the ‘Net? Daniel Myrick, the co-creator of The Blair Witch Project has an Internet only serial program, The Strand: Venice CA, which features professional production values. Do you think this model will prove successful?
The model that Roger Corman and William Castle used is as viable today as it was then. Generate more money in admissions than you spent making the film. For typical self-distributed revenues from DVD, VOD and TV, this would conservatively mean spending in the neighborhood of $50K or less to make a feature. Very little money, admittedly. As for serial web-based entertainment, it hasn't happened yet. Perhaps Myrick will make it work. I suspect that we're still a year or two away from a true hit.
If VOD emerges as a viable model, do you think that it will lead filmmakers to create more challenging, less formulaic material, knowing that they could create and distribute their work outside of mainstream channels?
Naturally, we have every expectation that new avenues of distribution will allow for more challenging work. Meanwhile, there are plenty of non-formulaic films being made today, particularly outside of the United States, that simply are not getting distributed in this country. We hope to help these films find their audience by making many of them available on-demand.
A number of companies—Akimbo, Netflix, Disney—are trying to enter the TiVo world. What do you make of all of this? Does GreenCine have any plans to enter the DVR world?
We already work with Akimbo and a number of other companies in the set-top space. For Video-on-Demand to really succeed, we have to reach the so-called "lean back" environment of the living room. Most folks are not interested in watching a feature film on their computer nor are they interested in connecting their computer to their television. There needs to be a bridge. A number of these devices on the market now (and many more yet to arrive) will allow the average consumer to transparently connect a multi-functional box to their home entertainment system.
What is next on the horizon for GreenCine? How do you stay one step ahead of your competition?
Admittedly, we don't spend much time concerning ourselves with our competition. If we did, we would always be attempting to react to their efforts. Instead, we simply remain preoccupied with the needs of our audience.