Once upon a time, YouTube was a haven for amateurs, with its "broadcast yourself" tagline, home movies and lip-synched musical numbers. Now it's playing host to Hollywood professionals. On Friday, Magnolia Pictures is premiering The Princess of Nebraska, the latest film from director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Maid in Manhattan), via streaming video in the recently launched YouTube Screening Room.
A few short years ago let's call them the Little Miss Sunshine years things were looking up in the world of independent films. New titles debuted at Sundance and walked away with multimillion dollar theatrical deals. But as the number of films flooding the art house circuit spiked, audiences have sagged and theaters themselves have become more scarce. Declining box office receipts have resulted in a subdued festival marketplace, where lucrative acquisitions seem to be a thing of the past. For every art-house blockbuster like Juno (which took in $229 million globally) or big-ticket festival purchase like Hamlet 2 (picked up at Sundance in January for a reported $10 million), there are hundreds of films floundering and forgotten on the fringe.
So it's no surprise to see filmmakers and distributors looking for a new model for connecting films with audiences. Last month, Michael Moore released his latest documentary, Slacker Uprising, online and free of charge. For Magnolia, premiering Wang's film on YouTube provides a unique solution to an unusual challenge. Late last year, Wang was completing work on two films: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska, both adaptations of stories by Yiyun Li that focus on three generations of Chinese natives now living in America. Prayers, which was released in select art houses in September, tells the tale of an elderly father visiting his divorced daughter in America. Princess leaps forward a generation, depicting the challenges confronting a tech-savvy Chinese exchange student in Nebraska who discovers she's pregnant and flees to San Francisco. "I like the idea of a parallel showing of A Thousand Years and Princess," says Wang, who considers the two works "sister films." "In some festivals, they've shown the two films back to back; in France, they've shown them side by side in the same multiplex."
When Magnolia took on the films, they had a difficult choice: Package the two works together like last year's Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse or find a way to release them separately. Ray Price, who oversaw marketing and distribution for Wang's films, was charged with developing a strategy for the two movies. "We've already seen that the market is not friendly to double bills," he said, referring to the low $25 million box office total for Grindhouse. "People don't want to watch double bills, and it forced us to be innovative ... we wanted these films to have a concurrent release, but at the same time we wanted to be smart about defining success."