The Film Festival Comes to Your Living Room

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A scene from Alexander the Last with Jess Weixler, center, and Justin Rice

Director Joe Swanberg went to bed in Austin, Texas, last Friday evening excited about the world premiere of his new movie, Alexander the Last, the following night at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival. But by the time he woke up — still more than 12 hours ahead of the debut — his inbox was already flooded with e-mails from colleagues in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, congratulating him on the movie they had just finished watching and the reviews they had read in the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and the New Yorker. Within a single day, Swanberg had experienced a process that usually takes even the luckiest independent filmmaker a year — or longer — to go through. Reached via phone on Sunday evening, he was clearly overcome by it all. "I feel like I can say this is a watershed moment," he said. "The promise of the digital revolution, this democratization of movies, is now really happening."

Swanberg's breakthrough with Alexander the Last was largely a result of a nationwide video-on-demand venture undertaken by distributor IFC Films. For several years now, the studio has programmed two separate on-demand initiatives that can be accessed by home viewers across the U.S. via their cable system's movies-on-demand platform. One venture, IFC in Theaters, reaches 55 million U.S. households, offering viewers the chance to buy and stream movies currently in limited theatrical release. Festival Direct, meanwhile, offers 37 million households six films a month that the studio has picked up from film festivals around the world. (See pictures of the glitz and glamour of the Venice Film Festival.)

"It was hard in the beginning to get filmmakers interested in this," says Ryan Werner, marketing head of IFC Films. "But as we've started working with filmmakers like Joe and with Steven Soderbergh, for Che, we've found that more artists are starting to realize the audience this approach can reach — the ability to be in front of this many eyeballs at the flip of a switch."

Just as Hollywood's largest studios have been debating the "DVD window" for years — torn between maximizing the profitability of a movie's DVD release and cannibalizing its theatrical campaign — so have independent filmmakers been debating how to cope with the window between the film festival and the art house, where attendance has been sagging. Some distributors have encouraged directors to forgo the theater, advocating direct-to-DVD strategies or premieres on such premium cable networks as HBO. But many filmmakers say the disadvantage of those distribution plans is that they fail to generate the press and word of mouth that accompany even a limited theatrical release. "I think it's gotten to the point where distribution companies are organizing theatrical screenings solely to generate reviews," Swanberg says. "It creates a scenario where studios are basically paying for these reviews, taking a huge loss on one or two weeks of poorly marketed screenings just to get the New York Times and Los Angeles Times reviews."

So with Alexander the Last, Swanberg and IFC Films set out to see if they could bridge this gulf. Under the old model, Swanberg would have taken the film to festivals to drum up interest among distributors and then waited a year or longer for a theatrical campaign to reach major cities. A few months later, the DVD would hit shelves in smaller markets. But with Alexander the Last, which opened in every major market via Festival Direct at midnight on Saturday — along with four other South by Southwest titles — Swanberg says he's eliminated the window between his festival screening and home-video campaign, all the while substantially reducing the cost of a national release and maximizing the word-of-mouth buzz from his Austin premiere. By comparison, the Amy Adams comedy Sunshine Cleaning, which opened theatrically the day before Swanberg's screening, waited 14 months after its festival debut for an initial theatrical debut, on four screens.

As more filmmakers consider unorthodox release strategies — Wayne Wang premiered The Princess of Nebraska last year on YouTube, and Soderbergh agreed to a simultaneous video-on-demand release for his Cannes selection Che — Swanberg says it's the media's acceptance of these nontheatrical debuts that has the potential to alter the economics of the independent film industry. "It's so palpable for me to remember that frustration I felt growing up in the suburbs of Chicago," he says. "I remember reading Film Comment and reading about these movies I really couldn't see because they never came to the theaters near me. What I love about this on-demand distribution model is that kids who aren't living in major cities will still have access to these films. They can partake in film culture as it's happening."

Janet Pierson, producer of the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, recalls feeling a similar frustration when she worked at New York City's Film Forum in the 1980s. "We would struggle to get the national press interested because we'd have this exciting film opening in New York," she says. "But all their questions would center around 'When is it going to be national?' " Pierson says that just as technology has altered the face of film production and distribution, the role of the film festival is changing as well: festivals can serve not only as a launchpad for filmmakers hoping for a theatrical campaign, but also as a marketplace of invention, where filmmakers can shop for varying distribution strategies, deciding which approach — theater, DVD, Internet, on-demand — makes the most sense for their project.

"There's still nothing like a live event," Pierson says. "It's still so important for a filmmaker to experience the electricity of a live event, and like a musician, there's something you get from touring that you don't get from buying the CD. But we should be the place where people can experiment and get creative about breaking the mold and deciding which of the models out there makes the most sense for your film."

See pictures of the last movie-poster artist.

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