It’s been a while since I was an active principal in the DVD game, but I am still asked on a frequent basis why a certain film (or films) remains unreleased.
This isn’t a simple answer, and in contemplating this topic for my column I went back and I re-read one of the greatest pop-culture manifestos, Steve Albini’s The Problem With Music. It was written in response to the numerous inquiries the punk turned corporate producer received from thousands of wannabe rock stars, and it painted a pretty grim portrait of the charnelhouse known to most as the music industry.
Originally published in Maximum Rock N Roll in the early 90s, it has remained mostly relevant since then. I will consider myself successful in my explanation of The Problem With Cult Movies if a mere percentage of Steve’s audience is as enlightened.
So without further ado, I give you my explanation as to why your favorite, obscure, overlooked, classic, seminal, gem of entertainment is not on DVD or Bluray, and why it is unlikely to ever be so.
Unlike music, a film is a collaborative effort that requires a large group of people.
Even the smallest, independent film with a non-existent budget has involved at least fifty people. There are animated films that have been created by one animator over a lifetime, but even those require music; they probably require voice talent, and if you’ve actually seen this film and don’t know the director personally, there has been a distributor or marketing person behind your viewing of the film. Some of those non-creative types have been paid, and some have lent their efforts out of love of the project, but most films have no author; they are an industry of many people, even if a few carry most of that burden.
In the case of most films, aside form the writer and director, there are casts of actors, editors, lighting and sound grips, make-up and wardrobe personnel, special effects technicians, electricians, best boys, animal wranglers, stunt people, camera assistants, director’s assistants, personal assistants, personal trainers, scenics, and lots of people who are listed as producers and co-producers among a list that can number in the thousands. Which is why most end credit rolls aren’t carried out to black over a minuet, but instead are accompanied by one or two full-length pop songs and a final sample of the original score (all of which require teams of people, themselves), during which most people head quickly for the exits the beat fellow theatergoers on the mad dashes to the bathrooms and parking lots.
As such, there is an expense involved, and in lack of expense there is an expectation of payback.
Many first-time filmmakers have gone far into debt to finance their dream, and they’ve often talked friends and relatives into going there with them. Like their Hollywood counterparts, they’ve eschewed good judgment and made films that either only please themselves or try to please too many –and in so doing, please none. There are occasional exceptions which are held high and presented as the rule: My Dinner With Andre (not a first-time filmmaker), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (though low budget by Hollywood standards was a multi-million-dollar production from a high-powered celebrity’s wife), The Blair Witch Project (which spent one hundred times its production budget in marketing costs), etc. These are all excellent films on top of being independent productions, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t stress that most indie films (also like their Hollywood counterparts) suck.
And just as there are moviegoers who have loved these films, there are fans of films that seemingly only a few hundred people have seen.
Very often, that few hundred people is the totality of the actual demographic for such films, but every once in a great while the distribution of a particular film was a detriment to the right audience finding it, and they generally get discovered on cable television or via home video rental. A critic who missed it on the initial run will champion it, and word of mouth will spread, resulting in secondary market success. This so-called secondary market is often calculated, however, by the studios that release these films. Such careless (and cocky) calculation resulted in the home video bubble burst of 2007, when the lack of a singular replacement format for standard-def DVD combined with over-saturation and the downturn of the economy to bankrupt not only the studios, but several of the distributors and a handful of retailers. Having already exited the company I started, I found myself in deeper, darker waters with a high population of corporate sharks until I left the business completely.
In such an environment, it is important to consider what the producers of the films to which we assign a cult value consider.
Most of them place a high value on opening weekend box office gross. Why? Because the studios have made deals with theater owners that place the ownership of ticket sales on a sliding scale. In an opening week, a studio will generally reap 70 – 85% of the box office. The following week, that percentage lessens, until by week 9 or 10 the studios are getting almost nothing. So when a film under-performs on opening weekend, the theater owners don’t rebook it. They are making most of their money selling popcorn for $5 a bucket, soda for more than hard alcohol, and Redvines for roughly 20 times what they’ll cost you at Costco. Opening weekend crowds buy lots of concession stand snacks. A creeper, like Blair Witch or Greek Wedding, will make the theater more money the longer it gathers a crowd, so the types of theaters that exhibit independent films stand to profit more by making such films hits (by continuing to show them).
Box office plays a huge role in home video.
When I left the business in 2009, Blockbuster would not take in an independent film without recognizable talent (name actors, superstar director) that grossed less than a million dollars (which is most films). They would also not accept foreign films that were more than two years old, unless the studios agreed to some serious co-op spending. Co-ops are programs that require a studio to pay for the retailers advertising, and usually that expense is deducted by the distributor from the studios overall profits. If the co-op doesn’t work (which is most co-ops), it becomes a straight deduction at worst, and a break-even measure at best. Most rentailers like Blockbuster don’t actually buy titles, anyways; they profit share. Sales and marketing lingo for this practice was “Profit stealing” not “profit sharing.”
Now apply this model to your favorite cult film.
It has likely made less than a million dollars at the box office or is more than two years old, right? Or you saw it at a festival and it never got picked up by a major distributor. That includes most foreign films, all films that have played less than 50 theaters, and every TV movie from the 70s. That is every Cult Movie. So before a studio can even plan their sales goals or formulate a marketing plan, they know that they are getting zero support from home video, it’s sister format video-on-demand, and that lofty rich uncle cable television. That relies on straight video sales for the majority of the income. When you deduct the advertising budget (full page ads in genre publications are routinely between $2000-3000, and even the ads in distributor catalogs can cost between $500-$2000), with the average price of a DVD being $10-$20, and the average marketing budget on a Cult film being $4000, a studio has to sell 200 to 400 videos just to cover the cost of advertising, which does not cover the cost of production or even acquisition.
A successful cult video DVD release these days is one that sells 4,000 copies. Most small studios have scales back to the point that between 1,000 and 2,000 units is a success, meaning they spend nothing on marketing, relying almost exclusively on word of mouth. Gone are extra features and special packaging.
So how do you ensure that your favorite cult films get released?
Be part of the word of mouth campaign. Post on blogs and Facebook about the titles you watch if you like them. Don’t illegally download films. Don’t buy bootlegs -or if you do, replace those bootlegs with the official release. Recommend titles to distributors. When I worked at Blue Underground, Bill Lustig paid very close attention to monster movie sites and film geek message boards to see what titles the fans wanted. It was almost invariably a recipe for success.
There are going to be a few lackluster presentations along the way.
That’s because fly-by-night operations and johnny-come-latelys will enter the business and produce bad discs. Well, you can let them know that such practices are unappreciated by not buying those discs. Don’t reward bad companies with buying power. On the other hand, companies that produce great products should be rewarded. Take a chance on their lesser known titles. Don’t openly talk smack about them if they’re doing a good job most of the time. Right letters of praise to publications as well as the studios that produce these films on video. Email iTunes and let them know that you want to be able to digitally download these features. It’s very difficult for an indie studio to set up an account with iTunes, so you can help with an email campaign.
And even after you’ve done all that, the odds of seeing Bad Ronald on Blu-ray are slim to none, but it won’t happen if you don’t help it happen.
Cult Movies are the new Rock ‘n Roll.