November 3, 2007
The Future of Niche Cinema

Is it time to explore alternate forms of distribution a little bit more heavily? We have all come to generally agree to some of the principles for Long Tail economics; particularly, that there is room for marketing to niche interests. Hollywood has been met with increasing skepticism, however, as to what this means for film distribution, which leaves me to question whether savvy forms of direct-to-DVD distribution or online distribution or VOD distribution may be the answer to the problems currently facing some films in the theater.

Perhaps several of you read or heard about the New York Times article a few days ago by Michael Cieply dealing with the lack of money derived from the theater release of several films. Of course, these films may end up being more profitable over time, but it's likely that the amount of cost put into promoting them for theater release will make turning a profit even less likely. Maybe it's not just the fat middles in danger anymore, to steal a line from Grant McCracken.

Cieply writes, "All three pictures, and a dozen more headed to the marketplace by Christmas, share a common business problem. They are what film marketers in their private moments call "movies for no one." The exaggerated term merely points out how "Long Tail products" mean little for mainstream businesses, of which theater distribution largely is.

We've seen some experimentation when it comes to the release of movies in recent years. Last year, there was Steven Soderbergh's Bubble, which Alec Austin and I started a discussion about early in the life of this blog, here and here. Alec wrote at the time that "Hollywood's desire for instant financial gratification [ . . . ] shouldn't be underestimated.

Then there are films that are distributed through IFC First Take, which released through video-on-demand in addition to limited theater distribution. Take, for instance, Jeff Garlin's recent I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With. In a review and interview with Garlin, NewCity Chicago's Ray Pride interviewed Garlin about "changes in distribution and how it affects a movie with regional savor," in this case Cheese's focus on Chicago. As of October 8, the movie had already broken records with its number of VOD subscriptions, which had reached 55,000 or so. In the interview, Garlin said:

I worked with John Waters. And the first time I saw him do his show, I saw him in Colorado Springs. Which is not a place that homosexuals, or Jews, or blacks, I think really would enjoy living. It's a rightwing-ish short of place, and we were at the art museum, and you found his audience was probably made of every liberal in town, every freethinking person in that town. Well, my movie is not going to be playing in that town. But all those people have access to it now. It's idealistic of me to think it would only be in a movie theater. I'd rather everyone see it that way, but this a great thing. And also people who live in Chicago who are anything from a shut-in to someone who's very busy, they can watch it at their discretion, when they feel like it. That makes me happy. I'm for it. A movie like this one is perfect for that.

I wrote about the implications these changes might have for regional cinema as well, back in July 2006, when filming was taking place for a movie in my hometown called Red Velvet Cake while I was back there for the summer working as a journalist. I wrote:

Red Velvet Cake may or may not be a success in national or international distribution--that's yet to be seen--but it's already become an important part of Ohio County folklore through its use of landmarks across the county and a significant number of locals in the film. While the market has yet to be fully explored, it makes me wonder if regional film industries may have an even more vibrant future than we realize, if marketed correctly.

Do any C3 readers have thoughts about what might be the future for the films on the Long Tail? Do alternate forms of distribution really hold the answer, and does that mean that the theater experience will eventually primarily be for films that provide just that--an experience--and one that appeals to blockbuster crowds?

Thanks to Lynn Liccardo for bringing the article to my attention.



Hi Sam,

I was very happy to see this post, as it addresses some of the questions that I'm most interested in.

Here you say "...whether savvy forms of direct-to-DVD distribution or online distribution or VOD distribution may be the answer to the problems currently facing some films in the theater."

My sense right now is that there is no *one* answer, and that the movie production and distribution business is not so much in crisis, as many would like argue, as it is becoming much more complex. No longer can producers put all their "eggs in one basket", they now have to come up with revenue models that are almost specific to each movie, which at this moment would of course include, VOD and maybe even direct to DVD, in some cases also educational sales, foreign television and theatrical, etc.

There is much uncertainty out there, but at the same time I feel that itís out of these sort of moments that true creative production models come out of.


Good point, Ana. My take is much like yours, that distribution models have to be particular to the movie. If the theater is really about the experience, then what plays at the theater makes the most sense as those films which benefit from a communal viewing experience on a big screen. Some of these niche films discussed here may not be that way.

The biggest hurdle that has to be overcome at this point is the fact that "direct-to-DVD" has been seen as an indicator of lower artistic quality, which seems to me to force really good films to worry disproportionately about theater distribution sometimes, because that's what they need for crediblity, even if seeking theater distribution ends up being detrimental for the bottom line.


For those interested in new models of film distribution. A number of independent filmmakers are taking a DIY route to bring their work to audiences. In some cases collapsing windows in others harnessing the power of the internet to create theatrical on demand models, where screenings are booked based on demand in a certain location. Others are experimenting with cinema and gaming to create what some have come to call cinema ARGs (alternate reality games).

An interesting site covering this emerging DIY trend in more detail is the It bills itself as an open source social experiment.