“Straight to DVD”: It’s a phrase that has inspired fear in the hearts of movie lovers, because it has long indicated a flick not good enough to warrant a theatrical release. For filmmakers, it has meant that their movies would not garner the attention of major media outlets, which have tended to avoid anything sent directly to home-viewing formats without its supper. And hence, those movies don’t get reviewed. Bad reviews are fine; remember that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
That’s going to change, and soon—if it hasn’t already.
On June 2, cult-favorite film- and TV-maker Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) released a new DVD edition of his Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog. Horrible has never aired on TV; it has never played in a movie theater. It’s a short film—starring Neil Patrick Harris as a supervillain who just wants to be loved, and Nathan Fillion as the lunkhead superhero who thwarts him—that debuted on the Internet last summer. It played out over three 10-minute episodes that had Whedon geeks panting with such anticipation that they crashed Whedon’s servers at its premiere. There had been no trailers teasing Horrible before summer blockbusters, and no ads filling space between hit TV shows. Word of mouth and the online grapevine had spread the word: “There’s new Whedon!” And that’s all it took.
Dr. Horrible is but the tip of the iceberg, a harbinger of things to come. Some movies are going to start bypassing multiplexes altogether—only a few at first, and only those with massive geek cred (i.e., the ones that can be sold online easily). But within five years, we’re going to see so many movies of un-ignorable quality being released directly to home video—or receiving simultaneous releases in art houses, on pay-per-view and on DVD—that Hollywood will be forced to change its rules regarding what kinds of releases qualify for Oscar consideration.
Right now, a movie must play on a big screen in either New York City or Los Angeles for at least one week in order to be eligible to the Academy Awards. Already that means, in effect, that only critics in those markets, and perhaps a few of the most diehard movie fans, have a chance to see some releases. Everyone else is left out in the cold. Throw in an at-home version that anyone, anywhere, can see, and the dynamic changes.
This is already happening: Steven Soderbergh’s new film The Girlfriend Experience is currently playing in theaters in extremely limited release, but it’s available to far more potential viewers via cable on-demand systems—and it was available on-demand for weeks before it debuted in art-houses. The Independent Film Channel has released more than a handful of films in 2009 simultaneously at its art house showcase in New York’s Greenwich Village and on its premium-label on-demand service. Some filmmakers are releasing films directly onto the Net; Nina Paley has done this with Sita Sings the Blues while selling DVDs directly to viewers at the same time.
The 2009 multiplex box office has been going gangbusters for the most part, but the movies that are becoming hits are not primarily “grownup” movies. The doofus comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop was the surprise hit of the winter, followed closely by the revenge thriller Taken. But more serious films (State of Play, The Soloist) or even adult comedies (Duplicity) have disappointed the studios, if not the few grownup moviegoers who took them in.
Meanwhile, The Economist reported recently that video-on-demand has been a boon for indies. And as anyone over 30 will tell you, it’s often much more pleasant to sit on one’s own comfy sofa and watch a movie than it is to trudge out to the multiplex on a Friday night. If by 2015, a movie that debuted on-demand or on DVD wins the Oscar for Best Picture, remember not to be surprised.