Joss Whedon couldn’t make it to the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of his latest film, “In Your Eyes,” in New York on Sunday night, but he delivered a big surprise, one that at first flush might look like it could upend Hollywood's traditional film distribution model. But, it probably won't.
In a video message shown after the screening, Whedon announced that the movie, written and produced by Whedon and directed by Brin Hill, won’t be coming to a theater near you, ever. But it will be available to rent immediately for only $5, a bold move that's never been tried before for a feature-length film by a director of Whedon's stature, and the move is not without significant risks.
“In Your Eyes” will likely make some money this week. After directing “The Avengers” in 2012, Whedon transitioned from a nerd icon into one of Hollywood’s biggest (and most profitable) names. Given that “In Your Eyes” was financed for under a million dollars, it's not unrealistic to expect the movie to turn a profit without entering theaters. As exciting as the unconventional distribution of “In Your Eyes” may be, though, it’s unlikely to cause a major shakeup in the industry.
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Traditional film distribution, however frustrating and complicated, does have its benefits. When a movie debuts in theaters, the studio typically keeps between 80 and 100 percent of the gross take in the first week, a percentage that shrinks for each film the longer it remains in theaters, according to the Independent Film Project. In addition, distributors take a roughly 50 percent cut of the profits, and sometimes there are deals to pay out shares of the profits to actors, writers and others.
Vimeo’s terms are much easier to swallow: If “In Your Eyes” is subject to the same split that has been standard for most other Vimeo projects, 90 percent of the profits will go to Bellweather, Whedon’s production company.
Digital distribution might sound like an egalitarian utopia for artists, but the reality is that without the right marketing or a big name attached to the project, it’s easy to flounder and get buried. The upshot of traditional film distribution is the stability -- and more important, the promotion -- that comes with aligning with a large studio. However, as more filmmakers opt to go the digital distribution route, many filmmakers may be soon discover that the creative exhilaration of self-distribution isn’t always worth the financial risks.
The “In Your Eyes” distribution deal may be a first for Whedon and the independent film world, but its release pretty closely mirrors an ongoing trend in stand-up comedy of releasing specials online for $5. Actor and comedian Louis C.K. set the standard right down to the price point in December 2011, when he successfully released “Live at the Beacon Theater” on his website for $5. Since then, Jim Gaffigan, Aziz Ansari, Tig Notaro and Todd Berry, among others, have released stand-up specials in the same manner. In the relatively short time since C.K. blazed that trail, the $5 download model has become the standard in the stand-up world. But even if “In Your Eyes” is successful on Vimeo, that doesn’t mean it will become the new standard for the entire film industry.
For starters, self-distribution in a digital field carries a lot of risks. When C.K. stepped into the digital distribution ring with “Live at the Beacon Theater,” he took on all of the financial risks himself. In a statement on his website, the comic actor said he paid approximately $170,000 of his own money to produce the special, as well as an additional $32,000 to build a website capable of reliably offering “Live at the Beacon Theater” for sale to his fans. Because he wasn’t working with a distributor, he incurred the entire financial risk himself, gambling that he could eventually turn a profit.
For C.K, who was arguably the biggest touring stand-up comedian in the world at the time, that risk paid off. After only 12 days, he announced that he had already made a million dollars through sales of “Live at the Beacon Theater.” Ever the nice guy, he paid $250,000 of that gross to his production staff as a “big fat bonus,” while another $280,000 went to charity.
Whedon and company are taking a similar risk with “In Your Eyes,” but on an even larger scale. Although “In Your Eyes” is monumentally cheap for a film, especially when compared with the $220 million budget for “The Avengers,” which made over a billion dollars worldwide, the film will have to make millions for the effort to be financially worthwhile. However, if Whedon’s phenomenal popularity is any guide, it most likely will.
But not everyone has been successful with the $5 self-distribution model.
Aziz Ansari self-distributed his second comedy special, “Dangerously Delicious,” online for $5 in March 2012, but his website (just a Tumblr page called Aziz is Bored) no longer makes any mention of it. Last year, he partnered with Netflix for his third special, “Buried Alive,” seemingly abandoning the self-distribution method. Similarly, Jim Gaffigan partnered with Comedy Central for his latest special, “Obsessed,” after offering “Mr. Universe” for $5. C.K. himself teamed up with HBO for his latest release, “Oh My God,” though both C.K. and Gaffigan have allowed fans to download these new ventures for the same price.
As catchy as the $5 direct download sounds to the consumer, there seems to be too much risk or responsibility for the creators to stick with it, at least not without the backing of a larger distributor, which negates the possibility of the total freedom that the enterprise suggests.
Promotion seems to be the biggest problem. While fans might clamor for more material from C.K. and Whedon, for those without an established name, how can upstart filmmakers or comedians let audiences know they’ve got great new material out there on the Internet? And if the most popular comic in the world makes only a million dollars through this method, what hope does that give filmmakers who pay more than $1 million just to produce a movie?
In the end, Whedon’s experimental release structure for “In Your Eyes” is exciting, but it’s largely a vanity project, something cool for Whedon to do for himself and his fans but not really possible for creators who don’t have his kind of money or clout.