The canceled-to-Kickstarter journey of Veronica Mars is like no entertainment project ever seen before, and with each passing day the story seems to get more interesting.
When the partially crowdfunded film opened in theaters Friday, it also debuted on video. Yes, Kickstarter backers received access to the entire film via the studio-backed UltraViolet system — which caused an avalanche of badwill from fans and a quick apology and offer to make good from producers. But the film was also available directly for rental or purchase from iTunes and Amazon.
Movie studios have been reluctant to screen films in theaters at the same time as their release on video. The fear — amplified by terrified movie-theater owners who apparently feel they can't compete with home video — is that viewers will opt to stay on their couch rather than trek down to the multiplex. (For the record, I watched Veronica Mars from the comfort of my couch on Friday night.) Aside from a few experiments by the likes of Steven Soderbergh, the theater/home video divide has remained strong.
One reason the barriers haven't broken down is that theaters have refused to screen any film unless it's not going to be available on video for 90 days. In fact, in order to screen Veronica Mars, Warner Bros. had to pay the theaters (primarily the AMC theater chain) to rent out the screens, reversing the usual format of theaters paying a percentage of the ticket sales to the studio. Competing chains such as Regal Entertainment and Cinemark declined to screen the movie at all.
So with all that fear, what are the results? Turns out Veronica Mars raked in $2 million at the box office over the weekend, even though it was available through other avenues. If that doesn't sound impressive, consider that it played on only 291 screens, giving it an excellent $6800 per-screen average. Only Wes Anderson's slow-releasing Grand Budapest Hotel did better per-screen.
It's easy to explain away a single film's performance in a situation like this. It's a cult TV show with an avid fan base, yes. But presumably the show's strongest fans were Kickstarter backers too, right? And yet even with many of them having their very own, pre-paid home video copy of the movie, they still showed up at the theater. And others joined them, enough for $2 million in weekend box office.
It's encouraging news that sometimes people want to go out to the theater — an episode of the BBC's Doctor Whomade nearly $5 million at the box office in November, even though it also aired on TV. And yet I doubt that theater chains will look at the results of the Veronica Mars experiment and stop fearing that they only remain in business because of contractually mandated video-release windows.
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