A perfect timing for a shake up in film distribution
For too many years, a production year or a release date have been prime factors is the assessment of a film’s value. The rule of thumb is that the newer the better.
I believe that’s stupid.
In this article I will explain why.
Let me start by explaining where does my authority of declaring this come from.
I have been a filmmaker for 22 years. Mainly as an editor and producer of documentary films. Then I turned to a digital distributor with Movie Discovery, a VOD platform. Then became a technologist in the field of applications for the film industry and the founder of QuickRights, a software for film distributors, Movies Everywhere, a SaaS for hybrid and virtual cinematic events, Screenable, a screener-tracking platform that measures engagement and finally, AltDRM, an alternative and affordable solution for anti piracy.
Since the beginning of my career I've been hearing about production year, as a way to asses the worthiness of the film, with the underlying understanding that the clock is ticking: with every day that passes, the film loses its value.
Distribution Windows — a natural embodiment of this concept
That concept is also reflected in the term "distribution windows", which basically means hierarchical distribution in different platforms.
The first and best "window" is theatrical screenings, which ideally will yield the highest revenue. Then comes the streaming platforms and television channels. In the past, video tapes and DVDs were the last window. Now it's local and niche TV channels and small VOD operators. Each 'window' is considered less profitable and traditionally, if a film broke the window (chain) and went for example to VOD before theatrical release, it would stir the whole industry and people would discuss that in awe. One such case is the film Freakonomics, which was available on iTunes (at the time, the leading streaming service) before it was released theatrically. It was considered a huge risk, but it proved itself: when the film arrived the theaters, curiosity and expectation built during the online distribution period, fueled the theatrical attendance.
Still, the film industry, conservative as ever, remained loyal to the "windows" system.
Ageism. Just like in the real world
The principle in film distribution that keeps the distribution windows concept running is that the older the film, the less appealing it is. Unless it has become canonical (like Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind or Fellini, Kurosawa and Bergman's films), an old film is gradually considered irrelevant until it becomes totally obsolete. Just like with humans that get older, in the eyes of the younger generations.
The concept of an old film being less attractive is such an axiom that film professionals were shocked when I asked them a simple question: why?
Usually, the answer is circular: because it's old. As if it's enough to mention the "o" word in order for everyone to understand.
When I'm pushing towards a discussion ("what's wrong with an old film if it's of good quality?"), I generally get a practical answer, which is, again, circular: because it's harder for me to sell it (an answer given by sales agents and film distributors).
The Emperor’s New Clothes
In those cases, I proceed by following the logic of the answer I just got and asking my counterpart:
"Then you probably agree that there's no connection between a production year and its quality. You just assume that your counterpart doesn't think that way. But then, maybe the buyer/programmer you talk to also thinks like you, that an older film can be excellent. Would you try to find out if this is the case?
I admit that by posing this question I'm playing naïve: I know it doesn't work that way. There are rules. And rule #1 in film distribution is that if you try to sell an older film, you will get a lower price (again, with the exception of the classics, which became canonical). In most cases, distributors will give it up in advance. They will arrive to the film market with a fresh new catalogue every year, as if they are farmers selling vegetables.
Now, anyone who thought about the topic for more than 10 seconds (is an older film necessarily less good? Arrg, no), reckons that this rule is stupid. Still, no one dares to do anything about it. They all comply with tradition (T-R-A-D-I-T-I-ON! stop for a comic pause and watch it here).
Hans Christian Andersen was right. Back in 1837, he already knew that most people don't dare to speak the truth out loud.
One very common belief is that an older film was already watched by many people. Therefore, it will be hard to monetize it, since the film had exhausted its potential.
That assumption was probably true is the analog world. Back then, there were very few outlets in which you could watch a film: (1) cinema (2) television (3) videotape.
Television became popular only after the Second World War (1945 onwards). Videotapes only became popular in the 1980.
Therefore, there was scarcity of the film on the one hand (you can only watch in the cinema on TV) and on the other hand, when a film reached those outlets, it was watched by most people.
A side note: in my home country, there was a single public TV channel until I was 25. That single channel enjoyed an average rating of 90% every evening. If you were on TV for any reason, even as a person passing in the background in the evening news, the whole town would speak about you the next morning. People would point at you on the street. It's unbelievable that all this happened only 30 years ago.
So in that world, an older film would be impossible to sell, because literally everyone watched it!
Is that the case today?…
Of course not. The viewership market is heavily fragmented and there are numerous ways to watch a film. The chances that a film will be watched by everyone in 3 years time (this is when a film becomes "old") is unrealistic, for most films.
So why do people keep using that excuse of an older film being already watched?… It's a rhetorical question. There's no good answer to it.
Old is of lower quality
Other answers I got were given by people who are not film professionals.
They assume that an older film is more primitive in the way the story is told, because the film world becomes more and more sophisticated. And of course, there is the question of quality, with an old film being in a lower resolution.
When I get this answer, I usually pretend being surprised by the strong argument: "Oh, it's very interesting! And actually makes sense! So what you're saying is that we should throw away from all the museums the old paintings of Picasso, Van Gogh and other old chaps? They are really ridiculous, haha — painting with oil on canvas and not using Photoshop and digital printers. How primitive".
At that point, my counterpart would usually become a little embarrassed. If they are not (some people don't get the analogy), I proceed to talk about the outdated Shakespeare and Dante. "They even wrote in a language that is hard to understand. Why bother"?
If my counterpart did not understand the analogy at this stage (an old film is not necessarily less good jut like older books and paintings are not less good), I give up.
The special case of documentaries
One last explanation I get about why an older film is worth less, concerns documentaries. According to this argument, since documentaries depict the current reality, the events that are described there become irrelevant. Just like yesterday's news.
I admit that there is something to that argument. But, it depends on the films. Newsreels from the 1940’s are a treasure for historians and people who like nostalgia. That's a very small audience. But there are many, many documentaries which are works of art, that are above time and current affairs. That is (among others) what differentiates a film from an article. I love documentaries. It has been what I did for so many years. And there are so many documentaries which are ageless. It even has a name: Creative Documentary.
Now we come to the final plateau, to the ultimate test or battle: the end users. The viewers. A whole industry of distributors, sales agents, buyers, programmers, acquisition managers, commissioning editors — they are all trying to guess and predict what will the viewer like.
And this where I come full circle with the opening of this article/post: being a VOD operator (with Movie Discovery) and a former filmmaker that still shows his films to audiences, I get in touch with this mythical creature, the audience, everyday.
And let me tell you this: THE AUDIENCE DOESN'T CARE.
- The audience doesn't care when was the film produced or released.
- The audience doesn't care if the film is old.
- The audience doesn't care if the film was shown in festivals (winning an Oscar is the only thing that impresses people).
- The audience doesn't care about resolution.
The audience doesn't care, period.
Wake up. Dump the production year parameter. Get over it.