On Halloween, the filmmakers behind Incubus, a horror film starring perennial party girl Tara Reid, will attempt to boldly go where few filmmakers have gone before: they will premiere their film online at AOL Red*, AOL's site for teens, as a direct-to-download movie for $7.99. The plot of the film sounds kind of comedic: A medical student, played by Reid (ahem) and her friends, are stranded after a car crash and stalked by a deranged killer (I'll bet you $7.99 right now that Reid's cleavage has a starring role in the film).
Under the deal, AOL will have exclusive rights to distrib the film through their teen site before the film goes to DVD. The deal came about after the film's producer, Adam Shapiro, and his partner, were unable to secure a good deal for theatrical distribution. AOL Red is using the film's premiere as part of the relaunch of their site; Red currently gets about 4 million teen visitors a month as part of its subscription service, but relaunches in the open internet market on October 17 at b-red.com (and no, we have no idea who picked a URL that looks like "bred.com" for a website targeted at teens, but we'll just pretend we didn't notice that).
The world of film and video distribution is getting all shook up lately. You Tube allows anyone and everyone to put videos of anything and everything up for the world to see, and the Asian Backstreet Boys' homebrewed lip-synching videos made them instant internet celebrities. Sites like Atom Films have been making shorts available (for free) for a long time now. But now we're seeing the start of a new era: Legal, paid for, non-pirated distrib of feature-length movies via the internet. Question is, will it fly? How many people will really pay to download a film to watch on their computer? The porn business has been doing it for awhile (or so I hear), but porn is something you can picture people downloading to a laptop. After all, if you're a porn connoisseur, you can pay for it once, download it, and take it with you on your laptop on business trips, thus saving the cost of paying for pay-per-view repeatedly -- not to mention the embarrassment of the desk clerk seeing that X-rated film on your bill. Where's the value in downloading a film like Incubus, though?
Clearly, AOL Red is hoping that the lucrative teen market will see the value of direct-to-download, and that they can be among the first to tap into it. The tween-target market for Disney's wildly successful made-for-tv film High School Musical made that film a huge success. The soundtrack for the film sold 192,000 downloads in just five weeks. In March, the film became the first feature-length film available on iTunes, downloadable for $9.99 (rumor had it that it initially was up for $1.99, then it went down and came back up at $9.99). My own tween daughter was one of the however-many kids who talked their parents into purchasing High School Musical through iTunes -- I, sadly, have all the songs from the movie burned into my brain permanently from the multiple viewings of both the regular and karaoke versions. At $9.99, the price-point was a little high for downloads, when you can get pay-per-view for $5, but on the other hand, PPV only gets you 24 hours with the film, and if you have a kid who wants to watch it over, and over, and over again, $9.99 is still a better deal. Of course, our daughter still wants the $26.99 DVD with all the special features.
If any market is ripe to test the waters of direct-to-download, it's probably this market. Teens have buying power. According to a story on MSNBC, a Junior Achievement poll found that 11 percent of teens carry a credit card and three out of 19 have checking accounts, many of which are linked to debit cards. And teens, as any parent knows, like their gratification to be of the instant variety. Direct-to-download movies targeted at the teen market -- with the right films -- could prove to be a match made in heaven.
But what about the rest of the marketplace? I'm not sure I would direct-to-download a feature length film -- I hate watching movies on my computer, and only do so as a last resort. I can tolerate Adult Swim's Friday Night Fix on the laptop, but a full-length movie is another matter. Besides, I am, quite honestly, one of those film geeks who actually prefers to see movies in the theater. I have four young kids running around here, and trying to coordinate a 90-minute slice of child-free time in which to settle down with my husband and enjoy a film at home, uninterrupted, is a feat requiring all the stars and planet to be in perfect alignment. I suppose if I didn't have kids, and had a kick-ass home entertainment system, I might get into the home-viewing option more, but I just don't tend to buy DVDs. It's a rare film that I really want to see more than once or twice, so for our family, DVDs are an unnecessary expenditure, with the exception of kids' films which I know will get watched over and over again, or the occasional collector's edition, which go high up out of the reach of sticky little fingers.
What do you think about the idea of direct-to-download movies? Can you see yourself ever paying to download a movie to your computer? Would you be more inclined to download certain types of movies -- say, direct-to-DVD quality films, or good indie films you might otherwise not get to see, or B-horror flicks, over others? It's going to be interesting to see how AOL Red does with marketing Incubus, and what direct-to-download will evolve into over the next couple years. Will direct-to-download be the Next Big Thing in film distrib? Or will fizzle out quickly, limping off into oblivion with nary a whimper?
*(Editor's note: Full disclosure -- this story is about AOL, which owns Cinematical.)