Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience got plenty of buzz after a special screening at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Shot on the relatively thin dime of $1.7 million in only 16 days using the RED digital camera and starring adult performer Sasha Grey, it was a wild enough experiment as a motion picture production. Even wilder is its motion picture distribution experiment, since it’s now available on Amazon Video On Demand as a $9.99 rental — even though its premier was just last Wednesday at the Tribeca Film Festival and it won’t be in theaters until May 22nd.
The minimal expense and maximal margins of digital distribution mean the film can take that chance. And the upside for the producers — among them Mark Cuban, who will also be airing it on his HDNet later this month — is potentially astounding. But even if it didn’t have a racy subject and a well-known porn starlet, or a big name director and cutting-edge cinematography, by releasing it online the film stands to take advantage of online promotion and marketing in a way that others can’t.
The most oft-cited example of the failure of web buzz to move butts into seats is the now-infamous Snakes on a Plane; all the chatter and “interactivity” online ahead of that film’s release didn’t amount to boffo at the box office. But the difference is that by going online, Girlfriend doesn’t have to convince you to go anywhere but through a link.
The film is $9.99 for a 3-day “rental,” and if you’re already set up with Amazon it’s literally a once-click experience. You can also download it to Windows PCs or through a TiVo or Roku set-top box. And it’s available through video on demand on many cable and satellite systems as well. Even Grey admits on her MySpace page: “[I] don’t really watch tv anymore.” Having a way to watch it online, instantly, is perfectly suited for online natives like herself.
All Grey has to do is post a link to her MySpace (71,348 friends) and Twitter (12,510 followers) profiles and let her fans go from there. Amazon Associates even get a 10 percent commission on referrals. It’s a shame, however, that the video can’t be embedded, rental button and all, directly on third-party web sites — which would save potential viewers from having to click through a link from wherever they might be browsing.
Beyond that, it capitalizes on the discussion online surrounding the film and its topic in a way that a DVD or a theater screening simply can’t. Love it or hate it, it’s hard not to link to it. “Timeliness is essential for many of these festival favorites,” said Matt Dentler of Cinetic Rights Media, which has specialized in releasing independent features through video on demand that might have otherwise been stuck on the festival circuit — like We Are Wizards and The Lost Coast on Hulu, or On Broadway and The Auteur on iTunes.
But won’t it hurt the film’s theatrical and DVD chances down the road? Not necessarily. “My belief,” said Dentler, “is that one does not cannibalize the other, and CRM has seen stats to back that up.” And if the online margins are as good as they are for DVDs (at or better than 50 percent net), then with a reported $1.4 million budget the entire production could break even with a few million views on Amazon. And I’ll probably still go see it in a theater if only for the novelty of watching something shot on a RED on the big screen.
So rather than have to compete with the multimillion-dollar media blitz of X-Men Origins: Wolverine for eyeballs at the corner multiplex, this film can instead nurture audiences online and reward them with instant gratification. Unfortunately, it’s still not an option for those still struggling to make it into “indiewood” in the first place. But it’s certainly an arousing start.