The Most Important Thing About Bridesmaids’ $40 Million In VOD Revenues

Universal Pictures put a lot of palms on foreheads this week when it announced that its summer comedy hit Bridesmaids has taken in $40 million so far across cable and internet VOD platforms. Certainly, it’s a big performance — long-entrenched entertainment data tracker Rentrak christened it the biggest VOD haul ever, while Steve Savage, co-president of New Video, a leading-edge distributor to digital channels, called the number “extraordinary.” But, perhaps, the bigger news was the fact that Universal was releasing any VOD number at all.

Unlike theatrical distribution — studios give out granular performance data for their movies every Sunday to the press — precious little in the way of revenue or transaction figures on movie VOD distribution makes it to the press. For example, while Rentrak would tell us that the Warner Bros. (NYSE: TWX) comedy Due Date ranks second in 2011 VOD distribution, followed by another comedy from the same studio, Hall Pass. A Rentrak representative told us the company has revenue and transaction data on those films and many others, measuring their performances across cable and satellite VOD, as well as internet VOD and download platforms.

And what it calls the “movies on demand business” is up, growing 9 percent last year to nearly $1 billion, according to Rentrak — this compares to the $10.73 billion made by studios at theaters in the U.S. and Canada in 2011, and the nearly $15 million grossed selling and renting DVD and Blu-ray titles domestically.

But citing its relationship with the studios, Rentrak said it’s prohibited from giving out VOD data on specific movies beyond ranking unless authorized. A digital executive for one of the major studios told us it’s “normal” practice for big media companies not to routinely release data about developing platforms. The public, he said, would have no use for data points that are too new to have context. The executive insisted that once it evolves just a bit more, we’ll soon start to see data that make the monetization of digital film distribution as transparent as theatrical release.

We’re not holding our breath on that. Back in 1997, when the DVD was launched, some in the home-entertainment market were saying the same thing. Fifteen years later, when Universal touted Bridesmaids‘ $100 million in U.S. DVD and Blu-ray sales in the same press release, that nearly opened as many eyes as the VOD number.

On some level, we tie this reluctance to the byzantine nature of the old-Hollywood accounting culture, its remnants still intact despite the corporate takeover of the studios by media corporations — the less the world knows about your revenue streams, the less you have to share them.

“Sure, the more transparent a studio is, the more phone calls they get from lawyers looking for a piece of the pie,” said Marc Schiller, an independent film marketing executive who works with filmmakers including Ed Burns. Strategically, that philosophy may have worked in regard to the DVD business, which was further “downstream” in the distribution chain, Schiller said.

But particularly on the independent side of the film business, where producers and their distribution partners are releasing VOD simultaneous with theatrical release — or, in the case of the so-called “ultra VOD” model, weeks before it — not having enough data is a planning detriment, he said.

“It’s vital that we know what the benchmarks for success are,” Schiller explained. “Rentrak box-office data is readily available for people who need to understand and develop strategies around theatrical distribution. But one of the major challenges in putting a VOD release strategy together is that there isn’t enough historical data.”

In the independent film business, he said, filmmakers and their distribution partners tend to work more collaboratively, and the VOD reporting process tends to be a little more transparent.

The New Video Group, which distributes more than 6,000 movies through outlets ranging from DirecTV (NYSE: DTV) to iTunes, maintains an online dashboard to give its filmmaking partners real-time performance data on their movies. “We are as perfectly transparent as we can be,” said Steve Savage, New Video’s co-president.

But even in the independent world, information about VOD distribution doesn’t exactly seem to be free-flowing. For example, another VOD buzz number that recently surfaced was the more than $5 million reportedly grossed by the Wall Street-themed Kevin Spacey film Margin Call. The film’s backers gave that number to the press, “But you can ask 90 percent of the people in the film industry, and we still don’t know where that number came from,” Schiller said.