SXSW & IFC release plan: much ado about . . . ?

Alexander the LastThere were a number of interesting announcements at Sundance this year, though few of them had to do with big-ticket film acquisitions. (This comes to the surprise of no one.)

In the continuing deterioration of the traditional system of release windows is this plan (also announced at Sundance) from IFC Films and the South by Southwest Film Festival to hold a simultaneous release of Joe Swanberg's latest film, Alexander the Last, at SXSW 2009 and on IFC's "Festival Direct" video-on-demand (VOD) channel.

Four other SXSW ‘09 titles will also screen on-demand via IFC Festival Direct, concurrent with the upcoming festival. IFC also announced the launch of of a new IFC Festival Direct genre label, branded IFC Midnight and unveiled some twenty titles that have been added to the slate for its on-demand platform.

This prompted some rather pointed questions from Sarasota Film Festival programmer Tom Hall. Hall wonders if audiences will bother attending a festival screening of a film that is available via VOD, especially since VOD is the choice that is both the more economical and more convenient.

Can the festival “event” outweigh the incentive of staying home? That answer is easy when the world comes to a place like SXSW to party and take in the live music along with the interactive and film events. But at a smaller, regional festival like mine, I really don’t know what my audience would do.

It's impossible to dismiss Hall's concerns, though they do come from a certain glass-half-empty perspective on the situation. The thought that moviegoers might stay home to watch a film on demand rather than venture out into the night to share the experience with an audience is certainly within the realm of possibility. Who among us hasn't opted to catch the latest Will Smith flick on DVD, when we could watch it on our own couches with the convenience of the pause button and the absence of an audience that seems determined to talk through important bits of dialogue (or conversely, to shush us with righteous indignation when we wittily point out the film's inconsistencies)?

I prefer to think that such Festival Direct flicks will serve as word-of-mouth ambassadors for themselves and for festival films in general. It is equally within the realm of possibility that some of those people who do see Swanberg's latest opus on demand will enjoy it enough to go see it on the big screen at a festival, or encourage their friends to go. Those who don't follow through on that particular film may be turned on to the idea that festivals are where the interesting films can be seen. As with everything else in indie film, the potential audience for film festivals (as compared to their penetration of the populace in general) is infinite. Anything that can be done to spread the word of their merit -- and their existence -- is probably a good thing.

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