Thursday, January 30, 2014

What is the Value of a Movie?

There's an important question being posed by the guy responsible for the Puppet Master movies.

If you're not listening to the Killer POV podcast, you're missing the best conversations about horror -- ALL horror, from mainstream to mid-range to micro-budget indie -- this side of F Movie!'s own #ScaryMovieMonth. Hosted by Rob Galluzzo, Rebekah McKendry and Elric Kane, the show is enthusiastic and passionate about the genre while still being thoughtful and critical; there's none of the "it's good because it's horror" attitude that's so pervasive on a lot of other horror podcasts. Sometimes, the episodes have a theme (like "Sex in Horror" or "Regional Horror") and have guests -- filmmakers, actors, etc. -- to discuss that topic. Other episodes are full-length interviews; Episode 32 had two guys from Scream Factory on and it was a fascinating look at how titles are chosen, the issues surrounding licensing and acquisitions and all kinds of stuff you never knew you totally wanted to know. While I would hope that no one starts listening to their show instead of ours (I'm terribly insecure and lousy with abandonment issues), there's certainly room in the world for both.

This week's episode was an interview with Charles Band, the filmmaker and monster movie mogul who launched Empire Pictures in the '80s and then Full Moon Features in the '90s, which he still runs today. If you're a horror fan or grew up a video store kid, Band is something of a legend, responsible for everything from Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn to some of Stuart Gordon's best movies to the aforementioned Puppet Master series. He made Tim Thomerson a movie star and created his own universe full of monsters (most of them pint-size) who cross over and mash up together -- the low-budget VHS-era equivalent of the Universal monsters. He's also a shrewd businessman who has managed to carve out a career lasting four decades and knows the movie business inside and out.
The interview with Band is great because he's a really smart, really honest guy with lots of interesting ideas and opinions on the state of modern filmmaking. You really should listen to it. In the course of the nearly two-hour conversation, Band said something almost in passing that stuck with me in a big way:

"What is the value of a movie?"

He doesn't mean the artistic value in movies. Those of us visiting a movie website all know and understand that. Movies change and shape our lives in ways that nothing else can. This isn't going to be a piece on what film adds to our popular culture or how we movie fans live with them and love them every day. Obviously they have VALUE.

No, what Band was talking about was specifically the new model for distribution. It used to be that you would buy a ticket to a movie and say it was or wasn't "worth your 10 bucks." But theatrical exhibition is changing, and fewer and fewer films (especially those with a budget of less than $70 million) are actually getting a chance to play on movie screens. DVD and Blu-ray sales continue to plummet, no longer providing studios with any kind of reliable revenue. With physical media dying a quick, quick death and everything moving over to digital streaming, what monetary value can be attached to an individual movie? As Band says, when you can pay $8 a month and get access to literally THOUSANDS of movies, how much value can you assign to one film?
I bring this up as someone who loves Netflix Instant (we even have a column devoted to it every week), but who uses it as just one tool among many to watch movies. It is not the beginning and end of my movie consumption. I can see things I might not otherwise see, I can take a chance and watch a smaller movie I know nothing about and feel like I haven't "lost" anything. But like Hollywood Heath Holland has said before, I still like to own the movies I like. If I watch something on Netflix Instant and really love it, I'll pick up the Blu-ray. Not only is it a way of supporting movies I'm into, but also ensures that I'll be able to see that movie forever. I watched Drug War on Netflix a few months ago and loved it, so I bought it. Should I feel like watching it again a year from now, there's no guarantee that it will still be on Netflix. Having my own copy is the only way to go.

So I still buy movies. I still pay to see movies in a theater. I have never, ever pirated a movie and never will. I still assign a value to movies. Not everyone does. And it's looking more and more like before long, studios aren't really going to, either. Something has to change before movies go the way of the music business, which basically imploded because they failed to get behind and properly monetize digital sharing. What's a studio to do?

Maybe Charles Band has the answer. Last year, he launched Full Moon Streaming, a new subscriber service that offers members access to a large selection of the company's back catalog (as well as old Wizard titles, "Grindhouse" acquisitions and even family friendly titles under the "Moonbeam" label) as well as access to exclusive content and other cool stuff. Each title you click on brings you to a page where you can watch the film, watch the trailer (advisable before diving in to some of Full Moon's stuff), purchase the DVD or Blu-ray or even buy merchandise related to the movie. The service also gives new filmmakers a platform to have their movies distributed through a kind of "voting" system; if an independent movie brings in enough new subscribers, Full Moon will distribute the movie.
Why does Full Moon Streaming matter? For a whole bunch of reasons. For one, we must never underestimate Charles Band, who has been at the forefront of every iteration of home video. He was there at the beginning of VHS; it's how he first built his empire (he speaks about it at length on the Killer POV episode, and it's fascinating; rather than send out videotapes to distributors, Band would ship out a single master and a bunch of empty boxes to keep costs down). He was there at the start of DVD and helped invent DVD Special Features with his "Videozone" pieces that ran at the end of Full Moon's VHS releases. He's a guy to whom attention should be paid in this situation. He is not just an innovator; he is a survivor. He's a guy who sees the direction the industry is going and is trying to get out in front of it.

The streaming service puts Full Moon into its own self-contained bubble (which is the direction the company has been heading for years anyway; hence the crossover "universe"), but it allows a direct connection to the fanbase that's diluted with bigger services like Netflix where Full Moon titles are competing with thousands of other movies. Full Moon fans can now pay into the system in order to keep new product in the pipeline. Writer/director Joe Swanberg attempted something similar a couple years ago, where fans could "subscribe" and receive DVD copies of his next four movies (which, knowing Swanberg, probably took less than a year to release) and some other extra stuff. The subscriptions were basically being used to finance the movies. It's Kickstarter without a lot of the rules and benchmarks: you pay your money to subscribe to Full Moon Streaming, and Full Moon gets to keep making movies. That you get access to the back catalog is kind of like value added.
This won't work for everything (and I have no interest in having to get all of my entertainment à la carte -- a subscription here, a subscription gets old), but Full Moon is just the kind of studio that can succeed with this model. Audiences of Full Moon aren't just fans of individual titles; they are fans of entire Full Moon brand. It's not just the library but also that brand to which they are subscribing.

I wrote a little about my history with Band and Full Moon a few years ago when I attended the Full Moon Roadshow in Chicago, so I won't repeat myself here. As someone who sought out and devoured genre stuff in the '80s, I still have affection for a lot of the Empire and early Full Moon stuff. The movies made in Band's heyday were inventive and crazy in a really fun way. I have less patience for the more recent stuff, made when the budgets started to get cut and the tail started wagging the dog.

That tail wagging is something else Band mentions during the interview, which I want to call out as being cynical but is probably just practical. He points out that "the movies aren't what they are by accident," referring specifically to the number of titles that focus on puppets, dolls and toys; in addition to the Puppet Master series, Full Moon has films and franchises like Demonic Toys, Ginderdead Man, Ragdoll, Evil Bong, Devil Dolls, Blood Dolls, Dangerous Worry Dolls and Doll Graveyard -- basically, anything that's small and can be turned into a toy or a collectible. The merchandising of their movies (and there's nothing Band won't merchandise) is a big part of what keeps Full Moon afloat. So now the studio is in a situation where they have to merchandise to keep making movies, but have to make movies that are able to be further merchandised. It has become a closed loop. Is this the future of movie making?

Obviously, this isn't going to translate directly outside of Full Moon -- not exactly, anyway. Yes, blockbusters will continue to have huge marketing tie-ins and sell toys, even if they're licensing them out to toy companies and not selling them directly the way Band does. But studios (even the big ones) are going to need to find new revenue streams as physical media dries up, whether it's more third-party product placement (just look at The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) or something more akin to what Band is doing, where after watching a movie on your computer (theaters are dead in this scenario) you can click a link and buy that sweater you liked that Jennifer Lawrence was wearing.
Will specialized services like Full Moon Streaming this be the future? Does Paramount eventually pull out of licensing agreements with Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and eventually start their own channel? And even if they do -- even if they've found a way to monetize their library in the age of digital and streaming -- it doesn't answer Band's question of "What is the value of a movie?" Maybe Paramount goes the same route, and maybe they charge a "premium" $19.95 a month. Hell, maybe they charge $49.95. But you're talking about a catalog made up of BILLIONS of dollars in budgets and BILLIONS (if not trillions) in grosses, and now they're providing it for $50 a month. What is the value of an individual movie?

And that's just for the back catalog. The studio has already (theoretically) made their money on those titles. What about going forward? Let's say Paramount starts their streaming service a year from now and is no longer producing DVDs or Blu-rays or whatever (this is a BIG hypothetical for the sake of argument). When Star Trek 3 comes out, does it just get added to the pile already available on streaming? So now your $20 a month gets you the brand new Star Trek movie AND Paramount's entire library? What is the value of Star Trek 3?

That's probably a bad example, because Paramount is going to be fine. If nothing else, at least they have a library with which they could start a whole streaming service (luckily, so does Charles Band). What about smaller studios or, even worse, independents? The best a low-budget indie movie can hope for nowadays is that they get added to Netflix, because maybe then people will at least see it. But they're essentially just one little pebble being added to the giant Netflix blob as it rolls downhill. How does anyone make any money with that business model? What is the value of a movie?

I signed up for Full Moon Streaming (a six month subscription is only $35 and you get three free Blu-rays, so it pays for itself), partly because I'll get to revisit a bunch of their old stuff but MOSTLY because it's the kind of venture I want to support. It may not catch on. It may not create any impact on the business. But it's an interesting idea and a neat experiment and I want to be a part of it. Maybe I'll write a column as I work my way through the catalog; maybe I'll just watch stuff for fun for a change. I'm not sure yet. (Would anyone even have any interest in such a thing? Let me know.) Mostly I just felt like by signing up, I was sending a message to Charles Band -- and to anyone who might follow his example -- that alternative methods of distribution can work. That ingenuity should be rewarded.

That even in the post-DVD era, all movies -- even ones about killer cookies and evil bongs -- have value.


  1. Cool article. Very thought provoking.
    A couple points.
    First, What is the value of a movie has two ends to consider, the amount we the audience pay and the amount the studio receive (looking at the Netflix model). One looks at how much we, and therefore society, value the product (value in both senses of the word), the other looks at what gets put back into the revenue stream and supports the product. I really dont know how Netflix works like that, do the movies I actually watch get a greater percentage of my fee or support them to stay on Netflix longer so they get another month rental?
    But its a big question, which is more important; how much I pay or how much they get?

    The model proposed is an interesting idea. My prediction though is that having access to one studio (plus minor acquisitions) would get old pretty quick. It would end up turning into a flavour of the month scenario. I support any studio, particularly one like Band's, to make the system work for them and to be active in the quest for being profitable in the digital era, but at the end of the day if im not being entertained im not going to pay my money and when it comes to killer dolls novelty is a big factor and it can wear off pretty quick.
    And the tail wagging the dog notion with the merch. One or two killer dolls/puppets movies was fun, but try doing what me and HHH did and watch a whole bunch of them at once. Its tough. So capitalising on that one aspect of the cycle results in a catalogue that isnt as interesting or at least diminished returns.

    Dont get me wrong, Im definitley going to check this streaming system out (like Cormans youtube), and I AM optimistic. These were just some of the initial thoughts that popped into my head. Im a sad negative little boy.

    Here's to the Future!

    And thanks for the POV tip Patrick. Ill add that to the list after F and Movie Crypt.

    1. I started checking out the Killer POV podcast. Its a great listen, thanks again Patrick.
      In hearing Brand explain his streaming program it sounds much more interesting than I originally thought. For a niche market and for products with a cult following it could really work (opposed to an attempt to compete with Netflix as I originally envisioned). It also sounds like a sure fire winner come Junesploitation 2 (if that ends up being a thing again).
      Colour me even More optimistic.....then badd.

    2. Glad you dig it. There's a lot of really good stuff there.

      Yeah, Full Moon Streaming was never meant as a competitor to Netflix; maybe I was unclear in the article. It's a service for fans that makes them kind of like shareholders -- much more niche than Netflix. That's one of its greatest strengths. But it's also why I mentioned that I don't necessarily want to subscribe to 20 different things to have access to what I like. It may never go that way (not everyone has Full Moon's built-in fanbase and brand recognition).

      I want to sex you up?

  2. Hi Patrick, great article. I'm off to work so I don't have time to really comment. However, I am pretty friendly with Rob Galluzzo so I hope you don't mind that I sent him this writing. I think he'll greatly enjoy it.

  3. This is something I struggle with for all the media I consume. The easier and cheaper it gets to legally watch/read/play/listen to stuff, the less time I spend watching, reading, playing, listening, and (most importantly) thinking about it all. I love having choice and access, and I love that artists have a way to get their stuff in front of more people than under old business models, but when I don't have a stake in what I'm consuming I don't value it as much. I might think I do, but my habits say otherwise.

    It's one of the reasons I still enjoy reviewing movies for DVD Verdict. Although having to watch everything on a Blu-ray or DVD and then write about it means I have a lot less time per week to watch other movies for fun, I get way more out of the movies I review after watching them several times, listening to commentaries, digging through the bonus features, and then formulating my thoughts in print.

    I don't always have time to watch "for fun" movies more than once, and I don't watch bonus features in any way proportionate to the value I place on them when considering a Blu-ray purchase. There's just too much to watch. I love watching and collecting movies. I would hate to go all-digital. I love having choice. I just hate the way having endless choice often leaves me paralyzed to make any choice at all.

    1. Does it worry you at all, then, that special features are going to go away? Studios aren't as willing to spend any money on them anymore, and a lot of streaming services don't have the capability of carrying them (though some may start being posted online?). Do you think your viewing or your enjoyment will suffer at all if you can't dig any deeper?

    2. I don't know that bonus features are as important to getting the full "value" out of a movie as taking the time after to think, talk, and read about it; but I'd hate for them to disappear entirely.

      You can tell when a studio doesn't care about bonus features beyond a bulleted list on the back of the box. Those extras are the hardest to sit through. I'd be fine with back-patting EPKs and dumb repurposed web videos going away.

      I bet the filmmakers who actually give a damn and make the best extras will find a way. I don't know if Edgar Wright's Ant-Man will come with the standard insane number of bonus features as his other movies, but I can't imagine Eddie-baby would be happy losing extras entirely. Maybe commentaries become podcasts or mp3 direct downloads from directors' web sites. Maybe they hire pals to shoot making-of docs for YouTube, or as separate entries on Netflix. When special features first emerged there was no other way to listen to commentaries or watch featurettes. That's all changed.

    3. I wouldn't mind if we were able to get the commentaries and/or documentaries that might be included on the disc through a downloadable form in a different location. I can see that as where things might go, and that's fine with me. I just don't want extras to disappear completely. They almost always add value into a movie by furthering my understanding of either how it was made or the subtext/themes/hidden jokes contained therein.

    4. Rian Johnson did that with a commentary for LOOPER from his tumblr. I'd miss the commentary tracks the most, if it comes to that; I could live without the rest.

      Some other stuff I was reading mentions how Netflix is going to more of a TV show catalog, because that's what encourages the binge watching that they like. I've been thinking about going back to the disc plan for Netflix, just so that I have access to their entire catalog (which theoretically is every movie on disc), rather than just putzing around on streaming.

    5. I listened to the Rian Johnson Looper commentary. It is great, and just the sort of thing I hope more filmmakers will embrace as disc bonus features go away.

  4. This is fascinating. As you work your way through Full Moon's catalog, I would love your thoughts to be posted here. I may be following suit by subscribing as well.

    1. Yeah, I agree. Updates on your Full Moon journey would be interesting.

  5. I'm starting to get worried by the number of choices that are coming down the pipe. I might be in the minority here but when there are too many choices my impulse is to start shedding - e.g. I got rid of Netflix disc plan, HBO, Starz etc. because it gets to be too many things (when combined with theaters, netflix streaming, on demand, library etc.). I can only handle so many options before they feel like a burden rather than an enhancement.

    1. Im noticing my patience isnt what it used to be, which is really highlighted/maintained/increased with Netflix streaming. In terms of value, its all too easy to turn it off and chose something else if im not getting into it quickly.

  6. Great article, Patrick - the answer to your question is $7.46.

    No, seriously, it is an interesting question with complex answers that will vary from person to person - I just deleted a long (boring) rant on the subject but figured I'd stick to the main point: I love my physical media - it's still the main way I consume movies and I will be there to the bitter end - but the beauty of digital distribution is that it's easy to tailor it to individual wants and needs - at the moment services like Netflix can keep it simple and offer these basic flat-rate packages but as more options/competition arise I'm sure we'll all be able to find plans that work best for each of us. e.g. Full Moon will come up with a cheaper package to get at least some of my entertainment dollars proportionate to how many of THEIR movies I might want to watch. Gold, silver and bronze memberships and all that - I imagine that's what we'll see more of.

    I think the interesting side-effect of the big studios offering streaming services will be that it will put them in direct competition with each other like never before. I'm sure none of us ever think, "Do I want to watch a 20th Century Fox movie tonight or a Paramount?" Their competition from the consumer's perspective is like the competition between, say, pop and chocolate milk - it's not a brand decision, you just buy what you feel like at the moment. But if we're now faced with deciding between which studios' $X/month streaming services we want, and that's (one of) their main source of revenue, Fox and Paramount suddenly become Coke and Pepsi - it will shake up the industry in a big way - my gut tells me not for the better but I guess it's hard to say.

    There, still boring, but shorter at least.

    I would be very interested in reading about your experience with the Full Moon service - it might convince me to sign up myself!

    1. Deleting a long boring rant. That's a skill I could benefit from. Teach me your ways o' great one.

    2. Thank you for saying "pop" instead of "soda."

    3. Brad - firstly, there's only one Great One and his name is Wayne Gretzky. In Canada that's who we pray to before every meal. I am far too humble and fucking amazing to accept that title. Secondly, I really am in no position to give lessons on avoiding long, boring rants - frankly [DELETED FOR BEING LONG AND BORING].

      Doug - that's how we roll in Canada - when we FINALLY invade the U.S., "pop" will be the codeword for sympathizers who wish to avoid being shipped off to die in the harsh conditions of our Ketchup Dorito Camps.

    4. Ketchup Doritos? My head just exploded.

  7. Band is a con man who will do anything for people money. And makes 3 films a year snd there total crap. He needs to concentrate on blu ray. Nlu ray made 8billionit in america last year just in sales alone. His company is doing to well because his films are pure crap ! Ifs that simple.

  8. So I still buy movies. I still pay to see movies in a theater. I have never, ever pirated a movie and never will. I still assign a value to movies. Not everyone does.

    If the people I'm around on a regular basis are any indication then we're a dying species. I'm actually laughed at (sometimes disparagingly) during conversations when I mention buying physical media and never downloading/watching a pirated movie or TV show. It's probably a generational thing since most of those that have this attitude are folks in their early/mid-20's, but there are a few (even some in their 20's) that still value a movie enough to pay to see them via Netflix subscription and the occasional movie ticket purchase. Guess your question is a great divider among those that pirate or not, since the former aren't as likely to have asked themselves the question since they clearly not value movies enough to worry that their piracy is undercutting their existence in the first place.

  9. Personally I will still buy movies, partially because I still like to own the film and also one of the problems with all of these streaming services is that they are very segmented, the reason Netflix stays on high I believe is its combination of TV and Movie titles without being overly beholden to one studio (although I do know they have some deals in place.)

    If the movie truly entertains me I will want to have the best version of it to peruse at my leisure and I find it very unlikely that DVD and Blu-Ray will ever completely disappear (internet service isn't perfect). Their does come a point when it starts to hurt your finances to buy a new blu-ray collectors set (I am talking to you insanely expensive box sets) so lowering prices slightly for certain big release movies could be beneficial. As for special features for certain movies I want it, however if the studios need to cut the directors commentary for Ride Along to save a few bucks I am fine with that.