The rallying cry for transparency in VOD reporting fell on receptive ears Sunday at the 2014 Produced By conference, where Cinetic Media’s John Sloss appealed to the financial interests of the producers in the room regarding the mounting importance of VOD and digital distribution. “The promise of transparency creates the promise of the future of cleaner revenue streams,” said Sloss. “And the efficiency of the future should push more revenue back to you.”
Sloss has been indie film’s most vocal proponent of VOD data reporting since he went public with VOD performance numbers on indie Escape from Tomorrow and called for others to do the same. But without more distributors onboard to offer up numbers and no standards in data collecting it’s still a steep uphill climb towards transparency.
Still, he’s gained some support. On Saturday Sloss’s fellow panelist Jason Janegos of Radius-TWC revealed the strong VOD/digital numbers on docus 20 Feet From Stardom ($1.3M on VOD) and The Unknown Known ($1M), exclusively to Deadline. Joining the early adopters on Sunday, Gravitas Ventures’ Melanie Miller pledged to publish VOD/digital performance numbers on upcoming films promising that “as much transparency as possible is what we want to do.” Two years ago Gravitas took the unprecedented step of publishing its spending ledger on documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story. “We caught a lot of flack for that,” Miller told me.
Other distributors are reluctant to release VOD and digital receipts and have told Deadline they won’t be reporting them in the near future. Some may be hesitant to volunteer disappointing numbers, while others suspect distribs are hiding their VOD/digital successes lest competitors or filmmakers want a bigger slice of the pie. Some proponents of transparent reporting argue it should stay outside of the public eye, but “box office gross is now a retail discussion,” said Sloss. “The people cutting your lawn are talking about what grossed what on Monday morning.”
A bigger obstacle in industry-wide VOD reporting is the lack of any standard data metrics across various cable and digital providers, which use varying methodology to collect their own transactional data. Some deliver data regularly privately to distributors, who share with filmmakers. Others may not report until a cable subscriber pays their monthly bill. “I don’t think distributors have as much access as people think, or that distributors are hiding behind creative accounting,” said Miller. “Theatrical reporting is more of an archaic way of collecting data. As the VOD/digital space evolves, reporting will evolve.”
Meanwhile, VOD successes like Margin Call have made it easier to get producers, filmmakers, and talent behind VOD as the theatrical marketplace becomes more crowded each week. Still, “there’s no evidence that VOD works without movie stars,” said producer Cathy Schulman, who added that the domestic valuation of indie projects with a VOD component now caps around $1.5M. And without consistent performance data to inform producers’ decisions on next projects it’s harder to plan content in the new age of VOD, let alone sign the kind of talent that can help a smaller film hit on VOD. “Someone needs to speak to the agencies, the keepers of the talent,” she said.
“Nobody needs to speak to the agencies,” answered Sloss. “The agencies need to start listening.”
Speaking of who’s listening as the VOD discussion rages on: National Association of Theater Owners head John Fithian apparently did notice his name pop up a few times during Sunday’s conversation as panelists including Sloss discussed the growing importance of day-and-date VOD and theatrical distribution. Fithian, repping theater owners, has battled the rise of day-and-date for years and once called it “the biggest threat to the viability of the cinema industry today.” (He accused Netflix’s Ted Sarandos of similarly trying to kill the cinema last year.) Appearing on a subsequent panel he declined to address the VOD conversation that preceded him just an hour earlier in the same theater. “I’m not going to go there even though I was called out three times,” he said. “I do not have horns on my head.”