Sundance: Is video-on-demand the future of indie film? For titles like 'The Freebie' and 'Bass Ackwards,' yes

Everywhere I’ve gone at this festival, the conversation — the obsession, really — has been about “new distribution models.” If you listen up, there’s some awfully excited chatter. Independent filmmakers are going to take control of their destiny! They’re going to forge new strategies! They’re going to make the technology work for them! They’re going to self-distribute! They’re going to plan out how to market their movie before the movie has even been made! (Think I’m kidding? I’ve heard that one several times.) They’re going to take a good hard look at the increasingly marginalized and battered — not to mention cash-poor — landscape of independent film and figure out how to impose themselves on that landscape, to make if work for them, by hook or by crook.

I honor their efforts, and I believe in them, too; if I were a filmmaker, I’d be saying, and doing, the exact same thing. But since I’m not a filmmaker, I can afford to stand back and say that my own excitement about the newly spartan and precarious, technologically fixated, catch-as-catch-can world of indie-film distribution is tempered by a profound ambivalence. It comes down to this: When people talk about “new distribution models,” most of what they’re referring to is innovative new ways to watch movies on television, over the Internet, on your iPad, etc. And before we even get into the possibilities and promises of all that, which are undeniably immense, there’s a voice in my head, a loud and passionate one that shouts, beyond reason: No! What you’re really talking about is giving up the theatrical experience! The shared experience! You’re giving up the dream of what movies are! And you’re daring to call that a revolution!

Okay, I just had to get that out of my system. Now let’s talk about the real world.

Indie film may be challenged these days, but it’s also enjoying a heady creative moment; it’s not going away. Your local megaplex may be playing Avatar on six screens and Grisly Horror Trash of the Weekend on three, but the screen showing that token indie movie hasn’t disappeared, and neither has the audience appetite for it. And when it comes to The Future, releasing movies on television or the Web, via a smorgasbord of video-on-demand services, is no travesty. In essence, it’s the way that we’ve all watched a great many movies over the last 30 years, going back to the days of “renting a video.” And now, the audio-visual quality may trump anything that’s come before. So what’s not to like?

For an increasingly sizable quota of filmmakers, very little. For years now, a great many films shown at Sundance — too many — have existed in a kind of film-festival bubble. Maybe they get a small-scale release, which then (if they’re lucky) dribbles out to a couple of dozen theaters across the country, where dedicated movie lovers who want to watch something other than Grisly Horror Trash of the Weekend can seek them out. It’s a system — and, for a few lucky filmmakers, a living. But video-on-demand promises something else.

VOD, at least as a form of first-run distribution, didn’t really get put on the map until Magnolia featured Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble as its first “day-and-date” release (i.e., available simultaneously in a handful of theaters and at home), which happened four years ago this month. A terrific little movie, it was not a success theatrically, but it was released simultaneously on DVD and home video, and in the latter form it did extremely well. Bottom line: It was instantly watched by many, many more eyeballs than would likely have seen it even if it had been given a full-scale art-house release. The movie played at the IFC Center in New York, and IFC, along with Magnolia, has been the trailblazing practitioner of VOD, now releasing 75 films a year in that format. The potential of video-on-demand is vast. I thought of it in relation to two bite-size Sundance movies I enjoyed, neither one of which I think would have much of a prayer, in the current environment, as theatrical releases. They’re simply too…quiet.

Both films played in NEXT, a section of eight extremely low-budget Sundance movies, and though I voiced some skepticism about this category in my first Sundance post, I now officially withdraw the skepticism. Watching The Freebie (pictured above) and Bass Ackwards, I didn’t cut them any slack for their budgets, but I ended up appreciating their economy of means. They’re simple, lo-fi demonstrations of what can be done for almost nothing in a movie universe now dominated by visual and financial bloat.

Katie Aselton’s The Freebie is a sexual-gimmick comedy, like Humpday, only teensier and fresher. It stars Dax Shepard, who I’ve always liked even in bad Hollywood movies like Employee of the Month, along with Aselton herself. They play a married L.A. couple who share a visibly contented intimacy but, as they finally admit to one another with weary grins, a bedroom life of diminishing heat. To recharge their libidos, they agree to each go off and enjoy a one-night stand. The result is like “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” shot on DV by Eric Rohmer. The actual experiment — a clearly terrible idea — is the least interesting part of the movie. What I liked about The Freebie is how the two come around to viewing the comfortable boredom of their marital bond in a touching new light. Indie film agrees with Dax Shepard — he comes off as a fascinatingly affectionate snake.

If The Freebie at least has a loose link to, you know, entertainment, Bass Ackwards, written and directed by its star, Linas Phillips, is one of those eccentric road-movie rambles where you have to just sit back and go with it. Yet it’s been made with great humanity and skill. Phillips, with his leonine moon face, plays a particularly wayward Seattle slacker, also named Linas, who gets tossed out of his place and dropped by the girl who’s sleeping with him adulterously. With nowhere to go, Linas, who’s so passive he’s like a little boy, finds an amusingly ancient VW bus and drives this putt-putting rust-mobile across the country to his parents’ home in Boston — the most piquantly lonely road odyssey since Vincent Gallo stared at the rosy fingers of twilight through his windshield wipers in The Brown Bunny.

Bass Ackwards was made for $30,000, yet it looks like it was shot by Vilmos Zsigmond. Phillips’ eloquent images caress the landscape, and also the fascinating oddballs he finds there. This is the sort of movie I was grateful to see at Sundance, yet a decade ago, I would have been recommending it in a vacuum. This year, I can say that Bass Ackwards will be available in millions of homes in exactly four days, on Feb. 1, via cable VOD. It’s the kind of truly and redemptively quirky cinema that adventurous moviegoers will be grateful to see. And happy to demand.

Comments (3 total) Add your comment
  • val

    For as long as I’ve had cable, I’ve had a mental block against pay per view/on demand, mainly because I hate giving money to Time Warner. Yesterday, I used VOD for the first time — Fish Tank on IFC — and I’m a convert. To be sure, I’ll only use it for indy movies and only if my urge to see a movie overrides my patience for DVD release. Don’t underestimate the will of my stingy wallet.

  • Britt

    VOD is more than movies, but it can be a great platform for both blockbusters and independent films.

  • Daniel Cooper

    Amazing insight. :-) Thanks Owen for your passionate support for independent film. Indie filmmakers everywhere should be proud to have critics like you in their corner. I’m relieved to hear that the NEXT section is a good addition to the Sundance line-up! Seems like this ‘new’ Sundance is turning into a pretty amazing event. Hope it continues.

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