Neon Expands the Idea of Virtual Cinema, Partners with Restaurants, Bookstores, and More for Doc Rollout

On May 8, Matt Wolf’s documentary “Spaceship Earth” will become available on the websites of arthouses across the country. The approach mirrors the “virtual cinema” strategy other distributors have utilized in recent weeks, with shuttered theaters taking 50 percent of the transactional VOD revenue. However, distributor Neon is taking a more expansive approach: “Spaceship Earth” will also be available through a range of small businesses, including restaurants, bookstores, and museums.

“Seeing the ripple effect across every kind of business has been really heartbreaking,” said Neon CEO Tom Quinn. “We wanted our contribution to these releases to go beyond theaters and include any standalone business that wants to participate in an unexpected source of revenue. We don’t know if it’s going to work, but we’re going to try.”

The non-theatrical partners attached so far range from Ground Support Cafe to the NYC Trivia League and the famed Brooklyn Italian restaurant Locanda Vinii & Ollie. Quinn said the project, which was conceived six weeks before the May release, continued to evolve. “We’re adding new business every day,” he said, adding that any business interested in hosting the film could reach out. At the same time, Neon is also working on booking drive-in theaters while making the film available on a range of transactional VOD platforms, including Apple and Hulu, where it has an output deal. Quinn said that despite the widespread availability of the release, individual businesses participating in the opportunity could market the film directly to their own bases. “The power of this particular release strategy is the diversity of people participating,” he said. “Not everyone uses the same platform. I may personally choose to see the film on Hulu, but would gladly support Locanda and watch it there.”

Neon’s approach was inspired by the earliest virtual cinema efforts by Oscilloscope Laboratories, which made its 2019 SXSW acquisition “Saint Frances” available online at select theaters a month ago. Since then, distributors such as Kino Lorber (with Kino Marquee) and Film Movement (with Film Movement Plus) have followed suit with a range of titles. “The real question that some theaters were anxious about was whether it was a Trojan horse, the armies of VOD invading our theatrical business,” Kino Lorber CEO Richard Lorber said. “The answer is no. They are available on a territory basis for the theater so it’s only available through that theater and the market. We are rooting for the theaters to come back alive and healthy.”

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Quinn said he was heartened by the results that other distributors had found with their approaches, adding that they had been exchanging data to help understand the approach. “It’s been non-competitive, which should be reassuring to our exhibition partners,” he said. “Distributors understand the desperate situation. What can we do as we hibernate? How do we replicate a cinematic experience without theaters? I can assure you it’s impossible. But what could we do to eventize this release while recognizing the situation we’re all in?”

He added that early figures on virtual cinema releases, which have not been made public, gave him some measure of confidence that the approach was worthwhile. “I’ve seen numbers that reflect a very solid regional theatrical weekend for a theater that has an engaged specialized audience,” he said. “That’s not indicative of every single site where the film is transactionally available.”

Neon acquired “Spaceship Earth” out of this year’s Sundance lineup, and the film was among a handful of titles in its slate that it was looking to release in some capacity before the end of the second quarter. The documentary provides a timely hook: Wolf’s archive-rich saga looks back on the 1991 experiences of the eight people sealed inside Biosphere 2, the Arizona biodome where subjects lived in a self-sustaining environment for two years, facing a series of interpersonal dilemmas along the way. “It struck me as this incredibly prescient film,” Quinn said. “Some of the conflicts they encounter are ones we’re going through right now. What’s it like to deal with interpersonal calamities on a daily basis?”

Quinn’s confidence in that spin comes in part from the company’s recent track record of unconventional successes, “Parasite” chief among them. The historic Best Picture winner crossed $50 million in domestic box office earnings after this year’s Oscars, and the company followed up that win with a robust performance for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” a few weeks later. As the company continues to eye the awards prospects of its titles, Quinn said he was confident the Academy would waive traditional theatrical qualifying rules to accommodate releases like the one “Spaceship Earth” would receive. “I believe the Academy will follow suit with the Golden Globes in understanding the extraordinary circumstances at play here,” he said, though the organization is not expected to announce any changes until it meets next week. “To their credit, they aren’t jumping the gun and announcing something without thinking it through,” Quinn said. “ I firmly believe they will make the right decision. We clearly want this film to be qualified. Because of the extenuating circumstances. I’m pretty sure the Academy doesn’t want us all to sit on the sidelines and not bring new films to market.”

Quinn was eager to sort out the drive-in options for “Spaceship Earth” as well. “I’m salivating at the prospects of going to see a movie on a big screen somewhere other than my own home,” he said. However, there was one theatrical opportunity that he considered off the table: While Georgia governor Brian Kemp announced plans to allow movie theaters and other businesses to reopen next week, “Spaceship Earth” won’t be playing at any venues that do come back at that time. “It’s a definitive no,” Quinn said. “I will book theaters when I feel comfortable going myself. Until there’s adequate testing in place, I won’t put myself or anyone else in harm’s way.”

He was emboldened by the response when the company made “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” available on Hulu, which inspired this next step. “While our entire business is built on the power of cinema and our partners in exhibition, it’s more important than ever for us to continue doing our job, not get paralyzed thinking about what could have been,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, that’s OK. We at least wanted to innovate in whatever way we could as a company.”

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