Home Studios Should Look to Trent Reznor for Future of Distribution

Studios Should Look to Trent Reznor for Future of Distribution

There was an article over the weekend in the New York Times about new tactics Warner Brothers is planning to boost flagging DVD sales. Warner plans to release direct-to-DVD companion films alongside new releases in the future, in an attempt to build buzz for the later DVD release of the main feature. What they really should be doing, is to ditch the traditional DVD model altogether, and take a look at some of the things alt rocker Trent Reznor has done over the past few months.

Warner’s plan involves creating a separate, direct-to-DVD movie for its 2009 blockbuster “Watchmen,” a graphic novel adaptation by the director of smash-hit “300.” The DVD-only release will follow an alternate storyline taken from the same graphic novel and will hit stores about a week after the movie opens in theaters.

Warner is hoping for a few things from the DVD. First, to generate additional DVD revenue without much more cash put into production (now “Watchmen” can have an additional “ultimate” edition in witch both releases are edited together). Second, to help launch the movie project into a potential new franchise. “As television advertising becomes less effective because of declining TV viewership, movie studios need to reach a mass audience somehow, and having what amounts to ads sitting on store shelves is seen as a crucial antidote,” writes the New York Times.

But it doesn’t seem like it will work. If DVD sales are down — off 3.2% last year, according to Adams Media Research — why would more DVDs be the answer? Will an additional, direct-to-DVD release of a secondary storyline really help sell more DVDs four months later? Doubtful. Remember, Warner Brothers isn’t putting the additional storyline on the “Watchmen” DVD as a value-add for fans, but instead asking people to shell out more money for additional content. It’s an advertisement on store shelves, yeah, but one that you have to pay for.

The Reznor Blue Print

Speaking to the New York Times about the potential for a “megamovie” that edits together both “Watchmen” and the direct-to-DVD release, director Zack Snyder says, “The überfans of this property are going to go crazy for that.” He’s right. The überfans — what Kevin Kelly might call “true fans” — will buy anything related to the thing they’re fans of. That was the concept behind the March release of the Nine Inch Nails album Ghosts I-IV.

NIN frontman Trent Reznor realized that in order to make money, he needed only to appeal to his true fans, his überfans. He gave the first part of his four part album away for free on the Internet, and then offered higher quality downloads, and “deluxe” physical packages for a price ranging from $5 to $300.

The result was that his true fans ate it up. Reznor pulled in $750,000 in three days from sales of music to his core fan base, and may have picked up a few new true fans along the way via the free downloads.

The movie studios could learn from Reznor’s blue print. Clearly $750,000 is not enough to recoup the costs of a $100 million movie, but the movie studios don’t have to give anything away for free. What they should do is offer users a low cost, legal alternative to BitTorrent where movies can be had cheaply at high quality and DRM free. Then for the überfans — fans of the director, writer, actors, or movie itself — sell additional downloadable content, and offer high priced, physical “deluxe” editions with value added features, as well as all the normal movie merchandising and promotional tie-ins.

Alternatively, maybe simultaneously producing a direct-to-DVD release is a good idea. But make it a direct-to-web release, and use it as a promotional vehicle for the movie. Break it up into small chunks (under 10 minutes each), and put it out on BitTorrent and YouTube in episodic format for free leading up to the full DVD/download release of the main feature. That’s akin to what Reznor did by releasing the first part of the Ghosts for free, and asking fans to pay for the rest of the album.


Speaking of a direct-to-web release, in addition to the direct-to-DVD side movie, Warner is planning a series of a dozen 22-26 minute animated “webisodes” that will attempt to create buzz for the film and introduce viewers to its complicated plot (more precisely, they will be semi-animated story boards narrated by an actor). That’s a step in the right direction, unfortunately 26 minutes might be too long for the web format — especially for what amounts to a narrated slide show. That demonstrates that maybe Warner just doesn’t yet understand the new medium of Internet video.

According to Snyder, the webisodes will eventually be combined as part of a later DVD release — which is the type of value-add that those überfans will pay for. But if the goal is to build buzz for a potential franchise, then studios should seriously think about the Reznor distribution blue print. It may not be as profitable in the short term, but could work at scale and help to turn some casual fans into true fans for future releases in the franchise.

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