LDS Film: The Need For a New Distribution Model

Once Upon A SummerOnce Upon A Summer is a film released to DVD in 2009, and directed by Rob Diamond.  It’s gotten decent reviews, and stars two actors I respect: Heather Beers (Charly, Baptists At Our Barbecue) and Matthew Reese (Beauty & The Beast, Rescued).

In other words, it’s a film I’d be interested in seeing…unfortunately, I can’t.   It’s not available anywhere.

Netflix doesn’t carry any copies.   Online streaming locations like Amazon, Hulu, and iTunes don’t carry it either.  The local movie rental places like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video *might* have had it…if they hadn’t all gone out of business in our area over the last two years.

Basically, those who want to see Once Upon A Summer have one and only one option:  purchasing the DVD for somewhere between $15 and $25 dollars from Deseret Book or other retail locations that sell LDS DVDs.

I submit that this is a problem:

Like many LDS households, we aren’t hovering on the edge of poverty but we’re not exactly rich, either:  $15 is still a lot of money for disposable entertainment — more expensive than regular movie tickets and a significant cost for something that, all things considered, my wife and I will likely view just once.

We don’t generally buy DVDs at all — even of our all-time favorite movies — simply because we don’t rewatch those, either.  (There’s plenty of good movies we haven’t seen, so why not spend that movie time watching something new?)

Since I’d like to think of myself as a supporter of LDS films, perhaps I should bite the bullet and view the $15 DVD charge as a “charitable contribution” to the industry?   I’m doubtful that any large portion of that cost will actually be going to support the filmmakers, rather than into Deseret Book’s already substantial coffers.   And even if I did spend that money as a one-time thing specifically for this movie, the costs are going to add up quickly if I did that for *every* LDS film that’s released, year to year.    Going forward, depending on $15-25 “charitable contributions” for each new LDS film is not going to be a sustainable, reliable business model.

I don’t want to pay $15 to see Once Upon a Summer, but I might pay four or five.  And I’m sure I’m not alone — is there a way that both LDS filmmakers and LDS film viewers can get what they want and be satisfied?

Does LDS film need a new distribution model?  The current system puts LDS films at a severe disadvantage:   the dependence on the movie theater network means tickets to lower-budget LDS films have to be sold at the same price as Hollywood blockbusters — a distinct competitive disadvantage.  Likewise, DVD costs are fairly consistent regardless of the film.

This does not give LDS filmmakers control over the price of their product — offering a lower price to offset the perceived value due to differences in production values and budget — as independent studios can with video games or other art forms.

There are direct parallels to the music industry:  many consumers did not want to pay $17-20 for a CD just for the one or two songs they liked.  They were willing to pay on a per-song basis, but there was no distribution model for it.  Without an “official” alternative, many turned to piracy.

However, when record companies finally provided legal song downloads, they quickly became a multi-billion dollar industry — the existence of pirated alternatives didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of people who were perfectly willing to pay for MP3 files when the opportunity was there.   They were ready from the beginning to give the record companies their money…but only at the price they were comfortable with.

I have no idea if there’s a pirated copy of Once Upon A Summer out there, and have no interest in downloading it even if there was.  However, $15 is still outside my comfort zone.  I’d love to pay $3-4 for a one time rental — isn’t there some happy medium where filmmakers can make money and I can see the films I want at the same time?

Online streaming seems to be the wave of the future, and perhaps (given the inherent disadvantages of LDS films in the current system) LDS filmmakers need to take the lead in developing a new distribution model, rather than waiting for one to arise.  Many Saints outside the Mormon corridor in the western US may also be interested in LDS films, but currently have no local theater options nor access through movie rental services, either.  I may hope (selfishly) for the makers of Once Upon A Summer (and other unavailable films) to donate a handful of DVDs to Netflix to allow me and others the chance to see their work, but I’m perfectly willing to give them a few bucks directly if there was a way to do so.

What can we do to create and support a new distribution model that better fits the needs of the LDS demographic?  How can LDS filmmakers take advantage of modern broadband streaming and Internet commerce to avoid having their work lost in the void (and/or exploited by Deseret Book and other large retailers that take away much of their profit margin)?

  • Th.

    You can get two movie tickets for under $15??? That’s awesome.
    (that was the takeaway, right?)

  • Th.

    Also, although there are probably plenty of exceptions, Once Upon a Summer is here:

  • KevinB

    Ask and ye shall receive…

    I’m *positive* it wasn’t on Amazon when I looked for it last month, but I’m happy to be wrong.  (Should have checked again before posting this, obviously).

    The distribution model comments still stand, though:  LDS film is in general at a disadvantage under the current system and could use a different model, not only to compete with Hollywood movies, but also to market and distribute more effectively to the scattered LDS populace around the world.

  • Th.

    I agree completely. The only way I know about any of these films is because you’re writing about them.

  • J. Daniel Rollins

    Hmm. A streaming model would be nice, but one would assume the only way to really get licensing would be through Deseret. In other words, someone would need to develop the idea and pitch it to Deseret. Couldn’t be too bad.

  • Wm Morris

    Deseret Book already has a film distribution subsidiary — Excel Entertainment. They had big plans to become the major distributor for LDS film, but the collapse of the theatrical release market for LDS films put on a damper on those plans. Or at least that’s how it appears.
    A lot of the films end up on Netflix or Amazon, but one of the issues is there’s no way to know at any one time what’s available — or if you’ve never heard of it, if it even exists.

  • Ken Agle

    This is a model that must be solved and I hope to play a role in solving it. Anyone wanting to join together to solve the model let me know.

  • KevinB

    I’ve always been curious about how the financial aspect worked:  when Amazon sells a digital “rental” for $2 through their streaming service, how much (if any) gets back to the filmmakers?  When Deseret Book sells a DVD, how much of that money (if any) gets back to the filmmakers?  I’m interested in whether it makes good financial sense for LDS filmmakers to make sure Amazon and Netflix have their films, or if they don’t make any money at all unless they find a way to sell (or stream) direct.

  • Mike Dochterman

    In the locations I live two tickets at the matinee price, the only time I go to the theater are close to $15.  I have a family of five and paying 15 for a movie is 3/person and I don’t have to buy any overpriced snacks.  So even if I only watch a movie once 15 is not bad.  I think a streaming or direct buy from filmaker would be better.  Unfortunately buying from the filmaker you still pay the same as the retail stores.

  • Pingback: This Week in Mormon Literature, March 25, 2011 | Dawning of a Brighter Day()

  • Tim

    I would be interested in different distribution models. It has to be priced right that LDS members will buy it or see it. I know in Russia they just pirate the movies. I’m sure that’s what they do in other countries because it’s hard to find these movies.

  • Pingback: Review: Once Upon A Summer (B-) | LDS Cinema Online()

  • Randy

    So I’m completely late in jumping into this conversation but I was scouring the Internet for discussions of the latest big Mormon film (that’s right, Errol Morris’s ‘Tabloid’!) and I came across this conversation I somehow missed.

    Kevin’s right that the current distribution model is broken, and that’s true of all indie film as well as Mormon film specifically. I don’t see DVD as the savior of Mormon film. Recently T.C. Christensen told me that the Mormon DVD market is proving a bit more robust than the general market, which is something I hadn’t expected (on account of we’re all cheap, borderline poor, or just frugal). But a lot of Mormons, evidently, still buy discs, whether it’s because they deem it a good deal for a large family (like Mike above), or because they like to have a piece of physical merchandise they can put on their shelf and have available for impromptu viewing (i.e. the grandkids just came over), or because they’re slow adapters for new technologies–or some other reason.

    That said, DVD sales are still diminishing and won’t sustain it. So both T.C.’s film ’17 Miracles’ and Christian Vuissa’s new Joseph Smith film are doing small tours of movie theaters rather than broad releases, a strategy which works well if 1) you minimize shipping and film print costs by screening on Blu-ray rather than film, and, more importantly, 2) if you build up good word of mouth (because you certainly can’t afford an extended blitz of paid media outlets–ads–or unpaid ones–reviews). Christian’s film is touring outside the Mormon corridor first–I saw it in NYC on Tuesday–and it will be interesting to see how that does compared to T.C.’s screenings in the traditional Utah-centric markets. Although our screening in Tribeca was fairly empty, due I guess to really limited and last-minute publicity for the event, I think 2/3 of the people there bought the DVD, which Christian or his team wisely decided to sell right there at the theater–compress your point of purchase to one locale.

    So, given the possibilities of four-walling theaters and selling your own DVDs, I think online streaming or downloads are still going to be the way to go. Piracy is an issue, of course–there are already bit torrent sites advertising ’17 Miracles,’ waiting for a copy to slip into the “right” hands. But paid online models are the right way, I think. It’s just a question of how to do it, and the comments here have already touched on that. $4 for a one-time streaming? $10 for a download? $4 for download? I don’t know the price point, but I tend to lean towards a download model, following iTunes (where the success of For Lovers Only is the big news this week), but it would be great to hear more comments about how people prefer to watch and pay for this stuff–what the price point might be. Ken, I’m with you on setting up the infrastructure, although I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel.

    Finally on one of Kevin’s questions:

    when Amazon sells a digital “rental” for $2 through their streaming service, how much (if any) gets back to the filmmakers? When Deseret Book sells a DVD, how much of that money (if any) gets back to the filmmakers? I’m interested in whether it makes good financial sense for LDS filmmakers to make sure Amazon and Netflix have their films, or if they don’t make any money at all unless they find a way to sell (or stream) direct.

    Every outlet is different, especially online. There are as many ways to negotiate income as there are outlets for viewing: hulu, iTunes, Netflix, Amazon’s different products (streaming, etc.), etc. etc. Basically, though, a film’s producers have to first sell their films to the entity in question–and they are as picky as traditional theatrical distributors (well, not Amazon, but iTunes is notoriously difficult to get your film on)–and then negotiate the best possible deal, financially, while retaining the greatest amount of rights (you don’t want to accidentally sell a right–like streaming in Europe–to an entity that isn’t going to exploit that right). So you can’t just donate your film to Netflix or throw it up on iTunes: there are still gatekeepers here.

    So filmmakers have the option to negotiate those gatekeepers, which may definitely be in their best interest, or they can go DIY, selling downloads off of their own site with grassroots marketing. This is an option I don’t think we’ve seen yet in Mormon film, and it’s one I’d like to see played out (heck, I’m trying to do it myself with my own film next year). As it is, I have a list of about 25 Mormon films I’d like to see, and…let’s see…only seven of those were on Netflix–counting the Twilight trilogy. If my option is to pay $25 to buy something like Journey of Faith from Deseret Book, plus shipping, then my choice is to not see it. You’re right: it’s not worth my $20-35 for a film I’m going to watch once.

    I always encourage people to read Jon Reiss’s book Think Outside the Box Office, and he and Sheri Candler are launching a new free ebook this September at Independent Film Week. Also Sheri and some collaborators have just released an ebook on this at I haven’t gone through that one yet, but I think the lion’s share of material is about distribution.

    So let’s unite and get online distribution underway! Ken–email me!

  • Randy

    Okay, so here’s an update I just heard a few minutes ago. The site has set up its beta version and today they released Melted Hearts: El Otro Lado del Corazon. The rental price is $4 for a 48-hour rental. That seems like a really good price point to me. If anyone’s still reading on this post, what do you think? What’s the right price? Just throwing it out there.

  • Pingback: Online rentals – what’s the right price point? | Notes of a Mormon Filmmaker()