Hollywood has been trying to leapfrog the theatrical exhibition business for years, looking for ways to vault directly to the ancillary revenue streams (read: DVD, cable and, now, streaming) that earn it the most money. Now, a movie from a company that's never made one before may just pull off that feat, becoming an online and home video hit without a traditional release.
The movie is Coffee Town, the first feature-length release from popular comedy website CollegeHumor.com. Its debut on July 9th made it available to viewers via iTunes, Amazon, PlayStation, GooglePlay, Xbox, cable video on demand and other platforms that don't require viewers to leave their living rooms or pass by popcorn-and-soda counters.
Written and directed by Brad Copeland (Arrested Development), Coffee Town stars Glenn Howerton (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as Will, a telecommuter whose workplace is the local coffeehouse, where he hangs with his pals (Steve Little of Eastbound and Down and Ben Schwartz of Parks and Recreation) and pines after a beautiful regular (Adrianne Palicki of Friday Night Lights). His nemesis, a sneering barista (singer Josh Groban) plans to turn the cafe into an upscale nightspot, so Will and his buddies plot to spoil the deal by staging a robbery that makes the neighborhood appear unsafe.
Practically the entire operation is online, from promotion to purchase and distribution. If you haven't seen any commercials for the movie, that's because its ad campaign is almost entirely viral: CollegeHumor has been taking advantage of social media, from Tumblr to Twitter, to promote Coffee Town on the cheap. So if the film is a success, CollegeHumor will have precise metrics, unavailable in traditional movie promotion and distribution campaigns, to determine which marketing elements drove which customers to which outlets. And those metrics could serve as a model for similar future releases.
Industry watchers are keeping an eye on Coffee Town, especially in the wake of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas' recent comments predicting the imminent "implosion" of Hollywood's current distribution model. It seems pretty unlikely that you could deliver a big special-effects blockbuster the Coffee Town way (nor would you really prefer to see such a spectacle on your smartphone instead of in a theater). Still, it could work for more modest comedies and dramas. Since everyone thinks streaming and on-demand are the distribution modes of the future – but no one knows how we're going to get there, at least not without some major bloodshed among the studios and theater owners who benefit most from the old system – Coffee Town could suggest one possible path to that future.
Mind you, despite its modest budget (reported, variously, to be between $500,000 and $2 million) and non-studio origin, Coffiee Town is not some scrappy, independent movie. After all, CollegeHumor's parent company is Web content and services conglomerate IAC, run by former Paramount chief Barry Diller. The man largely credited with inventing the Fox broadcast network and the made-for-TV movie, Diller, 71, has been behind several paradigm shifts in the entertainment industry, so one more would be no big deal to him. And if IAC does succeed in remaking the movie distribution business, Hollywood will likely treat the feat as the triumphant return of a king after self-imposed exile, not as the insolent act of a rebellious outsider.
Its also worth noting that Coffee Town isn't avoiding theaters altogether – a handful of engagements are scheduled throughout July in select cities). There's still no better way to get your movie noticed than booking it on the big screen (theatrical screenings generate critics' reviews and behind-the-scenes news articles, as well as other forms of nearly-free publicity). So even the movie that threatens to drive the last nails into the coffin of the multiplexes will depend on them, just a little bit, to stay alive. The question is how long that dependency will last.