The Answer to Movies' Great Riddle

It's nice when a little guy takes on the Movie Industry, changes the rules and wins. On Sunday,had its world premiere and made movie history.
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It's nice when a little guy takes on the Movie Industry, changes the rules and wins. That happened this past weekend. In the process, audiences won, too.

For independent films, the twisted road to getting seen is frequently without a happy ending. Movies die on the shelf regularly, often unrelated to quality, just that no distributor believed the audience would be large enough.

One very small movie in England just changed that for itself in a very big way. On Sunday, The Riddle had its world premiere and made movie history. It was a world premiere like no other, ever. In a deal with the popular newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, 2.6 million DVDs of the as-yet unreleased film were given free with every single one of the papers.

To put this in perspective, that's more DVDs in circulation on its opening day than Titanic had its first week. Certainly that's comparing apples and oranges, but keep in mind that the budget for The Riddle was what Titanic spent on doughnuts.

Small budget aside, The Riddle does have a pedigree. It stars Vinnie Jones and Sir Derek Jacobi, with a supporting role by Vanessa Redgrave. A thriller, it revolves around the discovery of an unpublished novel by Charles Dickens. Jones plays a reporter whose murder investigation along the River Thames leads to a mysterious tramp, portrayed by Jacobi (in a dual role as Dickens in flashback).

The newspaper felt that the small film matched well with their readers. Having just done a similar, and wildly-successful promotion in July for Prince's new album, Planet Earth, their managing director Stephen Miron and marketing director Andrea Harris decided to take another adventurous chance after seeing the movie, and bought the world premiere rights.

The unique premiere was the inspiration of the film's writer-director-producer Brendan Foley. With the landscape so treacherous for independent movies, he was faced with the slow, uncertain path of traditional distribution, or trying something utterly different. "I was watching TV," he says, when one of the promotion ads for the Prince CD came on, "and thought, 'Why not DVD, too?'" Rather than hope an audience would find his film, he decided that the film should go out and find the audience.

Although seemingly risky, it turned out to be an easy decision. His first film, Johnny Was, had won six Best Feature awards at film festivals, yet took an arduous year to get distribution. With The Riddle, however, the process was like entering Wonderland. "We struck a deal, had a major publicity campaign, got very significant TV advertising and delivered the DVDs nationally -- all in just over one month," he notes still in amazement. Such marketing support is unheard of for small movies. But more, the rights returned to the company after just one week, which is unheard of for any movies.

(Full disclosure. Mr. Foley is a friend.)

Indeed, wide distribution aside. the newspaper DVD premiere only touches a tiny portion of the U.K.'s home video market, an audience of 50 million who don't get The Mail on Sunday.

Of course, new ideas are at times viewed with skepticism and fear. Some anonymous letters to newspapers from distributors suggested that giving away a movie diminishes its value.

In truth, as reality demonstrates, nothing was given away at all.

"The newspaper bought the UK DVD rights like any distributor," the Belfast-born Foley states, "and while our deal is the subject of a confidentiality clause I can say it was a very good six-figure sum." ("Six-figures" being in British currency, currently $2.00 for each pound.) Further, that purchase was supported by the newspaper with a huge ad buy that included primetime TV trailers, things no small independent movie could have hoped for -- not to mention all the heavy newspaper promotion. The deal was so good, he admits, "If we never shifted another DVD in the UK, we would be ahead of the game."

When The Mail on Sunday had done its earlier Prince CD promotion, that was derided as well, by retailers. But newspaper sales went up 600,000 to 2.8 million, the press coverage actually helped store sales of the CD, and Prince had an unprecedented string of concert sell-outs.

Overall, Foley says the calls he has received from distributors start with the phrase, "I wish I thought of that." They then ask how they themselves can benefit in the future.

In the end, the risk turned into a no-lose situation: the newspaper's sales skyrocket (the full 2.6 million run has reportedly sold out, up 400,000 copies from a usual Sunday), and the movie gets money and a visibility that few low-budget can ever reach -- and audiences get to see a movie they might have otherwise not had a chance to even know about. Importantly, this isn't the film's "run," just its premiere; the company is looking into a wider DVD release with extra features and a directors cut. Moreover, few independent films in the UK expect to make their money theatrically, relying instead on the DVD market and TV sales -- though a U.K. theatrical release is still possible, just not something Foley expects to pursue. In addition, the company retains international distribution rights (including the U.S.) Far from hurting all these markets, the attention from The Mail on Sunday World Premiere gives "The Riddle" a major profile and generates word-of-mouth and publicity.

As the soft-spoken Foley finishes his satiric horror film, Bog Bodies, again with Vinnie Jones, and arrives in Santa Monica to figure out the next distribution, he understands that the movie business will run as it always did. But for small independents, desperate for any way to be seen, that's where the potential exists from this experience. "It may provide an additional outlet for some good movies," he suggests, adding that newspapers might become seen in a new light. "They have the ability to distribute DVDs in massive numbers with great economies of scale, and to back up their promotions with Hollywood-level marketing. The movie industry is smart, but I think that the smartest parts of it understand that it does not have a monopoly on wisdom."

That's expressed as a producer. "As a writer-director," he says, "this is quite simply as good as it gets."

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