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Video on demand reshapes the way films are distributed

Stealthily populating itself on TV menus, video-on-demand has quietly seeped into our homes, remaking movie distribution with little fanfare.

Once an afterthought, VOD has grown into a multibillion dollar industry, reoriented release strategy and been seen as a panacea to an independent film world desperate for audiences.

Films are commonly made available before theatrical release on VOD, (last week's new hockey comedy "Goon," starring Liev Schriber, has been on VOD for weeks, for example). Indie distributors have more to gain from experimenting with release schedules than the more cautious major studios that still depend on big box office. But the effect is there, too: Last month, "Bridesmaids" became the most popular VOD movie yet with 4.8 million rentals.

But keeping up with the land rush to on-demand can be difficult. Movies no longer just arrive on Friday nights, accompanied by newspaper reviews and local listings. They can premiere anywhere and anytime. There are the cable operators, the enormous digital outlets like iTunes and Amazon, subscription-based streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, and a steady parade of new start-ups and apps.

At the recent South By Southwest Conference, Matt Harlock, director of the 2009 indie and VOD success story "American: The Bill Hicks Story," had one striking bit of advice for filmmakers hoping to have their films top digital queues.

"Make sure your film title begins with the letters A, B, C or D," he said. "That's not a joke."

But there's an apparatus of movie discovery forming around video-on-demand that might better help viewers find movies and vice versa. The untamed wilds of VOD are steadily taking shape thanks to the efforts of industry leaders like Comcast, independent distributors like Magnolia Pictures, start-ups like Prescreen and even veteran film critics like Roger Ebert.

It only seems fitting to click on each separately, in on-demand style.

Magnolia Pictures began experimenting with untraditional movie release windows as early as 2005, when it made Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble" available in day-and-date release: in movie theaters and on DVD at the same time. But VOD quickly became evident as the more appealing option: There's virtually no cost in digital transmission as opposed to manufacturing DVDs and shipping them.

"A lot of it did come out of the gross inefficiency of the traditional independent film model," says Eammon Bowles, president of Magnolia. As Magnolia was pushing into on-demand, many independent distributors were shuttering, squeezed out of a blockbuster-driven marketplace.

For Magnolia, theatrical release is still the main way it gathers attention for films, even though, Bowles says, almost all of their films generate more money on VOD than in theaters. Theatrical release means audiences, critics and the industry take a film more seriously.

Any cannibalizing of box office from VOD is a moot point, says Bowles.

"There is a certain amount of business that people will just stay home and watch something rather than go to the theaters," he says. "However, the amount of business you pick from people who are never going to be able to get to theaters -- weren't going to have the film playing within 300 miles of them -- just so far outstrips any revenue you could potentially lose from the theatrical."

Bowles declines to theorize on what this could mean down the road, but grants that "marketing efforts are going to start focusing more on having people go get it on demand."

"We're agnostic about where the money comes from," says Bowles. "We don't care. Basically, our philosophy is we want to make the film available for however the customer wants to purchase it."

Some critics have begun covering on-demand releases with the same gusto generally reserved for theatrical releases. On Demand Weekly, launched in 2009 by two marketing executives, touts itself as the "first and only online publication and email newsletter dedicated to the rising VOD consumer market."