Edward Burns' latest film, Purple Violets, won't be coming to a theater near you, but you won't have to go far to see it. The movie is available to anyone with $13 and an account at iTunes. It is the first time a feature film has premiered at the Apple media store.
Burns first landed on the scene in Hollywood with his highly successful 1995 film The Brothers McMullen. He wrote, directed, produced and starred while managing to spend less than $30,000 putting together the vehicle that would pave the way for his role acting in Saving Private Ryan.
While his resume as both a filmmaker and an actor are impressive, the LA Times points out that, "All nine of Burns' films, going back to his breakout 1995 success 'The Brothers McMullen,' have seen a limited initial release in New York and Los Angeles. The last time moviegoers in St. Louis got to see a film of his premier there, said Burns, was 1998." This way everyone can watch it right now, but it remains unclear how this approach to distribution will pan out.
Sure, I can watch Purple Violets on my iPhone or at home on my monitor, but at $12.99 I'm paying a premium over seeing it in the theater (it is cheaper than tickets for two though). I also "own" the movie and can watch it again and again, but this is only a bonus for those people who like to watch films more than once.
From a moviegoer perspective, I have to ask myself, "how important is the experience of going to a theater?" Perhaps with the steady influx of better and bigger home theater systems, the value of actually going to the movies is becoming less and less significant. At the same time, I can't see the movie theater going away as a dating oasis and the refuge for teenage lovers that it has always been.In terms of economics, I still don't see digital distribution as a viable alternative to the current system. According to Macrumors, "Apple's vice president of iTunes [has revealed] that while the most popular movies have sold 'hundreds of thousands' copies each, no single iTunes movie has broken the 1 million download mark." Even if Purple Violets smashes that record it'd still have a long way to go before studios are able to reap the rewards that come from the box office.
People flock to theaters in the numbers they do because of elaborate and expensive marketing campaigns. Trailers air during prime-time television, and at the theater; newspapers are filled with dramatic advertisements and bus stops and billboards let everyone know what the next big picture will be. This sort of outreach costs a lot of money, and unless studios are willing to take a chance, a big chance, by spending millions to promote an unproven distribution model, then it will likely fail.
Even if the promotion is there, this approach may still prove unsuccessful. Purple Violets may be the wrong film, or the audience may not be ready yet. It was a while before digital music really took off; the trade-off was much less pronounced, and almost everything available online can still be bought on CD.
I just don't feel that Hollywood films should go exclusively digital. The iTunes model has tremendous potential for small independent productions that might otherwise remain unreachable, but the iPhone will never be an adequate substitute for the silver screen and 16 year-olds will always need a safe space to make out.