Last week, the indie horror film It Follows did something rare. After its second week in limited release, the tale of a sexually transmitted curse, which currently boasts 95 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes—mostly unprecedented for a horror movie—forewent its planned VOD debut and expanded from 32 to 1,218 screens. In wide release, It Follows coasted past its initial financial target of $2 million, scoring $3.8 million and a fifth-place finish, behind Disney’s Cinderella.
Since the release—like the film’s critical response—was unprecedented, some box-office analysts didn’t know what to make the $3.8 million take. Was it a surprise indie hit or a failed experiment?
Speaking with EW, RADiUS-TWC co-presidents Tom Quinn and Jason Janego, who distributed It Follows in a partnership with Dimension, say they only see an exciting success, one that might change how films are distributed, and they explained the reasons why the David Robert Mitchell-directed movie worked for them.
It’s actually good.
This might seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning at the start because every other step in the process is impossible without the wild critical response and strong word-of-mouth. Those two factors, when they’re as strong as they were for It Follows, create the kind of awareness that advertising can’t buy because it’s coming from outside sources. And because of how lucrative horror can be—regardless of quality—good reviews will always make a film in the genre stand out.
“Horror movies are not well reviewed. User satisfaction is very low,” Quinn says. “There’s a smash-and-grab mentality. Get everything you can in the first weekend. We ultimately let the audience decide. How do you want to see this movie? They spoke pretty loudly.”
It’s from the right genre.
Aside from horror’s low critical expectations, the genre also happens to be the one that actually gets people under 25 years old—notoriously one of the most difficult demographics to attract—into theaters. By ultimately deciding against a VOD launch three weeks after the theatrical debut, It Follows was able to find that hard-to-reach demo, which ended up being half of it’s audience in expansion.
“Unfortunately based on our stats from the last seven years, there isn’t a very large audience—particularly for horror—under 25 on VOD,” Quinn says. “The number one place where that demo prefers to see horror films is in theaters. I think if we had continued to pursue a multiplatform strategy for this movie, I’m not sure that we would have ever truly found that audience.”
It wasn’t advertised to death.
A basic understanding of film financials dictates that after marketing is factored in, a movie has to earn twice its budget at the box office in order to clear a profit, and a typical studio-released horror movie calls for anywhere from $15 million to $20 million in promotion and advertising. It Follows had only a third of those totals, with most of the money going toward social promotion and digital advertising. Reviews and word of mouth did the rest.
It learned from Spring Breakers
When initially planning the release of It Follows, RADiUS came up with three options that they could choose on the fly, even after the film opened.
1) A small theatrical release, followed by a VOD debut three weeks later.
2) A limited theatrical run that expands to 600 screens. No VOD until at least three months later.
3) A limited run, leading into a full-blown wide release, and no VOD before three months.
The third option (and the one that ultimately won) was something that Quinn and Janego wanted to try for some time, specifically after seeing what A24, another indie distributor, was able to do with Spring Breakers in 2013 to the tune of $14 million domestically.
It’s about being flexible
The three-pronged approach required close cooperation with VOD providers and theater owners—well, not too close. “In full disclosure, one hand didn’t always know what the other hand was doing,” Quinn says. “I’m not sure that everyone participated in this experiment would do it again if they knew exactly what we were doing.”
The reason for the secrecy was due to the industry’s growing pains as movie viewing changes. The rise of VOD has made theater owners protective of the films they exhibit, with most major chains requiring the three-month window between theatrical and video releases mentioned above. To Quinn and Janego, those restrictions limit the possibilities of tailoring a release to fit a specific film, which in turn dictates the kinds of movies that get made.
“We need to be able to pivot and move in a way that the marketplace is responding to a film without sacrificing what theater you’re in, what VOD platform you launch on and when,” Quinn says. “The better we do that, I guarantee you distributors, producers, financiers are going to be able to finance things that they believe versus things that they know they can collect on. We start thinking about movies that we want to do, not movies we can afford. I feel like that’s the real goal here.”