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Tribeca 2014: Joss Whedon will make new movie available immediately online

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NEW YORK -- Even as he’s taken the reins of film’s biggest franchise, Joss Whedon has toyed and tinkered with homegrown projects produced outside the system — the smash Web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along” in 2008 or the financed-on-a-shoestring update of “Much Ado About Nothing” released to theaters last year.

They are, the “Avengers” director and wife-producing partner Kai Cole believe, part of a necessary attempt to build new means of production and distribution.

Whedon will test those boundaries even further starting Sunday night. In the latest novel example of digital experimentation, Whedon and Cole’s Bellwether Pictures are making available “In Your Eyes,” a supernatural-romance feature that Whedon wrote and executive produced, to consumers immediately after its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

VIDEO: Tribeca Film Festival 2014 trailers

The download, powered by Vimeo, will allow viewers to rent the movie immediately for $5 on the film’s official site. The movie can then be viewed within a 72-hour window before expiring. Subtitled versions for a number of foreign-langiages are also being made available.

"As of now, 'In Your Eyes' is available on any Internet-capable device," Whedon said in a surprise video message following the screening, noting this was not only the world premiere but the worldwide release date.  "We get to explore yet another new form of distribution--and we get five dollars," he added. (You can watch the vidoe above.)

Day-and-date releases in theaters and cable VOD are not uncommon, but it’s rare for a feature to eschew theatrical platforms completely for a digital-only release.  It’s perhaps even rarer for a movie to be made available online immediately after a festival premiere, which normally precedes a commercial roll-out by at least a few weeks if not longer for media and word-of-mouth to build.  It’s also a significant step beyond “Much Ado” -- after a Toronto International Film Festival premiere in September 2012, Whedon’s movie had a traditional art-house theater release a full nine months later.

Directed by Brin Hill, who counts educational drama “Won’t Back Down” and breakdancing tale “Battle of the Year” among his writing credits,  “Eyes” imagines a psychic connection between a sweet, bored housewife in a wintry East Coast town (Zoe Kazan) and an ex-con in New Mexico looking to make a fresh start (Michael Stahl-David). The two have never met but are spiritually connected, and as the movie unfolds they begin communicating by talking and peering into each other's thoughts; it's a love story with a genre overlay.

But perhaps more important than any plot point is the film's production and distribution back story.  Financed for less than $1 million, “Eyes” came about when producer Michael Roiff was talking to Cole about potential collaborations, and  Cole said she had a script from Whedon that she thought could make for a good low-budget film. The two soon began developing the script, eschewing the usual process of sending it to agents and taking meetings that typically allow creators to cast the widest possible financing and acting net.

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Instead, Roiff said, they went after the actors they liked, free of financing concerns. (Bellwether backed the movie.) In that regard, “Eyes" is similar to “Much Ado,” though as a movie shot with many Whedon confidantes in his home, that Shakespeare project was more friends-and-family than this was. It also didn’t pose the logistical challenges; filmmakers on “Eyes,” for instance, scouted five states before settling on New Hampshire as the snowy East Coast location.

“There was a minute when we thought, ‘We should take this out,’ but then it was squashed immediately,” Roiff, who previously produced indie breakout “Waitress,” said in an interview at the festival. “We wanted this to be the movie we wanted to make, without a lot of outside thoughts on the script. We wanted this to be the movie we wanted to cast without 'what name from Column A means the most in Benelux?’ ”

(Incidentally, Whedon was not on set for the film but did offer extensive notes and guided the process both in development, during shooting and the edit room, offering, as Hill said, the larger philosophy "not to be precious, to make the movie as audience-friendly as possible.")

The distribution conversations ensued shortly after, with the principals deciding that they should attempt the truest form of on-demand: The moment its festival premiere ended, people could buy it around the world and watch it immediately, a kind of VOD for the truly impatient.

As a result, filmmakers would of course also see a much larger share of revenues than in instances in which cable operators and other partners take their cut.

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Cole said in a statement, “It’s no secret that the distribution landscape is shifting rapidly and there are tools at our disposal as filmmakers that we could only dream about ten years ago.”

(There are no immediate plans to bring it to television or other platforms, though filmmakers said they wouldn't rule out a second distribution wave a la "Dr. Horrible," which played on Netflix, Hulu and other platforms months after its initial release. A theatrical release, they acknowledged, was unlikely,  given the online premiere.)

Hill said he finds this distribution approach satisfying.

“It’s bittersweet, because it's uncharted territory,” he said. “But there’s something thrilling about this. If you go down the traditional path of showing  buyers you’re waiting a year for the movie to come out, as a filmmaker, that can be frustrating. There’s something exciting about just making it available everywhere to everyone at once.” (In that regard, filmmakers are taking a page from Netflix, which has done something similar with original series such as ”House of Cards.”)

Hill said he was emboldened by the thought that compelling content finds an audience online; a short he directed as part of the seminal BMW original branded content series more than a decade ago found a small audience at the time but gained a second life when it was bootlegged and passed around on the Web a few years ago.

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Whedon’s undertaking looks to test a theory of digital-era Hollywood: that with the right content and a strong brand name, many of the traditional structures are unnecessary and even obstructionist.

The filmmakers do acknowledge that the experiment could fail; after all, as strong as Whedon’s name is, without the traditional runway of marketing and publicity, many consumers may not know enough about it or be otherwise persuaded to lay down $5. (It’s worth noting that “Dr. Horrible” was a free,  ad-supported giveaway for the first phase of its run, boosting its viewership.)

The experiment also could upset traditional players; after all, there are even two more screenings scheduled at the festival alone. In keeping with the do-it-their-way ethos, filmmakers did not tell Tribeca organizers they'd planned this experiment.  “I guess we’ll see Monday morning if they get mad,” Hill said dryly.

Regardless of the film's success, Whedon can claim that he’s trying the microbudget game that many talk about but relatively few attempt.

“Joss is already doing the films he’s passionate about on a bigger scale,” Roiff said. “This is a chance for him and all of us to try something that hasn’t been tried before.”

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