NEW YORK (Reuters) - Like an actor waiting for a big break, the nascent market for watching independent movies on TV video-on-demand channels or online via streaming or downloads still needs a big hit to make believers out of moviemakers.
Last month, the Tribeca Film Festival launched an unusual effort to acquire films and release them on video-on-demand (VOD) in an effort to help kick-start the market. Typically, film festivals screen movies, not distribute them.
As the festival wound down earlier this week, the success of Tribeca's effort was still unknown. But market players said VOD and online sales are not likely a financial game-changer anytime soon for the beleaguered independent film industry that in recent years has fallen on hard times as too many indie movies competed for space in too few theaters.
"They (VOD and Web downloads) have generated meager revenue at best. The total revenue has not been up until now anything resembling financially compelling," said Eamonn Bowles, President of Magnolia Pictures.
Still, Tribeca organizers and industry executives agree the old financial model of a film creating buzz at festivals and being acquired for theatrical release needs changing.
"So many filmmakers still want that traditional route, they want to be able to walk down that red carpet at a cinema," said Tribeca's chief creative officer Geoff Gilmore.
"But I can't make that world exist any longer when it doesn't," he added. "I can't tell (filmmakers), 'you are going to have a number of different buying opportunities' when in fact it has been more and more mitigated...so we are trying to create new opportunities."
Tribeca's distribution arm, called Tribeca Film, acquired more than a dozen films and over half were shown at the festival, including "Climate of Change" and "Metropia."
They were offered on VOD via cable, satellite and telecom providers that reach some 40 million homes and fans could watch them at the same time as New York moviegoers at the festival.
Separately, but also for the first time, Tribeca offered eight full-length films online at a flat fee of $45.
Festival organizers aren't yet saying how many people paid to watch the movies, but its experiment followed other, smaller efforts including one at the recent Sundance Film Festival, which offered five movies for rental at $3.99 on YouTube. It attracted little revenue.
Tribeca filmmakers gave VOD and Web downloads mixed reviews and said they hoped audiences would still be able to see their films on the big screens for which they were made. Some wondered whether a conflict of interest might arise if a festival promoted their own films more than ones they did not acquire.
Director Josh Sternfeld, whose "Meskada" played in the festival, told Reuters he thought filmmakers should "keep their minds open to how films get seen" but also recognized watching a film in a theater was "special."
Others were more reluctant, including director Ricki Stern of "Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work," who said "it's wonderful that movies can get out to the masses on the Internet," but quickly added that she still preferred cinemas.
"Movies should be in a big old movie theater with lots of popcorn," she said.
Josh Braun, of Submarine Entertainment, which represented "Climate of Change", said any festivals exploring their own distribution must be "extra vigilant to account for any perception that their own films might get preference."
"And they have to be smart about it because they still want distributors to be coming to their festival and looking for movies for sale," he said.
But while the industry waits to see if Tribeca's VOD experiment captures much revenue, the festival is marching forward with plans to acquire more films throughout the year.
"What we are saying is 'we realize that you are watching films on your computers and on cable, we are going to offer that to you," said Nancy Shafer of Tribeca Enterprises, which funds the festival and the distribution arm. "Everyone is trying to figure out how to make filmmakers money...and how to rebuild the independent film business."
Additional reporting by Sharon Reich; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte