Google's partnership with the major studios to rent movies on demand through YouTube could transform the streaming and VOD landscape, turning the leading internet video site into a substantial new revenue source for Hollywood.
But we may never know exactly how substantial, because the exploding VOD and streaming business is also a market whose figures remain shrouded in secrecy.
When four major studios launched their big, controversial premium VOD experiment last Thursday, with the Adam Sandler comedy "Just Go With It" available on DirecTV for $30 only 60 days after its theatrical release, we know that the VOD release didn't have much effect on the film's box-office grosses. That's because those figures are widely available, prompting headlines every weekend.
And while exact figures are rarely released for DVD and Blu-Ray releases, rankings are made public — prompting news stories, charts and prime placement in stores and online.
But hard figures on VOD and streaming are held privately and not released publicly, which means the success or failure of a grand venture like YouTube's rental initiative or the studios' Premium VOD can remain a mystery — and a filmmaker whose film is the No. 1 VOD title of the week shouldn't expect that anybody will notice.
On Tuesday, for example, a DirecTV spokesman said there are no upcoming plans to release any consumer usage data on its new premium VOD offering, which it calls Home Premiere.
Even though it's the one segment of the market that's growing rather than slumping, there's no national chart with streaming figures; the Rentrak Corporation's OnDemand Essentials service does release a weekly list of the Top 10 VOD performers, but that list contains no hard data and is not widely publicized.
And, crucially, there's no desire on the part of many companies to bring together figures from the various VOD and streaming outlets to to stir up consumer interest the way studios routinely do with box-office info.
"To some degree now, success breeds itself," said producer Ted Hope, whose latest film is James Gunn's action comedy "Super," with Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page (above left).
"You hear a film is number one at the box office, even in terms of a specialized release, and it encourages you to make sure you see it. People want to be part of the cultural conversation. But will it be the same with VOD and streaming?"
Hope's answer is no — because, he said, the lack of a central VOD chart makes it impossible to track, compare and exploit that information.
"If this becomes a significant enough source of revenue, it will be in a lot of people’s interests to provide those metrics," Lindsay Conner, an entertainment law partner at Manatt Phelps and Phillips, told TheWrap. "At this point, no one has that incentive. It’s too experimental. Nobody wants to be tied to the result."
Video-on-demand services exist across a wide spectum of platforms. Cable and satellite television providers all offer an array of pay-per-view titles. Some of them, including virtually all of the newest releases, charge per viewing; older titles are offered in a tier free to subscribers of, say, HBO or Showtime.
Web-based services like iTunes also offer extensive VOD choices, while Hulu and Netflix use a subscription model to stream content to a user's computer or television monitor.
And YouTube has the potential to become an enormous player in the field, if Google can overcome the reluctance on the part of some studios to license their content to a company they believe supports piracy sites.
Studios and companies that supply product for VOD do receive figures from the cable and satellite providers with which they're contracted, and the Rentrak service reports to companies that pay for its services as well.
But that information is all private, only rarely surfacing if a studio has something to publicize. Individual VOD providers may offer their own charts to prospective renters — on iTunes, for instance, consumers can browse a list of ranked "top movie sales," and can rent from that list — but no systematic compilation of data exists publicly, in stark contrast to the way boxoffice numbers are endlessly reported, touted and spun every weekend.
"It’s a very common concern," agreed Matt Dentler, the head of content for Cinetic Rights Management, which is releasing a pair of indie films, including "Once" director John Carney's "Zonad," on VOD prior to their DVD release.
"I wish VOD grosses and performance were more public," added Dentler, who said that the major studios have to lead the way, "just as they did with boxoffice gross reports. Unfortunately for independent companies such as ours, VOD performance is primarily of interest to our filmmakers and to the industry.
"We need consumers to care, too, and that will start with the studios sharing numbers."
But the studios have shown no inclination to share those numbers. And there's really no reason for them to do that, said Jonathan Sehring, the president of Sundance Selects/IFC Films, which does substantial VOD business.
"It's never been an issue for us," Sehring told TheWrap. "We get the numbers from our affiliates, and our producers get the numbers from us. All the agencies know what kind of business VOD does, and the studios know or they wouldn't be pushing for shorter windows."
His company, he added, has "certain confidentiality agreements" in place with cable and satellite providers that could make releasing financial information difficult.
"I'd love to be able to tout our successes, absolutely," he said. "But honestly, it's not really a problem except with press people who want the numbers, and maybe producers who haven't had a movie distributed in this manner."
But producers like Ted Hope (whose previous films include "Adventureland" and "The Savages") maintain that it can be a problem — or, at least, a missed opportunity to get the kind of boost in awareness and attention that goes to a boxoffice hit when the numbers come out.
"'Super' is anticipated to be the number one VOD ever for IFC," said Hope. "But will it have any sort of bounce for the film? Not likely, because no one has access to the list of past successes other than the producers of those successes."
(On the other hand, adult-film companies routinely put out press releases trumpeting their successes on various adult VOD charts.)
And while VOD may be making up an increasingly large portion of the revenue for films, particularly smaller indies, the lack of accessible info — and overseas buyers' reluctance to place too much credence in VOD success — also has the potential to impact a movie's potential overseas deals, said Hope.
"It used to be that a successful box office run had a positive effect on foreign sales, but will that be the same in the days of online-cable focus?" he said. "Not likely, as buyers don't yet think there is a direct relationship to their market as the technology generally does not have the same penetration/use."
Last June, the digital media services company Avail-TVN compiled a list of the 20 most viewed VOD films of all time. "The Hangover" topped the list, followed by "Twilight," "Gran Torino," "Four Christmases" and "The Proposal" — thought given the rapid growth in VOD, more recent movies would probably take some of those slots.
The list, though, was compiled not from information provided by the studios or cable providers, but from "a national sample of more than 14 million homes."
The real Top 20 list? Don't ask.