Red-blue divide comes to DVD Clubs
Ask Barbara Halpern which Hollywood hits she has enjoyed lately and she needs a long minute to think.
"I like independent films," says the left-leaning Washingtonian, who describes herself as a " '60s person."
These days, Ms. Halpern's political viewpoint increasingly finds its way into her entertainment choices. A few months ago she heard about Ironweed (ironweedfilms.com), a new DVD-of-the-month club that showcases provocative shorts and features - new immigrants' perspectives on border crossings, Iraqis' perceptions of the American presence, a US energy firm's travails in post-Soviet Georgia. She signed up for a year, becoming part of a niche-DVD-club groundswell. In order to serve increasingly fragmented interests, subscription clubs now cater to ideologies and specialties, serving as savvy aggregators for consumers seeking to build personal movie libraries, generally for about $15 a month.
Label yourself politically conservative? Spiritual - with or without a religious affiliation? A sci-fi fanatic? Scouring film festivals for obscure features, the clubs find entertainment choices - including straight-to-disc movies - by filmmakers far outside the mainstream.
"The films we're looking for are, first and foremost, entertaining, and they provoke discussion," says Adam Werbach, Ironweed's founder. "But we are firmly set against the kind of didactic films normally thought of when you mention 'progressive' or 'political' films." Michael Moore might be one part the genre, in other words, "but too often people think of him as the beginning, middle, and end of it." Ironweed charges subscribers $14.95 a month.
Mr. Werbach hopes screenings of Ironweed films - such as one planned for April in its home city, San Francisco - will build community conversations around issues.
There is action at the other end of the political spectrum too. "Work by conservative filmmakers is very hard to find," says Jeff Rubin, who runs the new Conservative DVD Club (conservativeDVDs.com), an outgrowth of a book club and an arm of Eagle Publishing in Washington. His site sells DVDs individually, many starting at $19.95.
"Basically, we just noticed that within the [Conservative Book Club] we were selling more DVDs," he says, particularly a favorable biopic of firebrand columnist Ann Coulter. "For business reasons, we thought it might be a good reason to branch out into DVDs, but also for mission purposes. Our long-term goal is to sell product, but also to be a place where conservative filmmakers know that they can market their wares."
Mr. Rubin grapples with the definition of a conservative film. He cites the work of liberal-tweaking documentarian Evan Maloney and names "Broken Promises: The United Nations at 60." But he also holds up no less a mainstream hit than "Groundhog Day" as a parable about a selfish man who learns the rewards of self-sacrifice. He considers "Cinderella Man" "the anti-Brokeback Mountain" for its very different interpretation of masculinity, representing an approach that better serves a large bloc of Americans. "It treats characters for whom church and family are important with something other than sneering contempt," says Rubin, who calls Christians the conservative movement's core.
Others target deep-felt ideologies apart from politics. Movie fans with a fundamental take on Christianity, for example, can buy films at christiancinema.com.
Another strain of hopeful filmmaking - one not tied to any one faith - is showcased by Spiritual Circle Cinema (spiritualcirclecinema.com). "This is very definitely a niche audience, but it's a very large niche," says Stephen Simon, the film producer who founded Spiritual Circle in 2004. He names "Field of Dreams" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" as two of the more recognizable films that would qualify. Mr. Simon's site now has 20,000 monthly subscribers worldwide, he says, despite virtually no marketing beyond word of mouth. "There are a lot of people out there who want to make these movies," Simon says. "But unless you can get them distributed, there's no reason for people to make them."
Then there are clubs like sci-fi hotspot shatnerdvdclub.com (as in William Shatner) which offer compilations of special-interest films for $47.99 per year.
Some observers question whether niche services can find sustainable audiences. A study by MarketCast, a Los Angeles marketing firm, found little difference in the viewing preferences of moviegoers who called themselves religious or nonreligious. And Hollywood, often tagged with a left tilt to begin with, has notched a number of message films of late, including "Syriana" and "Munich."
"Generally I think that ... there's a huge wave pushing toward the mainstream," says Dave Taylor, an independent marketing expert in Colorado. "So companies that are deliberately focused on not offering mainstream [fare] do not have a long-term-sustainable business model."
Others maintain that success will come to those who unearth films as engaging as they are focused. Werbach expects the field to become more crowded as new niche services launch clubs with aims quite different from his. But he's confident. "The truth is," he says with a laugh, "liberals make better films."