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Apple and 'Violets'

Ed Burns will distribute his new movie through iTunes in another innovative entertainment deal.

October 29, 2007

Ed Burns is a filmmaker, so it's not surprising that he likes to see his work on the 40-foot screen of a movie theater. But for his eighth independent film, "Purple Violets," Burns is forsaking the silver screen in favor of flat panels and iPods.

Burns, an actor-writer-director-producer whose credits include "The Brothers McMullen" and "Sidewalks of New York," is pioneering what may be a new business model for independent filmmakers. The first stop for "Purple Violets" will be on Nov. 20 at Apple's iTunes Store, where people will be able to download a copy for $14.99. Apple will have the exclusive rights to the film for a month, after which it will be available on DVD through retailers and rental outlets.

Filmmakers have traditionally sent most of their features to theaters first because it makes sense economically as well as aesthetically. Having at least a limited theatrical release is the best way to get a film reviewed. Good reviews and decent ticket sales can persuade cinema owners to put the film on more screens. The same factors help determine whether stores stock the video, how many copies they carry and how prominently they display them.

But a theatrical release can be expensive, and even hit films can have trouble recouping those costs. Independent releases often get trapped in a few art houses in New York and Los Angeles, never generating the kind of buzz needed for a broader release and a successful encore in home video. That's what Burns saw happening to "Purple Violets" if he went the art house route. By going to Apple, he had the chance to promote his film for free to millions of people -- the iTunes store is built into every copy of Apple's iTunes software, which has been downloaded 600 million times.

Of course, it helps Burns that his is the first full-length feature to open on iTunes. With most of the major Hollywood studios spurning the iTunes store, Apple may be eager to use "Purple Violets" to show the industry how powerful a partner it can be. The potential here is for Apple or another player with a direct line to consumers -- say, Netflix or Amazon.com -- to become a more efficient and profitable way for filmmakers to find an audience, just as Starbucks and Wal-Mart have become the independent distributor of choice for established acts such as Paul McCartney and the Eagles.

One problem for Apple is that its downloadable movies cannot be burned onto conventional DVDs, making it harder to watch them on a living-room TV. Although solutions are emerging, the market just may not be ready for what Burns is doing. Still, it's good to see someone taking the risk. At the very least, more of Burns' fans will know what he's been up to when the "Purple Violets" DVD comes out in December.

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