On average, insiders say, studios consider a low-budget VOD release a success if it's rented more than 50,000 times, which translates to $250,000 to $500,000 in gross sales. A similar number would be a flop at the box office, but advertising costs for VOD are a fraction of what's needed for a theatrical release.
The best marketing for a VOD movie, in fact, is simply putting it in theaters. VOD providers highlight movies still playing in theaters in a special section and charge up to $10 for them, compared with $5 or less for ones that have finished their theatrical runs.
"The theatrical part of these releases are something of a hoax," said Martini. "You can justify a higher price so long as it's playing in one theater in Timbuktu."
In addition, most major newspapers — including the Los Angeles Times — review only movies that play in theaters.
There are real trade-offs, though. Choosing an early video-on-demand release can mean foregoing any chance of box office riches. Major chains including AMC Entertainment and Regal Cinemas, which control most of the nation's movie screens, won't play a film if it's available in homes sooner than 90 days after it opens on a big screen.