When CollegeHumor decided to make its first feature film, "Coffee Town," it wasn't entirely clear how to maximize a full-length digital and VOD release. The CollegeHumor audience is accustomed to viewing short humor videos online for free, while feature films released through companies like IFC and Magnolia Films often include a theatrical release to generate reviews and press attention.

Distributed by Filmbuff, "Coffee Town" premiered July 9 on digital and cable/satellite VOD, with iTunes and Xbox turning out to be the most successful platforms for the pic. While it's too early to say just how much the film will make, the minimal marketing spend and blanket digital strategy make it a potential breakthrough moment for multiplatform distribution.

"Arrested Development's" Brad Copeland wrote and directed the low-budget comedy about a guy (Glenn Howerton from "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia") who gets all his work done in a coffee shop. The film also considers the workers and customers who come together when the shop's existence is threatened, and features opera star Josh Groban as the shop's dastardly owner.

CollegeHumor co-founder Ricky Van Veen says the model for the company was similar to when National Lampoon turned a magazine into a lucrative feature biz -- so audiences knew exactly what kind of humor to expect. Though CollegeHumor was certain the film was something that could be shot cheaply (in the $1 million range), the filmmakers didn't approach it with a particular distribution strategy in mind.

At a time when indie films are a risky business, CollegeHumor decided to rely mainly on its built-in audience for marketing, and to forego a theatrical rollout.

CollegeHumor, part of Internet channel distributor IAC's entertainment group, promoted the film on its YouTube channel, which has nearly five million subscribers; on sister videogame humor site Dorkly; to its million Facebook fans; and on Twitter.

"We took a very nerdy Web approach," Van Veen says. "Any marketing we did off-platform was all socially driven to targeted fans of each actor."

The secret weapon, says Van Veen, was Groban, an occasional actor whose huge fanbase helped spread the word. "There are millions of Grobanites who love this guy," he adds.

But how to attract viewers to spend $9.99 to download the film or $6.99 to rent it, instead of a better-known title? "If you can stay in the iTunes top 20, you have that network effect," Van Veen says. Meanwhile, the young guys who buy and rent online content via their Xbox players were "a bull's-eye demo match," he notes.

Being in the iTunes top 10 in the first week is all good, but it's hard to say what it means in terms of revenue. Like most digital and cable VOD numbers, that's proprietary information.

However, results were promising enough that CollegeHumor will use what it learned to tinker with the equation, and plans to use talent with clear-cut fanbases for its next longform effort.

The digital platform has another advantage: Using indicators like the links on the websites that promote the film, College Humor can see exactly where paying customers are coming from -- and make sure its next paid product appeals to those fans.

Being able to track how viewers consume the film is key, he explains. "When people come to a theater, you don't know how they got there."

Absent even a small theatrical release, CollegeHumor mounted a road tour with a handful of U.S. screenings but they weren't sellouts. Van Veen says he's considering another buzz screening tour when school is back in session. "There's so much more interest in watching it online than in a theater," he says.


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