November 20, 2007: Purple Violets becomes the first feature film to launch exclusively on iTunes.
A romantic comedy directed by Edward Burns, Purple Violets stars Selma Blair, Debra Messing and Patrick Wilson. Having received limited offers from distributors, the filmmakers pin their hopes on iTunes distribution as an alternative way to get their movie in front of viewers.
A new way to distribute movies
Purple Violets debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2007, where it received positive reviews. However, the producers received few decent offers to distribute the $4 million movie.
As a result, director Burns — who put up some of the money to make the movie — feared that there would be “not enough money to market the film, not a wide-enough release to even make a dent in the moviegoing public’s consciousness.”
Instead, the producers decided to bypass the traditional theatrical release by making the movie available on iTunes. This made Purple Violets the first feature film to debut commercially on iTunes. This milestone came two years after iTunes started offering downloadable video, and one year after Walt Disney became the first studio to offer its movies for download.
While premiering a movie on iTunes remained a gamble, other studios had begun exploring the option. The month before Purple Violets‘ debut, Fox Searchlight released a 13-minute short film to help build anticipation for Wes Anderson’s feature-length The Darjeeling Limited. People reportedly downloaded the free short more than 400,000 times.
“We’re really at the beginning stage in the movie space,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s vice president for iTunes. “Of course we want all of the Hollywood movies, but we do like the fact that we can be a great distribution vehicle for the little guys.”
At the time, iTunes had sold more than 4 million movie downloads — including short films — but still had fewer than 1,000 titles for sale.
The shifting entertainment landscape
Today, Purple Violets isn’t particularly well remembered. (It’s not even ranked on Rotten Tomatoes, due to lack of reviews.) However, it was certainly ahead of its time in embracing digital distribution.
Here in 2017, companies like Netflix and Amazon are surging ahead by focusing on original content, exclusive to their platforms. Apple is also following this model — and has committed to spending $1 billion to develop its own shows to distribute.
This has had an impact on movie sales, too. While studios still release their films in theaters before rolling out to home video, sources say Apple and some major studios have discussed a deal that would make movies available — at a premium price — on iTunes within weeks of arriving in theaters.
In other words, director Edward Burns had the right idea. Even if he was a few years too early.