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Corner Gas: The Movie

At first glance, they couldn't be more different. One is a slick, big-budget sequel to an Oscar-winning triumph that pulled in more than $200-million at the global box office; the other is a consciously hokey celebration of Canadian prairie humour. But both are potential case studies of the rapidly changing business of feature film distribution, and sharp challenges to the status quo.

A few months ago, the New York-based film distributor The Weinstein Company (The Artist) announced it would make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II: The Green Legend available on Netflix on Aug. 28, 2015, the same day the movie hits select IMAX theatres around the world. Cinema owners reacted angrily: In the United States, AMC Theatres declared it a "made-for-video sequel," and vowed it would never get access to its IMAX screens.

The theatre chains have been fiercely protecting a decades-old system known as "windowing," whereby movies move from one exhibition platform to the next, usually with diminishing returns. A film that does, say, $100-million at the North American box office (of which theatre owners would take about $50-million) might make tens of millions more when released on DVD six months later, then less from a pay-TV channel showing it six months after that, and even less from a broadcaster showing it a year later.

At least, that's the way the system worked for decades. But in recent years those discrete windows have come under intense pressure: from a glut of movies, from film distributors wanting to better leverage the millions they spend marketing the theatrical release, and from viewers turning to illegal streaming sites rather than waiting for easy and legitimate home-viewing options.

An average Hollywood movie, which might cost $100-million to produce and market, needs a healthy theatrical run to make it into the black. But in Canada, where domestically produced English-language movies rarely break through the $1-million threshold, box office isn't as important.

Which brings us to the cockeyed canniness of Corner Gas: The Movie.

This weekend, fans of the homegrown hayseed TV series, which finished a six-season run in April, 2009, are trooping out to theatres across Canada to celebrate its big-screen adaptation. It'll be a brief moment of glory: The movie opened on Wednesday and will close Sunday night. But fans will have more than enough chances to see it elsewhere, on a variety of TV properties belonging to Bell Media. (Its parent company BCE Inc. owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.) Rather than waiting a year, which would leach the enthusiasm of potential viewers, the movie will play 18 times on The Movie Network's various channels next week; will appear on the new streaming service CraveTV; will play in a so-called "super-simulcast" on CTV, CTV Two and the mobile app CTV Go on Dec. 17; and then show up on The Comedy Network. It will also be released on DVD this month.

Canadian movie producers have a reputation of being better at finding tax loopholes than they are at finding audiences, but the Corner Gas team has been unusually entrepreneurial. Last May, they solicited $275,000 in contributions to the production and marketing budget through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter: a nice top-up on the $8.5-million production budget. And though the move was controversial – many people believe Kickstarter should be reserved for unestablished indie artists – it also allowed producers to begin a seven-month-long conversation with fans. Thousands stepped up, in exchange for rewards such as .pdf copies of the script ($5), DVD box sets ($75) and a personalized outgoing voice-mail message recorded by star Brent Butt ($750). The producers also crafted daily production news reports for backers, all of which left Gas fans feeling pumped. (Oof; sorry.)

Those who turn up for the theatrical run, presented by Cineplex's Front Row Centre Events initiative (normally the province of the Metropolitan Opera), will be treated to a special 18-minute filmed "warm-up show" hosted by Brent Butt. The show features a Corner Gas trivia quiz, a tongue-in-cheek origami lesson and a prod for audience members to take selfies and post them from the cinema, with the hashtag #CornerGasMovie – thus helping to create buzz. (Those who do are eligible to win Corner Gas swag.) It even includes an original rendition of O Canada by Del Barber & The Profiteers.

The potential take on a five-day, 100-screen theatrical run is limited. But then, very few Canadian films do well at the box office: In 2009, the highest-grossing English-language film certified by the federal government as "Canadian" was the Trailer Park Boys feature, which earned $2.9-million in domestic ticket sales. Barney's Version pulled in $3.2-million in 2011. But in 2013, not a single one earned even $1-million.

Between 2002 and 2013, the market share of all English-language Canadian movies ranged between 0.9 per cent and 1.8 per cent. With about $1.1-billion spent at the Canadian box office last year, that translates into a high of about only $20-million for all such films combined.

Corner Gas doesn't have much to lose by collapsing the exhibition windows, and the move allows its broadcasters and DVD distributors to capitalize on the hype created for the theatrical release. "Our whole industry is changing, and everybody is trying to grab audiences," said executive producer Virginia Thompson in an interview. Cineplex's special-event treatment "allowed [the broadcaster] to say, 'Well, that would be great, because if you promote in the cinema, we'll help you promote it, because that's going to help us in television.' So all of the promotion just got bigger, because everyone started to see how all of the different screens started to help each other."

Not all of the movie's funders expect their investment to pay back direct cash. The automotive lubricant Valvoline sponsored the movie in exchange for product placement and the ability to run a promotion. Tourism Saskatchewan stepped up in hopes that the movie would boost visits to the province.

Thompson notes that if the movie has a high profile as a result of its theatrical run, it will be worth far more to Bell Media, which owns the broadcast rights for several years. "It just makes it more valuable to advertisers," she says. The strategy, she adds, is simple: "Let's make this film as valuable as it can be, in this event-based scenario, so it has longevity and worth in its long tail."

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