Ed Burns Makes First Straight-to-iTunes Movie

Declining theater attendance persuaded director Ed Burns to forgo the cinema. His Purple Violets, a light romantic comedy, goes on sale at iTunes today — the first straight-to-iTunes movie ever released.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

So Robert, there's something different about actor and director Ed Burns' latest film. You're really not going to be able to see it in a theater. "Purple Violets" is an iTunes-only release. It's the first film ever to bypass cinema and go straight to iPod or computer.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

It saves all that pirating you have to deal with. Yeah.

STEWART: Yeah. It's on sale today - 12.99. Now, a lot of people remember Ed Burns from that big breakout movie of his in '95, "The Brothers McMullen." Now, in this film, you know, just 12 years later, "Purple Violets." It's a love story, a story about finding out who you are by trying to remember who you used to be. And the cast includes Burns himself, Debra Messing, Patrick Wilson, Selma Blair.

Now, Ed Burns told us he's been interested in issues connected with creative expression. And that's also part of the film. He came by our studios yesterday, and I asked him whether the film reflected the changes in his own life.

Mr. ED BURNS (Writer, Director, Actor): Our lives are dramatically different than what they were at 22 or 23. And I think your aspirations maybe become -maybe more realistic or more grounded as you get older. And I know, creatively, for me, just as a filmmaker, a couple of years ago, I had to make some tough choices. Do I want to be a studio film maker and deal with everything that comes along with that? But also, as tough as it is to make those films - and I've never made a studio film yet - I felt that I would be compromised. So that's kind of what was going on with me, personally. And I kind of chose to pursue sort of, let's say, a more artistic slant than a commercial slant. And in the script, one of the lead characters wrestles with that. And he kind of goes back and forth. So…

STEWART: He's written a book which is - it kind of basically flops.

Mr. BURNS: Yeah. You know, Patrick Wilson plays Brian Callahan, this sort of a best-selling crime novelist, and decides he wants to write that - he really -he needs to write the literary piece. This is who he was supposed to be, and he's done it. And the movie kind of opens up on his receiving his review from The Times, and it's scathing.

(Soundbite of movie, "Purple Violets")

Unidentified Woman: Are you sure you want to hear this?

Mr. PATRICK WILSON (Actor): (As Brian Callahan) Why? Does it have to be them? I read that paper. Everyone reads that paper. Why can't it be the Village Voice?

Mr. BURNS: (As Michael Murphy) Well, these (censored) don't like it much, either.

Mr. WILSON: (As Brian Callahan) Do you realize that everyone we know is sitting around right now just like this - having breakfast, drinking coffee, eating bagels, reading this (censored) review? Everyone!

Mr. BURNS: (As Michael Murphy) Then why do you give a (censored) all of a sudden? Since when did you care about reviews?

Mr. WILSON: (As Brian Callahan) Because I've never tried to write a real novel before. Do you understand that? This is different. This is my baby. This is, you know, literature.

STEWART: Were you writing from experience, that when you've read a review and you thought, I just got ripped?

Mr. BURNS: I've only gotten ripped. I - quite honestly, since, you know, "Brothers McMullen," I came in and I got great reviews. And since then, it's been rough going.

STEWART: How do you handle it?

Mr. BURNS: Years ago, I read a quote from Woody Allen, who said he stopped reading reviews because they're not the idiot they claim he or say he is, and he's also not the genius they say he is. I would argue otherwise. The guy is a genius, and maybe when you're Woody Allen, you know, reviews really don't matter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Okay.

Mr. BURNS: And I've tried - and there've been films where I've never looked at a single review. But in this information age, there is no way to avoid those reviews.

STEWART: Let's talk about this iTunes release. This is really unique, that this movie is going to be released on iTunes originally. What about that works for you?

Mr. BURNS: A couple of things have been happening the last few years. The specialized movie business, which are films released on 300 screens or less, apparently, attendance is down 52 percent in the last 12 months. I've never had a movie that's been released on more than 300 screens. So, you know, that's my audience, and they're not coming out to the art house theaters anymore.

People have some theories as to why. You know, five years ago, we didn't have, you know, TiVo and DVR. Four years ago, you didn't have Netflix. Now, all of a sudden, you know, we've got MySpace and YouTube. You can download movies on iTunes. So all of that has happened. Then the other thing is that audience that tends to go to those movies, they're a little older, and they have families, and it's just becoming easier to get that small dialogue-driven film - it's easier and more comfortable at times to watch that on your flat screen in your living room without having to hire the babysitter.

Given all of that, and then given the fact that my last few films - you know, we had sort of your typical art house release where you open in New York and L.A. You then platform out to another eight or twelve cities and then, supposedly, after your third week is when you expand to your 250 screens. And that's when you get to Columbus, Ohio and Cincinnati and St. Louis and Minneapolis, St. Paul.

The last three films never got to that third platform. So if you're a fan of my films and you live in any one of those cities, you can never see it when, let's say, it's relevant.

STEWART: Right. Right.

Mr. BURNS: When it's a talking point. When Debra Messing has just been on "Conan O'Brien" talking about the movie. So those people have always had to wait for DVD. So the specialized theatrical model seems to be dying. When we're out selling this movie, and we got another one of those theatrical offers, I thought there's got to be a better way than doing this again. And we came up with a bunch of different plans, and the iTunes plan seemed to be the one that seemed like it might be able to reach the widest audience, and the kind of audience that we think still loves specialized movies.

So we approached them. We gave them our pitch. And they loved it, and so we've been - we've spent the last six months trying to figure out exactly what are the rules of this new game, since it's the first film to, you know, be released digitally as an exclusive premier.

STEWART: Did you ever think you'd know that much about the movie business when you first started out? I just read you rattle off screens and percentages and all that.

Mr. BURNS: There - if you're an independent filmmaker, you spend probably 85 percent of your time on the business side of it, whether it's learning how to raise money, whether it's - okay, we need to sell, you know, five foreign territories to raise this money, and then we're going to sell our cable rights for this. And so in the last 12 years, I've had to learn the business.

STEWART: As part of my conversation with filmmaker Ed Burns, you can hear the longer interview - the director's cut, if you will, Robert, our Web site, npr.org/bryantpark. His movie…

SMITH: You could listen to it as you watch the movie.

STEWART: Exactly. His movie, "Purple Violets," goes on sale today on iTunes.

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