J.C. Chandor nibbled at the edges of the big time for a decade and a half. He directed short movies, commercials, all the things that one days when they’re trying to break through. Then, a few years ago, he found the story he was meant to tell. The son of a long-time investment banker, Chandor sat down and wrote a screenplay about a financial firm that discovers it’s about to go under. That film, Margin Call, take places over 24 hours and stars Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci, amongst many others in an impressively large ensemble cast. Out on DVD today, it has been named “Best First Feature” by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. Chandor spoke to TIME about its unique release strategy and what one has to do to get nominated for an Oscar.
The film’s been out for several months now. How has the film been received.
It’s been very rewarding, frankly, for what was essentially an art house release. The film has entered the conversation in a way that, as a filmmaker, you can only dream about, both here and internationally. In Spain, it’s done almost two and a half, three million dollars worth of business. It’s absolutely humbling, but really exciting.
I read a piece in which the author wrote that Margin Call is one of the more quiet Wall Street movies that he had ever seen. How do you make a story like this dramatically exciting?
I’m not quite sure. I always had a blind faith that, even though things were not exploding figuratively and literally, the audience would go along with it. Looking back, I tried to take my weaknesses and turn them into strengths. I started this with an extremely limited budget. Knowing that as a first-time feature director, there’s no one who was going to give me a ton of money, especially for a film about a bunch of people sitting on a trading floor, I was looking for a way into this story that I could do for under a million dollars. The solution was to trap the characters on this floor and keep them there. As a conceit, that already has tension built in.
We wrote about your movie when it came out, but from the distribution angle. It opened in theaters the same day it was available for viewing on Video on Demand (VOD). What did you think of that at the time? And what do you think now?
My original reaction was an ego-based one. I’ve been around for a little while, and while I was coming up in the business over the last 15 years, direct to video was a bad thing. It meant your film did not quite warrant a theatrical release. But they came to us with a very rational argument, which is that there are really two types of audiences. There are audiences that love to go to the movies and still religiously go to arthouse films, and then there is the rest of the country. That was their argument to me. And I have two little kids and don’t get to go to the movies very often. It costs me a lot of money to get a babysitter and all that. So it seemed a little hypocritical to me to take a stance against that. The minute my ego got out of the way, I saw what they meant.
(MORE: Read ‘Could Margin Call Upset the Hollywood Business Model?’)
This is not the case for every film, of course, but with our film it was a very successful model. We managed to make close to $5 million theatrically. I don’t think we’ll ever know the exact VOD numbers. They’ll probably tuck that information away somewhere so we don’t know how much they actually made. But I know the rough estimates, and a lot of people got to see this on VOD. And even in my own life, just talking to friends and going to holiday parties — I do my own market research— I would argue that a lot of the people I talked to are probably people that would not have gone to see it at a movie theater.
Definitely. I get to see a lot of movies for free. But movies are expensive and, if you’re a family with kids, you have to make arrangements.
Yeah. And you get to do it as part of your job where you do it during the day and at different times that are more convenient. But I think this is all a very slippery slope, obviously. The last thing you want to do is start putting art houses out of business. The margins are very thin in their business. So I understand. Lionsgate and Roadside probably would have liked to expand our film further, given the numbers we did in the first couple weeks. But contractually, that wasn’t there. It hadn’t been negotiated with the theater owners and the theater owners are extremely leery about embracing VOD. It was an experiment and it was a little scary to be a guinea pig in that experiment.
(READ: TIME’s Review of Margin Call.)
I know this is all still fairly new, but do you know why VOD numbers aren’t released?
My guess — and please quote this, if you’re going to quote this, as a guess, because I literally don’t know what I’m talking about — but my guess is that it doesn’t do the distributor any good on two levels. On one side, it allows the investors to know exactly how much money is coming in and when, which changes when they are able to recoup. There are all these contractual things. If my investor knew right now that they had done a certain amount of money in VOD, certain things would kick in in terms of when he has to get paid back. I’m not saying he won’t eventually get that money, but it’s probably in the distributor’s interest to pay that back to him on their own time.
And I think the distributors probably don’t want the theater owners to actually know how much money they’re making, because the theater owners probably get bent out of shape and think that’s money that could have been coming to them. So if I’m running a distributor, I look at the two scenarios: what do I gain from releasing that information versus what do I lose? Lionsgate did release an initial number on a conference call with analysts where they said it did 250,000 individual sales in that first weekend. Lionsgate needed some good news for that analyst call, so that’s why they released that information. But that’s sort of the only reason they would ever want to release that data.
We’re in award season now and a bunch of critics have given you love. Do you have friends and family now who are making you anxious about future, bigger awards?
I’m in Los Angeles for a week and have been doing some interviews on that front. It’s an uphill climb. The one thing I’ve learned out here in LA is that when people say “You dont have the money to launch a campaign,” that doesn’t mean that you’re out there buying votes. But you’re literally trying to get people to watch your film. I get these [Oscar] screeners now too, like the voters do. And a lot of these voters are not professional critics. They’re people that are in the industry or were in the industry at some point. So to watch 25 movies in a six-week period or four-week period is not in their normal viewing habit. You really have to get people to try to watch the film.
LIST: The All-TIME 100 Movies