This Friday, Netflix subscribers will be able to watch the hotly-tipped Beasts Of No Nation, directed by True Detective’s Emmy winner Cary Joji Fukunaga and starring Idris Elba, a mere week after a limited cinema run. Meanwhile, those with MUBI can already watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Junun, released online the day after its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. For good measure, Charlie Lyne’s Fear Itself, the follow-up to his acclaimed doc Beyond Clueless, debuts on BBC iPlayer later this month.
Suddenly, the decades-long divide between cinema distribution and home entertainment has fallen apart, and the latter is no longer being considered second-best. What’s going on?
The events of this month represent the tipping point for changes that have been slowly taking place over the past few years. Various factors have merged into a perfect storm, including (but not limited to) the growing quality of broadband connections, the ambition of streaming sites, the canny strategies of art-house distributors and the growing respectability of VOD content itself.
You can take your pick as to when the waters broke. Was it the colonisation of cinema screens in recent years by live broadcasts of theatre or concerts, forcing art-house distributors to look elsewhere for audience space? Was it in July 2013, when Film4 – successfully, by all accounts – premiered A Field In England simultaneously in cinemas, on Freeview and to download? Was it the end of last year, when the threat of terrorist attacks prompted Sony to release The Interview on VOD before a (very limited) cinema run? Or was it last month, when 45 Years made £1 million at the UK box-office despite the perceived handicap of a day-and-date release onto VOD?
Clear signposts all – but the events of October are the biggest beacon yet that the times they are a-changing, because there is no single reason for the sudden influx of VOD exclusives. Fear Itself and Junun are at the left-field end of the spectrum, suggesting that the VOD model works well for experimental fare targeted at a discerning audience. But Beasts Of No Nation has the prestige of an awards-season hopeful; indeed, it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, a traditional Oscar-buzz generator. Netflix’s spending muscle puts it on a par with Hollywood studios (arguably more so, given the latter’s reticence to fund original drama in a mid-range budget) and Beasts will potentially be seen by a wider audience on Netflix than many of the films that achieve Academy nominations.
According to the film’s producer Daniel Crown, speaking to us at the 2015 London Film Festival, the film was already made when Netflix saw it.
“They were among a small group of people that were in the bidding for it,” he explains. “When they made their offer, their plan to roll it out was very compelling and the important outcome was people seeing the movie. It wasn’t where they saw the movie. Yes, it’s wonderful on a big screen but systems are now very developed and you can have a wonderful viewing experience at home or in the theatre.”
There’s an interesting question of semantics here as to what constitutes a film. Were a TV network to finance Beasts Of No Nation, you’d probably call it a “TV movie”. The agreement to preview the film in cinemas could be regarded as insulation against that, giving it a suitably ‘filmy wily’ pedigree. And yet, in 2013, the BBC released the 50th anniversary Doctor Who stories in cinemas, in a special 3D edition, and nobody calls that a film. So does it really matter how or where it is screened as long as the content is good?
“[Cinema] doesn’t die, it evolves and VOD is a part of this.”
Clearly, the decision-making process involved in whether something gets a cinema release has lost the binary thinking of the past. For Curzon, it’s very much judged on a case-by-case basis. According to the company’s Press Executive Chris Boyd, there’s “no distinction” between the types of films that would be considered for a day-and-date release.
“Obviously, you would naturally see more success with titles that would historically have fared well on video – films at the thriller end of the market – but we’re seeing a positive change in acceptance of VOD as a means to watch art-house titles too,” Boyd says. “Our recent success with the release of Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years shows this to be true.”
Where Beasts Of No Nation is concerned, it was a no-brainer for Curzon.
“Beasts of No Nation is a critically acclaimed, cinematically shot work from an excellent director. We were one of the first to pioneer simultaneous multi-platform releasing in the UK making us a perfect choice for Netflix to help launch the film theatrical,” he confirms. “As a cinema exhibitor, we naturally respect support for the theatrical window.”
Not everybody agrees with this kind of flexible thinking, of course. The likes of Quentin Tarantino are holding out against the proliferation of digital platforms; Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, will be released where possible in 70mm celluloid. Yet who else has favoured that format in recent years? Why, none other than Paul Thomas Anderson – and yet, only three years after The Master, the digitally-shot Junun will largely bypass the big screen.
“It is very encouraging to see producers and directors like Paul Thomas Anderson being very trusting of VOD releases just as they would a theatrical debut,” comments Efe Cakarel, Founder & CEO of MUBI. “This combined with the ease at which our members will be able to enjoy Junun is a testament to the coming of age of VOD. It is clear that viewer habits are changing and it’s about time distribution reflects that.”
MUBI is now committed to expanding on its acquisitions; it recently screened Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin and has acquired UK distribution rights for Miguel Gomes’ three-part, six-hour Arabian Nights – exactly the kind of ambitious project that might only secure a limited cinema engagement but which is perfect for MUBU subscribers.
“Success stories like 45 Years are incredibly encouraging as a model. We are still fine-tuning the release [of Arabian Nights] but expect to aim for Q1 2016. The film will be available on both theatrical and VOD platforms,” adds Cakarel.
While MUBI will continue to pursue exclusives, whether by “us approaching creators we love and them approaching us”, Cakarel stresses that exclusives have “never been the goal” at MUBI:
“Our aim is to bring our audiences the best of cinema, and if that comes in the form of exclusives, then great! If not we will continue to provide our unique curated service to our members.
“The vision for MUBI as a curatorial platform is for this kind of flexibility: to seek out and show the most interesting cinema in the world—long and short, domestic and international, classic and outrageous—and through that curatorial voice attract likeminded artists passionate about exploring new ways of reaching audiences.”
“We hope they’ll come around before they are left behind…”
The emphasis on the audience, rather than the delivery system, is a consistent refrain amongst VOD pioneers – not least because, as A Field In England and 45 Years proved, VOD doesn’t appear to diminish the cinema experience for those who prefer it.
Chris Boyd at Curzon reckons: “People have been talking about the death of cinema as an experience since it began. It doesn’t die, it evolves and VOD is a part of this. Having a film available on VOD won’t stop people who would have gone to see it at the cinema still going to see it there but it would and does allow those who wouldn’t have previously taken a chance on it to do so.”
Efe Cakarel at MUBU echoes the sense that the industry is at a crossroads.
“There has been, still is, and no doubt will be long into the future resistance from the film industry, which, as a whole, trends dramatically towards conservatism in regards to new technologies and new audiences. We are encouraged by encountering more and more individuals and companies who are forward-thinking about how their great films can reach conventional and unconventional demographics through exciting new means: these are our partners and those whom we think we carry film into the future. For the rest, it’s an educative process and we hope they’ll come around before they are left behind.”
Purists may carp but this feels like a watershed. Old certainties are falling apart, traditional distribution models are no longer automatic and canny VOD providers are the distributors of the future. As Daniel Crown admits about Beasts Of No Nation, a lot of people are watching this particular release.
“What we’ve been able to show the filmmaking community is [Netflix] are unbelievably supportive, they understand the theatrical component and its importance, and they are promoting this as would any major studio,” he comments.
In 2015, ‘cinema’ simply means anything that people will pay for a ticket to see on a big screen, whether that be James Bond’s latest adventure, Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet or – yes – Netflix’s first original movie. For everything else, be it a left-field passion project or an original, hotly-tipped drama like Beasts of No Nation, VOD is quickly becoming its natural home.