Beyond the Lights: A turning point for VOD?
Ivan Radford | On 19, Jun 2015
Beyond the Lights receives its European premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival at the start of next week. The film stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Minnie Driver. It has a RottenTomatoes score of 81 per cent. But rather than get a theatrical release, the film is heading straight from the festival to your living room.
Why? The decision to skip cinemas altogether seems a bizarre one, especially given the acclaim it has received at previous festivals. The film was selected for Edinburgh by Artistic Director Mark Adams, who himself was impressed by it at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.
The movie follows the story of music superstar Noni, who falls for young cop Kaz, after he comes across her one night contemplating suicide. It may sound heavy, but it makes for a great watch; the kind of rousing drama you can easily imagine winning over an audience (watch this space for our full review). You would think that would make it perfect for an cinema viewing. Universal, though, seem to have other ideas.
Earlier this week, the esteemed Robbie Collin of The Telegraph spoke to them about the move. They cited three main reasons. One was the “limited availability” of cast and crew to help promote the film, which is unfortunate – indeed, we were sad to learn that no one from the film would be available to talk to the press, even at the Edinburgh International Film Festival next week.
“The UK has been lagging well behind the US in terms of innovative release models”
The busy summer slate in the UK is another reason. Could you name the nine other films released in cinemas last weekend that weren’t Jurassic Park?
The film’s sub-par performance at the US box office proved to be the final nail in the coffin, although many factors can play a part in a film’s theatrical performance. (Adams also noted to Collin that dramas with majority black casts “don’t perform well in Britain”.)
But Beyond the Lights is part of a growing number of films proving that going straight to VOD is not a shorthand for inferior quality: while “straight to video” was once a moniker for trashy B-movies or films of dubious quality – featuring Steven Seagal or Vinnie Jones or, in the cast of 2005’s Submerged, both – digital distribution has opened up gems that would otherwise be overlooked to wider audiences. The nail may be in the coffin, theatrically speaking, but the thing inside is often alive and kicking.
“You wanna be a runner-up?” Noni’s mum asks her in Beyond the Lights. “Or you wanna be a winner?”
For many smaller titles, there isn’t a choice. Universal are right when they highlight the busy summer at the box office: there are 13 films out in cinemas this weekend and 16 the next. Back in April, 22 films were released in one week: the big screen may be getting bigger, as IMAXes pop up all over the UK, but the spaces are getting smaller. (Ironically enough, that is partly because of a trend among smaller titles to book a limited number of screens over a weekend and boost their profile ahead of a DVD and VOD release the following Monday.)
But VOD means that movies can skip the hustle for cinematic success altogether and find their audience elsewhere.
For Alarm Pictures, digital is their main focus. Alex Mandell, CEO of the relatively young distributor, argues that the UK is lagging behind the US on that front, partly because of the “larger UK cinema chains’ reluctance to break the traditional release window” and partly because of the above cinema-to-disc tradition.
“A kind of status quo relationship between distributor and exhibitor still exists,” he tells us. “Although this is slowly starting to change.”
One driving force behind that change is the notable step up in quality.
A Field in England was arguably the breakthrough point, when Film4 helped to release Ben Wheatley’s masterpiece simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, on free TV and on VOD. (The movie made £21,399 from 17 cinemas on its opening weekend, while 1,462 discs were sold. As of October 2013, 714 people had rented it on Film4oD, 1,746 on Virgin Media and 3,133 on iTunes. A total of 680 digital purchases was down on the predicted 1,000, but rentals totalled 5,593, almost three times the expected number.)
Since then, everything from quirky coming of age comedy Ping Pong Summer and Joss Whedon’s In Your Eyes have premiered on VOD. Last spring, the brilliant The Spectacular Now (starring Whiplash’s Miles Teller) was quietly released on pay-per-view platforms – a release that was only flagged up by this publication. At the start of July 2015, Alarm will release Elephant Song, a psychological thriller starring filmmaker of the moment Xavier Dolan, straight to VOD. This week, meanwhile, has seen Dave McKean’s astonishing (and self-distributed) animation Luna arrive on iTunes.
Distributors are also increasingly embracing day-and-date distribution for art-house and indie releases: the uniformly excellent Timbuktu, Listen Up Philip, Electric Boogaloo and Spring have all hit VOD platforms and cinemas at the same point in the past month. Even some more mainstream titles are getting the same treatment: She’s Funny That Way, starring Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston and Rhys Ifans, will be released day-and-date on Friday 26th June.
“[VOD is] hugely important” to documentary film-making
Subscription video on-demand services have helped to boost the status of direct-to-digital titles as well.
Amazon has proven that web series can be good enough to win Golden Globes, thanks to Transparent, while Netflix has used its international reach to establish itself as a respected distributor in its own right. With its strategy of acquiring documentaries that have enjoyed acclaim at festivals, the streaming service has already notched up two Oscar nominations. Recent deals for Brad Pitt’s new film and a movie starring Idris Elba, both tipped for Academy Award success, suggest it is only a matter of time until the streaming service bags a golden statue. (In the distant future, it is not inconceivable that the Netflix brand could become the digital equivalent of Eureka’s prestigious Masters of Cinema label.)
On Friday 26th June, Nina Simone documentary What Happened Miss Simone? heads to Netflix (the first non-fiction feature produced by the company from scratch), following a UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest.
Speaking to our reporter Matthew Turner at the event, Producer Jayson Jackson (whose full interview with us will be published next week) said that VOD is “hugely important” to documentary film-making.
“Myself included and most people in my network, that’s where we see most of our documentaries: on Netflix and video on-demand,” he commented.
“VOD releases are absolutely holding their own when competing with the bigger movies”
So, amid this shifting perception of the virtual video shelf, what hope does Beyond the Lights have?
The main obstacle is publicity, as films struggle to stand out from both the digital and theatrical crowd. In December 2014, Neil LaBute’s drama, Some Velvet Morning, starring Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve, arrived on Amazon Prime, having never seen a UK screen before. David M. Rosenthal’s thriller A Single Shot, starring Jeffrey Wright and Sam Rockwell, followed suit. Neither generated much buzz. Wet Hot American Summer, on the other hand, had its British debut on Netflix this month, 14 years after its initial US release. The cult comedy, which most people in the UK have never heard of, has enjoyed a boost from Netflix’s recently commissioned prequel series, which arrives next month; with the right combination of awareness and timing, a straight-to-VOD release can still be a success.
“Audiences are far more fragmented,” admits Alarm’s Mandell, but adds that they are “savvier than ever before” and “willing to spend the time to be almost editorial/curatorial in their viewing choices and habits – either through bloggers, genre sites, online trailer browsing and just general word of mouth”.
This is one of the reasons why VODzilla.co exists: to highlight films that are available on VOD in the UK, whether that’s a day-and-date release, or a Netflix premiere.
“We’re seeing far bigger successes digitally from smaller independent films,” adds Mandell. “[They] might perhaps be talent/director driven, they might be elevated genre movies with great hooks, artwork and trailers or even films with great buzz from international film festivals that weren’t lucky enough to find a home with a larger distributor, or studio that may have an art-house/indie subsidiary (SPC, Searchlight etc).
“What we’re starting to find is that these ‘so called’ smaller VOD releases are absolutely holding their own when competing with the bigger movies from studios and local mini-majors.”
Beyond the Light’s Edinburgh screenings will certainly help to build some hype among those able to attend. Indeed, such events can be an effective way to launch an online title. The TIDE Experiment – in partnership with The Festival Agency – has just launched its new scheme of “Festival-to-Date” releases, where films are released at festivals and online almost simultaneously across several European countries. On Monday 22nd June, 6 Desires – the final film in Mark Cousins’ Hibrow trilogy (following Here Be Dragons and Life May Be) – will screen at Edinburgh and will also be available on iTunes and Google Play.
Fortunately for Beyond the Lights, audiences don’t have to wait until then: they can watch the film now on Amazon Instant Video. (The film will also arrive on iTunes on Monday 29th June, as well as DVD and Blu-ray.)
As Beyond the Lights takes VOD beyond the dated stigma of straight-to-video history, whether it will find an audience online is yet to be seen. But as Seagal and Vinnie Jones team up once again for Absolution (released in May 2015), one thing is clear: it certainly deserves to.