The movie makers who are holding out for a big screen release over streaming services.
Earlier this year, a bidding war broke out at the Sundance Film Festival. It was for the comedy movie Late Night, starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, penned by the latter and directed by Nisha Ganatra. Independently funded, the movie quickly became one of the hot tickets of the festival, and a price battle for it soon broke out.
Prevailing in that battle, and paying a record price, was Amazon Studios. It spent $13m for the North American rights to the movie, and part and parcel of that was the decision to give the movie a theatrical run. Streaming versus the big screen is from day one such a consideration for smaller movies (a moving of the goalposts from the old ‘straight to video/DVD’ vs theatrical choice) that it’s part of the conversation from the start. It’s little secret that there’s a growing number of streaming services looking to acquire feature films for their respective services, and not all of them are committed to theatrical distribution.
Inevitably, the name Netflix comes in here. At best, it’s been giving some films a token cinema rollout, primarily to qualify for awards. Mostly, it’s wanted the films entirely for its own services, reluctant to even entertain a separate disc release. Conversely, Amazon Studios has been broadly supportive of cinema releases first – look at Manchester By The Sea, for instance, that it gave a hefty push to – and with Late Night, it scheduled the movie for a summer bow.
Here in the UK, Entertainment One picked up the local rights and followed a similar approach. In spite of a publicity blitz, though, Late Night struggled to break through, and one estimate suggests that Amazon will have to write off $40m on its investment. It can afford to, of course. But at a point where the debate rages over streaming versus cinema, it’s the audience that holds the crucial vote. And this summer, more people wanted to see underwhelming Men In Black and X-Men films over a well-reviewed Emma Thompson-headlined comedy.
That’s that then, right? Well, not quite. Because there’s a growing bunch of filmmakers who are resisting offers from streaming operations to ensure their film gets a big screen debut. Most notably, and successfully, the team behind Crazy Rich Asians held out for a theatrical run.
When the rights to the movie came up in October 2016, another big bidding war got underway, that saw Netflix going up against Warner Bros. Netflix had impressive carrots to dangle. It was willing to commit to a trilogy of films from the off, to offer the production team creative freedom, and lots of money to all the key creatives. But the team behind the movie – author Kevin Kwan, director Jon M Chu, producers Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson and John Penotti – turned the head-boggling offer down. Warner Bros couldn’t match the offer in terms of cash or sequel commitments, but could give Crazy Rich Asians a huge multiplex push. Come crunch time, it set a deadline on the filmmakers to choose who to go with. Idealism won out over hard cash, and a big gamble was taken. A gamble that, thankfully, paid off handsomely, with the resultant movie becoming a huge 2018 box office hit, and the two sequels are now on the way.
More recently, director Lulu Wang has found herself in a similar position. Her film, The Farewell, also received strong notices at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and she did a deal with American distributor A24 for the movie. The key component of the offer being that the movie made it to cinemas. Again, the streaming market offered a much bigger bid. As Wang reconciled in an interview with Vulture, “the film is your baby and you have to take it to the place that is not necessarily the wealthiest, but will give it the most love and joy and bring it into the world in the right way”.
And that goes to the heart of the growing problem with streaming services: how do you get your film noticed? In the case of Adam Sandler’s most recent, Murder Mystery, Netflix pays the star so much money that his films are treated as a blockbuster on the service. Big promotion on the landing screen, trailers, right at the top of curated lists, it’s hard to miss its existence if you’re a Netflix subscriber.
But Netflix is now looking to make around 80-100 of its own films a year, and that – I worked the maths out myself – equates to around two new movies a week. All landing on the service alongside catalogue titles bought in from studios, and a wealth of television series on top.
Getting those movies noticed and seen is the growing challenge here. That filmmakers are having to choose between money in the bank and potentially getting lost, against the profile and goal of a big screen release and perhaps still getting lost (just with less money in the bank). It’s all part of the wrestling that the film industry is facing with streaming services, and the battle is set to intensify shortly. Apple, Warner Bros and Disney, each with billions in the bank, are joining the battle next, and that’s likely to have a paradoxical effect: that the funds to acquire films go up, but the chances of getting them noticed arguably goes down.
For filmmakers, there’s no right or wrong answer here. Bills have to be paid, and if a film does hit on streaming, that’s more eyeballs than you’re likely to get at the cinema. Yet still: there’s nothing quite like the cinema, is there?
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