Movies on streaming: the films getting one single chance to be noticed (and that’s it)

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Films made by the likes of Netflix seem to have one chance to get noticed – and then they’re falling away, almost forgotten. A few thoughts.

You might just have noticed, but we’ve just had the Academy Awards come and go, with a traditional studio taking home the top prize. Snapping at their heels, streaming services spending a lot of money to promote their wares, but not winning a lot of gold.

Among this year’s streaming contenders: Maestro, Killers Of The Flower Moon, Nyad, Society Of The Snow and Rustin. Some smashing films there: my fear is, in some cases, that’s going to be pretty much the last we’ve heard of them.

The unsuccessful Oscar campaign is nothing fresh of course. In recent years though, streaming services – Netflix in particular – have allowed hard cash to flow into their attempt to earn Academy Awards. Of those streamers, only Apple has prevailed thus far with Coda, and even then it was an independent movie that it’d purchased distribution rights to once it was completed.

The case of Coda is an interesting one too, that I’ve talked about before. A film that won the Best Picture Academy Award, yet has all but disappeared from public consciousness just two years after its Oscar success.

There’s a reason for that, to my eyes: there’s only one place that you can actually see it. Apple TV+. No Apple, no Coda.

You can’t see it on disc (aside from one or two countries in the world), it’s not on any other service or channel. Even if you go on the Apple TV+ interface, it takes a little bit of digging to find it. The film hasn’t gone entirely of course, it’s just playing a rather good game of hide and seek.

And this is the streaming problem. Even when streamers aren’t deleting films – we’ve talked about that a lot over the last year – it’s getting really quite difficult to find them anyway. As such, while a streamer may give a film a hefty budget and sufficient control to the filmmaker, once it’s had its moment in the sun, it’s all but gone. When was the last time that David Fincher’s Mank was recommended to you on the front page of Netflix, for instance?

It wasn’t always so, and the changing of the way we access films is killing the possibility that some movies had of getting a second wind.

Let’s go back to the Academy Awards again. 1995’s Oscars had quite the field of Best Picture contenders. Eventual winner Forrest Gump sat alongside that year’s outlier Four Weddings And A Funeral. And then next to them three of the best films of the 1990s landed in the same year: Quiz Show, Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption.

It’s The Shawshank Redemption I want to focus on (although if you’ve never seen Quiz Show, it’s bloody brilliant). Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptation is, now, a beloved film. But on its initial release it didn’t find an audience. I remember going to see it opening night and sitting in a screen that was nine-tenths empty.

Left to just its initial release, The Shawshank Redemption would have been an outright flop. Now, it’s a significant catalogue title for Warner Bros, and has become a hit movie, across whatever format it happens to touch.

How did it get there? Well, initially on VHS, where it gathered impressive word of mouth. It sat in video stores for years, visible to passers-by, as more and more people recommended the film, and plenty found it by chance.

Read more: CODA review | This is what mainstream cinema can do

Alongside that? It started to play on television. Appreciating the TV world was slightly different in the 1990s, nonetheless repeat playings of the film earned it more and more fans. There were lots of opportunities to see The Shawshank Redemption, in lots of places. Eventually, it was seen.

Granted, not every film enjoys quite the level of second life The Shawshank Redemption has, but it does tighten the odds slightly if you offer people more avenues by which to discover a movie.

Against that: when was the last time Netflix recommended to you the Oscar-nominated The Trial Of The Chicago Seven?

Look too at It’s A Wonderful Life, now regarded as one of the best films of all time: a big disappointment on its original release, it was only regular television outings in the 1970s (as a result, of all things, of a copyright error) that secured it legendary status.

Even something like Billy Elliot, a high profile British success, surely had its popularity cemented when it got a prime New Year’s Day slot on BBC One back in 2003. The result? Over 12 million viewers in one go. That film had three big shots at success: cinema, home release, TV screenings. It took them.

A few more to think about: how many of us discovered Raiders Of The Lost Ark for the first time on the big screen, and how many of us instead caught it on video, DVD or television? What about Star Wars? Back To The Future? The Goonies? Geostorm? Or what about the smaller films that sat in the schedules one day? When curation was more prominent than algorithms in presenting what films we got an opportunity to watch away from the cinema?

Gerard Butler in Geostorm. Just because. Credit: Warner Bros.

I fully appreciate an era has passed, and the days of someone like Alex Cox curating a TV show like Moviedrome won’t be coming back in a hurry.

But as we’ve looked at in this list here, on Netflix alone there are films being made, released, getting a week in the sun, and then pretty much disappearing into the ether. Sure, they’re still on the platform, but when it’s all hidden in the depths of a menu system – as much as I love a good doomscroll – how are you supposed to find it?

There’s a lot of stuff written online by people who grew up in the era of video shops, or more linear-style television scheduling about what a golden era that was. It wasn’t quite as idyllic as it tends to be painted, but I do feel that films had a better fighting chance of being noticed. There’s a convenience to streaming that I find helpful, and the likes of Netflix make films happen that otherwise wouldn’t, and I’m grateful for that too.

Read more: 26 Netflix films the algorithm forgot

But the nut it’s not cracked is one that balances those oh-so-precious algorithms against actual curation and human curiosity. Without the latter two factors, how do we find the leftfield movie we’d otherwise never have seen? How does a box office failure eventually build the audience it perhaps deserves? Without Netflix being willing to licence the occasional movie to the BBC or ITV, how does it possibly diversity the audience for a movie further?

My fear is that diversification doesn’t happen, and really good films are being forgotten about.

And given that it’s accountants driving a lot of the decisions at the top of Hollywood studios and streamers in the modern day, where’s the incentive for them to be, well, a bit better?  

One final thought: go back to that image of Netflix’s Oscar films of this year. How many, realistically, do you think will be fairly easy to find in 12 months time? Available, certainly, but easily accessible?

And they’re the Oscar contenders. What chance does everything else have?

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