Netflix and Amazon are drastically changing the film distribution system. Could it spell disaster for the old guard?
Something seismic occurred at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year; for the first time, the biggest players with the deepest pockets weren’t the usual studios like Fox and Weinstein. No, this year it was streaming services like Netflix and Amazon that made headlines by forking out tens of millions for a raft of independent films, outbidding the traditional powerhouses and firmly announcing their arrival onto scene.
No longer satisfied with outclassing most TV networks with high-quality shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Narcos, Netflix and their US-based rival Amazon Prime now have their sights set on beating the major film studios at their own game, threatening to turn the industry on its head in the process.
At the festival, Amazon outbid Fox and Universal by forking out a whopping $10 million for Manchester By the Sea, a drama starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams that is already tipped to be a strong contender come the Oscars. Meanwhile, Netflix bid $20 million for Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation. They lost out in the end to Fox, but the fact that they got involved in the bidding war didn’t go unnoticed; Fox’s winning bid was the largest in Sundance history.
At the moment, most films (like Birth of a Nation) will still choose to go the route of a traditional theatrical release, but Netflix and Amazon’s increasing eagerness to muscle in on awards season does beg the question of how this will impact the industry five to ten years down the track.
The upside is that independent filmmakers are finding it easier to get their movie in front of global audiences. Properties like The Fundamentals of Caring (which stars Paul Rudd, Selena Gomez and Craig Roberts) and Tallulah (Ellen Page, Allison Janney), which were scooped up at Sundance this January, have already been available on Netflix for months. Furthermore, access to these new release movies isn’t hidden behind a premium paywall; they’re all included in a standard Netflix subscription.
Beaming directly into millions of homes across the world, these independent films find themselves in a win-win situation. They scored a deal that recouped their production costs and are available to be streamed at any time, anywhere by umpteen subscribers. Score one for the little guy, right?
However, how does this trend impact more mainstream cinema? Probably not a great deal at this stage, but it certainly raises the question – at what point are we going to see blockbuster films make their debut on a major streaming service? How long is it going to be before a tentpole film, like a Jurassic World or a Jason Bourne, forgoes the theatre entirely and seeks a larger audience at home on Netflix?
Bear with me here, because that might seem like quite a leap – but think about it. We’re at the stage now where a major studio film opens every fortnight, sometimes two or three in the same week. Naturally, some of these are going to bomb – and hard. This year alone we’ve had Warcraft, Ghostbusters, The BFG, Independence Day: Resurgence and Alice Through the Looking Glass (amongst others) all flunk at the box office, struggling to find an audience amongst crowded multiplexes. Could these movies have fared better if they’d steered towards streaming, or even split the difference by going both routes?
Be honest, what sounds more appealing – a cosy night on sofa with your significant other or a costly jaunt to the local movie theatre? One is filled with blankets, candles and all the comforts of home; the other sees you standing in queues for ages, forking out for tickets and snacks and, worst of all, being forced to deal with the general public. Who wants that?
Even if it seems unlikely right now, this hypothetical future is a worryingly real proposition that could spell doom for cinema owners and the major studios. That being said, cinema chains aren’t going quietly into the night. The increasing prevalence of VMAX (or Cinemax) screens with Dolby ATMOS surround sound and Gold Class theatres are their answer to this quandary; bigger screens, a more immersive experience and an inviting domestic setting is striving to make the movies a more attractive option for film fans.
Bringing this back to my original point, I don’t think it’s going to be too long before Netflix, Amazon or even their Aussie equivalent Stan are going to be producing blockbuster movies that are unmissable and eagerly anticipated.
Cast your mind back to where they were five years ago; an exclusive political drama starring Kevin Spacey seemed like a quaint novelty at the time, but now Netflix and Amazon’s original programming rivals HBO, AMC and FX. If they can challenge those guys, who says they can’t take on Hollywood at it’s own game too?
Image courtesy of Netflix Inc.