Hollywood’s Digital GraveyardPosted: October 25, 2014
In the year-plus that I’ve been writing this blog, my focus has been primarily on storytelling craft, and how certain films and filmmakers do it well. Very rarely do I try to comment on the nature of the film industry itself, though not because of a lack of interest or knowledge. I’ve always felt that it wasn’t essential to the main goal of the blog, or to people’s understanding of the art form. That being said, in recent days I’ve felt compelled to draw attention to one area of the industry that is turning into a major concern, which plays a major role in how we consume our movies: the series of tubes known as the Internet, and Hollywood’s selective ignorance of it.
Over the last few months, I’ve watched a decent number of newly-released movies exclusively through iTunes. In the modern film distribution world, an increasing number of small-scale, niche films have been getting on-demand and/or iTunes releases, and so that has been my primary method of watching many of these smaller movies. Most recently, I became aware that the horror movie Housebound, which I’d heard great things about during the early-year festival circuit, has just been released on iTunes, and will probably be in my rotation of movies over this weekend. However, the bigger issue that Housebound highlights is this: until Drew McWeeny tweeted about it on Thursday, I had absolutely no idea of when the movie was coming out, or where/how I could see it. It certainly isn’t ideal to have audiences be unaware of a movie’s existence or availability until right before it opens. And again, I had actually heard of the movie months ago, but there are many others who might love that movie who haven’t, and for whom an under-the-radar iTunes release would be completely unnoticed.
This is, of course, only a symptom of Hollywood’s current all-or-nothing strategy, both in terms of distribution and the kind of films they make in the first place. Indeed, those two things are so interrelated that it’s hard to say which one of them was a problem first. They both feed into each other and create a very frustrating environment for discerning moviegoers and niche filmmakers. To summarize the issue: the studios pretty much only make three levels of films; huge blockbusters, microbudget formula films and a few midrange Oscar-bait films (even comedies are being made for less money than they used to be; Neighbors only cost $18 million). On top of that, studios have been increasingly difficult with theater owners, trying to undercut their longstanding business model as much as possible, which only incentivizes the exhibitors to show the biggest, most mainstream movies possible (ie the three aforementioned categories) in order to maximize their profit. So between the studios’ narrow production parameters and the major theaters’ need to show the widest possible releases, it’s the independent/adult movies that end up being left out in the cold.
Most of these films will get some sort of theatrical release, though usually very small (NY/LA primarily) and only in the same few theaters that get the same basic audience all the time anyway. The real lifeblood of these films is digital/home video distribution; iTunes, VOD, Netflix, and eventually Blu-ray. This is how the majority of these films’ audiences will see them, and where most of the films’ profits will be made, and yet these are the sorts of films that are just dumped out into the world, with little fanfare or enthusiasm. Unless you are a very committed film fan who pays utmost attention to everything, you could very easily miss when these movies are available. This is the result of the fact that many of these films, either by being low-budget, being independent, or being foreign, do not represent a huge cost or risk to the studios. In their minds, spending extra money to market an iTunes release just represents more of a risk for them. But this should not be acceptable for anyone with an interest in outside-the-box filmmaking. When truly great and original films really depend on digital release for profit, or for a wider audience, it’s bullshit that those releases aren’t supported.
And they’re not just ignored by the studios either. When Joe Carnahan’s Stretch got fucked over and dumped unceremoniously on iTunes earlier this month, I recall seeing almost zero people talking about it. Collider gave it a reassuring amount of attention, and The Playlist reviewed it, but industry outlets from Variety to Hollywood Reporter to Badass Digest to Hitfix, did not even review the movie, much less interview Carnahan or the cast about it. It was almost as if there was a subconscious decision that if the movie was being dumped on iTunes, then it must not be any good, which is doubly frustrating when you realize that three out of those four websites just reviewed Ouija, which is undoubtedly a much-worse film but was nevertheless released into 2800 screens and probably offered numerous press screenings.
It’s clear that, even as the industry at large has begun shutting off movie screens to adult-oriented and/or niche-market films, they also have little-to-no interest in promoting those same films being available in other formats. Even critics who would normally champion less-commercialized fare seem to forget or ignore films when they play online. And even if they might have reviewed some of these films on the festival circuit months prior, there’s little effort being made by anyone to call attention to the movies that have been relegated by corporate circumstance to iTunes. What’s additionally frustrating about it is how much of a double-standard there is here, which screws over the theaters as well as the films. Studios have no problem trying to shorten theatrical release windows and hyping audiences on being able to buy the latest blockbuster on iTunes weeks before the Blu-ray, and yet they still leave these smaller movies out to dry without a theatrical release OR a real marketing push for their digital one.
But while the studios might continue to try and shut out anything that doesn’t fit into their preordained marketing boxes, I think it’s the responsibility of everyone else- critics and fans- to seek out those movies relegated to Internet releases, to give them the attention AND MONEY that they deserve. And no, this won’t kill movie theaters, it will just reward those little films that could with the audiences they deserve… and give us even more movies to watch, whether they’re playing at a film near you or not. In an age where some of our best and brightest talents are running to television to get the creative and financial leeway that they don’t get in the film world, we need to embrace and build up every avenue of movie distribution. While we’re at it, we need to convince these same filmmakers moving to the smaller screen that making a movie for Netflix or iTunes is not a lesser way of telling a story. Movies are movies not because of where you watch them, but by how the stories are structured. We need good stories, and we need every opportunity to tell them.