VOD Cinema

Opinion: VOD vs Cinema – It’s a matter of availability, as much as choice

We have opened our doors to Guest Editorials. In our latest, we are delighted to welcome Grace Duffy, television critic, writer at The Mary Sue, and pop culture aficionado.

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch Anna Biller’s sumptuous The Love Witch on demand. This delightful film all but winked at my local cinema. It played for a grand total of four days at the indie place on my college campus and bypassed the two multiplexes in town entirely. As I was out of town for three of those four days, I was unable to see the film in the cinema and so happily rented it from Google Play.

Depending on who you speak with in Hollywood these days, this is tantamount to a cardinal sin. Certain circles of the industry are bending over backwards to condemn streaming and video-on-demand services, arguing that by providing the option to watch certain films at home instead of in a cinema, the very bedrock of the art form is being eroded.  Recently, Sofia Coppola and Christopher Nolan urged audiences to see films in cinemas rather than on streaming or VOD. (I doubt either of these people suffer from a lack of disposable income or nearby cinemas, but more on this anon.) An association of French film critics balked at the notion that Netflix’s original productions would screen in competition at Cannes. The festival did some high-class frowning and eventually changed its rules to insist that all films entered into competition had a theatrical release.

To my mind, this response is very silly. Film festivals are intended to be celebrations of the medium, but this doesn’t really make sense if they reject certain films not on the basis of merit or achievement but because they were released to audiences in the ‘wrong’ way. Clare Stewart, director of the BFI London Film Festival, evinced a more nuanced perspective when asked about the controversy:

‘…as the theatrical opportunities for specialised film diminish, we also must be responsive and embracing of platforms…that provide an opportunity to take the work of filmmakers out to a global audience, and that are now investing in the production of some really exciting films which simply wouldn’t get made without them.’

The key word here is ‘audience’, something which often gets lost in the midst of these debates. After all, audiences don’t have to choose between Netflix and cinemas. They can avail of both. The real issue is the widespread assumption that audiences are a homogenous mass with equal access to cinemas and that this, the existing way of reaching them, is the only valid one.

The theatrical experience, much as some may wish to think otherwise, is not fundamentally democratic. It does not offer the same ease of access or choice to everyone. I note this because some have suggested that by releasing films to Netflix or Amazon or another such service, they are stuffed out of the audience’s reach. This exact exclusionary system exists within the current model of theatrical distribution. To privilege cinema as the hallowed medium for watching films is also to privilege specific types of entertainment. Not all films will secure distribution outside their own country, and some may struggle to find it within it (I suggest looking up the troubled history of Snowpiercer at this juncture). If such films are made available on a streaming service, they’re opened up to a large potential audience, yet that same audience is expected to feel less worthy because of the medium they used to watch it.

There are ample practical issues afflicting many would-be cinemagoers. The type of person who eulogises cinemas as the only valid way of watching a film almost certainly did not grow up rurally, where the nearest cinema was a twenty-minute drive in an area with no public transport. If they did, they’d realise that not everyone has access to a car or reliable means of travelling to the cinema. Those that do may not have the widest choice – in many rural areas, staying open means appealing to the widest possible demographic. In other words, expect lots of blockbusters and children’s films, but no Lady Macbeth. If you’re a fan of independent, non-English language, low-budget films and you live rurally, odds are you’re facing a wait to see any of these legally.

Further, cinema is expensive. The cost of a cinema ticket has risen exponentially in recent years, and that’s before you factor in the cost of travel or concessions. If you have a young family, you may need a babysitter. All of these are important factors in the decision-making process. Audiences with disabilities may not have equal access to a cinema either. If you have a sight or hearing impairment, the cinema may not provide suitable screenings. The cinema on my campus provides autism and dementia-friendly screenings as well as mother-and-baby ones, but this isn’t always the norm in cities, and staggeringly less likely if you live in a rural area. Assuming that the cinema-going public is a uniform group of financially comfortable, able-bodied urban elites is half the problem. It’s not as simple as choosing where to watch a film if being able to get to a cinema is a luxury in the first place.

This, to my mind, is where streaming and VOD services come in. Most areas have internet access in this day and age. The quality of this access may vary, but it’s a fair bet that internet is more available in many areas than cinemas. If you have internet, you have at least theoretical access to streaming and on-demand services; all of which offer a range of filmic options at a generally affordable cost. My Netflix subscription costs me less per month than a single cinema ticket, and for it I get access to a plethora of films and television shows from all across the globe. Am I supposed to feel like I didn’t enjoy Hunt for the Wilderpeople as much as everyone else because I saw it on Netflix instead of in a cinema? After all, it isn’t that I watched a film. I had a ‘movie-going experience’.

Besides, these aren’t the only valid reasons an audience might choose streaming over the cinema. The cinema-going public aren’t always very considerate. Noisy and disruptive patrons are annoyingly common – latecomers, people shuffling around in the dark, shoving past you to get to a seat, brandishing noisy packets and/or odious foods. It’s distracting when you’re trying to watch something, and it often gets worse. Talking. Checking a phone. Experiences like this are endlessly irritating, and it’s entirely understandable that some might wish to avoid them (especially as some films, dare I say, seem more likely to attract this kind of audience than others).

To be clear, none of this is intended to suggest that cinema shouldn’t be an option where possible, or to diminish the power of cinematic spectacle and the communal audience experience. I can’t imagine having watched, say, The Force Awakens for the first time at home. The shared experience for some films can be quite wonderful – shout out to the guy next to us who excitedly fist-pumped when Thor landed on the S.H.I.E.L.D. jet in The Avengers. I’d hate to have missed out on the audience’s awestruck silence when the dust storm lifted after a twenty-minute barrage of fire and brimstone in Fury Road, or the collective intake of breath and spontaneous applause when Dom grabbed Letty mid-air on a motorway bridge in Fast and Furious 6. These aren’t experiences you can replicate at home, and for many, they’re part of what makes a cinematic viewing so vital. But this isn’t my point. Many audiences will still prefer the cinema if it’s convenient, and I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t. My point is that privileging one experience over the other and claiming it’s the only valid of way of watching a film is elitist. And by extending this argument to prevent films financed by Netflix et al from being recognised at festivals, an exclusionary message about what (and who) is worthy of acknowledgement is being sent.

This is not to say that streaming and VOD services are entirely virtuous. There is a troubling lack of transparency around viewer data on streaming services. How to adequately monetise distribution to VOD or streaming is another problem, exacerbated by the on-going collapse of the DVD/Blu-ray market. In this context, what matter if Joe Soap in Longford has to wait six months to legally stream The Handmaiden? Well, at risk of stating the obvious, the theatrical window has been facing threats for…a while. Television was once the harbinger of doom (and is, ironically, the place where a great many of us first saw half the films we love). The bottom isn’t going to fall out of it because Netflix is allowed to screen a film in competition at Cannes. It might fall out of it if you keep making nothing but Transformers films (fun fact: Netflix has yet to finance any such franchise monstrosity), although paradoxically that’s the one franchise everyone can watch in a cinema no matter where they live.

Ultimately, the real consideration should be this: who are films made for? And if it’s the audience, how can they be made available to as many potential viewers as possible? Every filmmaker in the world could line up and claim films weren’t meant to be watched online; this won’t change the fact that traditional theatrical distribution prevents a good chunk of people from seeing them for a long time. Distributing on VOD or streaming is an accessible option for those who wish to avail of it, and films released or financed in this way should be neither devalued nor dismissed by critics, festivals, and awards just because audiences didn’t see them the ‘right’ way.

To suggest as much doesn’t make one any less of an avid film fan. I write this because I love film, and I hate to see an industry shoot itself in the foot over fears of a change in audience habits. Gatekeeping serves little purpose in a world where the music business self-immolated over fears about new technology and newspapers suffer perennial night sweats. The only thing it does seem to serve is the elitist diatribe endemic in certain cinephile circles, where the fact of film-watching seems to matter far less than the means by which one does it. My youthful love of film wasn’t hugely influenced by time spent in a cinema. It was nourished by VHS tapes and television re-runs, supplemented by cinema trips when my parents were in a position to bring us. Streaming and VOD have the potential to democratise access to films for audiences and, for that matter, afford them a greater say in what they see, when, and how. And what’s really so terrible about an audience-driven model where the industry responds to what people choose to watch, rather than what they’re permitted to watch? A cursory acknowledgement of audiences in a form other than theatrical returns might mean fewer reboots. Which is something we can probably all agree on.