The digital universe that is poised to transform ancillary rights may not be a good thing for smaller and arthouse titles which rely on a rigorous system of curation to find their audiences.
The Berlin International Film Festival, which winds up its 62nd edition this weekend, offered a better than average lineup of films in competition including standouts like Barbara from Christian Petzold, Tabu from Miguel Gomes, Caesar Must Die from the Tavianis and A Royal Affair from Nikolaj Arcel. The EFM, which took place down the road from the Berlinalepalast at the Martin Gropius Bau and at the hotels around Potsdamer Platz, was also solid with heat and sales around new films by Brian DePalma and Steven Soderbergh and star vehicles for Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Carrey and Jason Statham.
But if those names are the same ones which sold films a decade ago and more, the business is lurching through a change that will eventually see the pay-TV and DVD window gradually merge into one VoD platform where all manner of films will be available online.
Ironically, for all the zeal about this online future, there are signs that the US VoD market for smaller films is already getting saturated. US indies like IFC Films and Magnolia Pictures, which pioneered the theatrical/VoD day-and-date strategies, are now competing for audiences with Tribeca Film, the TWC-backed Radius platform and other startups. IFC recently scaled back its programme of straight-to-VoD releases and is now refocusing on day-and-date releases which have a theatrical component. On its Dardennes brothers film The Kid With A Bike, it’s starting with theatrical only and leaving VoD till later – a step back to older traditions. For the straight-to-VoD concept, the audiences just weren’t finding the films and buying them.
The fact is that many smaller titles can only find their audience if they go through the series of trusted curatorial hands and platforms that exist today. If films at the Berlinale reach theatres around the world, they will have gone through a rigorous curatorial process that involves festival programmers, sales agents, trade critics, distributors, exhibitors and local critics. Consumers might not know all the hoops that these films have to jump through to make it to the box office, but they subsconsciously depend on these multiple stamps of approval.
How can that system of careful preselection be replicated by search engines? I was on IMDb today and looked up last year’s violent US indie Bellflower, only to be told that if I liked Bellflower, I would like Zhang Yimou’s Curse Of The Golden Flower. It’s not a reliable system to generate a following for a film in the same way as a precise marketing and PR plan and carefully positioned theatre bookings.
Of course a movie starring Schwarzenegger or Carrey doesn’t need to worry so much about its positioning for an audience, because those names are associated with a certain type of film, and audiences will find them in cinemas or online or both.
A Berlinale competition film, however, is a different story, so how can discerning cinemagoers find it online without exposure from a theatrical opening? I don’t think they will be bothered to seek them out. They don’t have the time, and they rely on critics and word of mouth to do the work for them.
It’s a tricky Catch 22 for arthouse distribution, then. Theatrical releasing is getting harder to justify in many territories without ancillary options, but VoD doesn’t offer an easy new audience or revenue stream. The opportunity for limitless choice may ultimately do more harm to the exposure of smaller films than good.