The Streaming Future Is Here: 6 Over-the-Top Services That Are Changing the Rules of Film Distribution
By: Holly Roberts
Going to the movies. There is the romantic perspective: watching the lights and action in a darkened movie palace, each second of flicker overflowing with 24 frames of images, elevating a group of strangers into a singular state of empathy. And then there’s the cynic’s point of view: overpriced concessions, an underlit formulaic 3D superhero snoozer, that guy next to you hogging your armrest.
As a person who sometimes can’t be bothered with putting on sociable pants to visit my local theater but who also wants to be in the middle of the cinematic conversation, I know the struggle is real. But with advances in technology and the deconstruction of traditional film distribution models, it’s perhaps never been a better time to be an independent film lover.
Growing up, I depended on my local video store’s ability to source independent films. Luckily, it was the ‘90s and independent films were hot and scoring mass distribution (thanks, Weinstein brothers!). But after the 2008 recession, many studios decided to fold up shop on their independent distribution wings; Paramount Vantage folded back into its parent company, Warner Independent Pictures was disbanded and Disney sold Miramax. Mini-majors still exist, like Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company, but Hollywood is not acquiring independent film distribution rights as aggressively as it was 10-15 year ago. A true loss for independent film fans.
Or is it.
This is not a history of film distribution — that can wait for another day. This is the story of something far more fascinating an unexpected: What’s key to know is that you, yes you, sitting there at home, now have more access to great independent filmmaking than ever before. More conveniently. At lower prices.
Enter streaming services. Many water-cooler conversations now start with “Have you seen the latest on (insert service here)?” Content on these platforms continues to drive our cultural conversation in a way that rivals and, I would argue, increasingly supplants Hollywood. And these streaming services are hungry for good, compelling content to drive revenue. Their business model is not based on ticket sales or rental fees — they’re based on subscriptions — subscriptions that were once focused on home DVD delivery, then evolved to bingeworthy TV shows and now once again are settling on first-run films developed and produced by the streaming companies, premiering right in your living room.
Here are some of the best streaming services currently offering independent films:
Netflix started by mailing movies in their little red envelopes, but the company is now home to some of the most lauded content in entertainment — streaming or otherwise. Lots of the buzz surrounding Netflix comes from their original series, but Netflix is also a big player in the movie game. With the acquisition of last year’s critically acclaimed Beasts of No Nation, Netflix firmly raised its stakes in the world of cinema (Beasts also had a limited theatrical release for award-season eligibility.) Netflix is not only producing original films, they are aggressively acquiring distribution rights to independent films on the festival circuit. Distribution rights for Brahman Naman, The Fundamentals of Caring and Tallulah were all were acquired by Netflix at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. In addition to acquiring existing films, Netflix’s production slate includes movies that previously would have been produced and released independently. Set to debut later this year are Mascots, the latest mockumentary by Christopher Guest (also screening as a Special Presentation at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival) and Girlfriend’s Day, written by Bob Odenkirk and starring Odenkirk and Amber Tamblyn. If you need to catch up on the darlings of independent films past, Netflix has a great selection ready for you to stream as fast as you can say, “Netflix recommendation algorithm!” Because Netflix currently streams 5,239 different titles, there are plenty of films living in the margins that you might not have seen.
Ah, Amazon Prime, the One-Stop-Life-Shop: order some groceries, get some booze and call it a night (booze delivery is a reality in the Twin Cities.) Amazon is serious about their independent film game. Last year, the consumer giant co-distributed Spike Lee’s latest, Chiraq and in 2016 Whit Stillman’s feature, Love and Friendship, and Todd Solondz’s Weiner-Dog. All of these films were released theatrically, then streamed later on the site after their multiplex runs. Like Netflix, Amazon fiercely acquired distribution rights to many films at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, including Love and Friendship, Weiner-Dog, Complete Unknown, and the Matt Damon- produced Manchester by the Sea. Like Netflix, Amazon also has plenty of recent and classic independent films to choose from and Paste Magazine has done the heavy lifting for you by compiling the best films to stream on Amazon Prime.
Hulu has been a vital presence in the content streaming business for quite some time, starting all the way back in 2007 as a way for major network television to place their content on the Internet. Almost a decade later, it still serves that purpose, but it also houses a wide selection of independent films. Hulu has partnered with the Sundance Institute in the past to distribute films, although it seems their acquisition of indie films has slowed in the past several years compared to Netflix and Amazon. A great reason (and one of the only reasons) I became a Hulu Plus subscriber was because of their relationship with the Criterion Collection — Hulu houses more than 900 of the lauded company’s titles. Any fan of film would be remiss not to subscribe to Hulu solely for access to these films. You can also find a wide selection of indie titles and recent festival darlings, like The Skeleton Twins and Blue is the Warmest Color on Hulu. Paper Magazine has you covered yet again and this list will show you what to watch.
I just wrote the real reason for having a Hulu Plus subscription is for the Criterion Collection, but that will all change when FilmStruck, a new streaming service by TCM and The Criterion Collection, launches this fall. FilmStruck promises “instant access to critically acclaimed films, hard to find gems and cult favorites from the world’s greatest independent film libraries.” A list of films has not yet been released, but it will be the exclusive home for all Criterion Collection films, so you know it will be superbly comprehensive. Plus, it will house classic films from the TCM archives, so if you love film and don’t subscribe to this service, I really can’t help you.
If you truly want to deep dive into historic and contemporary independent cinema, the MUBI is your platform. With exclusive streaming rights to influential independent filmmakers (the Brother Quay, Chantel Akerman and Kelly Reichardt all have features on the service this summer), MUBI gives you access to a deep-dive into independent cinema as well as exposing you to cinema classics every film lover should have in their repertoire.
Fandor’s streaming service is akin to MUBI, as they both showcase global independent film. Fandor carries a constantly rotating selection of Criterion Collection films, based on a selected weekly theme. Fandor also curates their films based on themes chosen by staff. For example, Fandor takes care to stream films that have made an impact on the film festival circuit, highlighting hundreds of titles screened at the world’s biggest festivals.