In writer-director Sophia Takal's 2011 movie Green, a young couple moves from New York City to a house in the country to undertake a blogging project about living off the land. Boredom and restlessness set in, and the two lovers become starved for the sort of easily accessible culture metropolitans take for granted. A local woman (Takal herself) tells them of a repertory cinema, just a short drive away. "It's new movies," she explains. "But it's the ones they don't play in movie theatres." She cites, as an example, Jason Reitman's twee rom-com Juno.
The line lands like a winking joke. Takal's Green is a director-driven chamber piece about simmering egos, macho narcissism, and female jealously; precisely the sort of new movie that they don't play in theatres. Indeed, I had never even heard of the film until I tripped over it while perusing the iTunes store.
The current year-end awards-season rush at the multiplexes, when studios unveil their stately period pieces and actorly dramas, casts a long shadow over independent, hard-to-find films, such as Green. What place do such movies have in film culture at large – and how do they get noticed when multiplexes are overbooked with the latest Marvel fodder and calculatedly prestigious awards season dramas?
The confluence of at-home streaming technology, micro-budgeted film-making practices, and the general drifting of cinema away from the centre of cultural life (thanks a lot, "prestige TV") leaves many worthy films marooned – like islands in the online stream.
The proliferation of streaming media services has, in theory, provided new opportunities for filmmakers. Between transactional video on demand (TVOD) services, such as iTunes and Google Play, and subscription video on demand (SVOD) channels of the Netflix/Amazon Prime/CraveTV variety, there seem to be plenty of ways for filmmakers to deliver their films to potential viewers.
Yet, for both filmmakers and viewers, the streaming route still suffers under something of a stigma, conjuring up memories of schlocky straight-to-VHS horror movies clogging up markdown bins at Jumbo Video. "For me, there's still the remnants of direct-to-video, and what that means," says Robert Greene, director of offbeat documentary films, such as the recent Kate Plays Christine. "If it doesn't go through theatrical channels, there's a sense that something wasn't complete, or there was something wrong with it."
Movies will always thrive on a kind of "hype" and "buzz" – loathsome terms, but useful nonetheless – that comes with film fest premieres, awards, and critical hurrahs. "You still have to build a mystique around your film somehow," Greene explains. "You could premiere at Sundance, and be on VOD the next week, and still have the prestige of premiering at Sundance." (At Sundance's 2016 iteration, for instance, Netflix snapped up nearly half a dozen films.)
As Greene sees it, what's most lacking in direct-to-video films is this mystique, this narrative. There's still a sense that a film landing directly in someone's living room suggests that, in Greene's words, "it's not a real movie."
It may seem unkind – but it's not altogether incorrect. Undoubtedly, VOD services do provide pathways for singular, exciting indie films by both established directors and talented up-'n'-comers. But they also function as the modern equivalent of the straight-to-VHS bargain bin. Last month, cinephiles smirked when they realized that Nicolas Cage, a one-time viable mainstream actor, had three movies heading direct-to-video in a two-week period.
One, Dog Eat Dog, screened at Cannes and TIFF, and was helmed by director Paul Schrader (American Gigolo). Another, the $40-million budgeted naval disaster thriller USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage essentially skipped over a pricey theatrical release, thumping on VOD in an attempt to recoup on its budget. Still, it's not as if it's some misunderstood or overlooked indie. It was just an overblown dud; not quite a real movie.
The low-key opprobrium hanging around VOD titles is not just abstract – often, it's institutionalized. Without a qualifying theatrical run in major cities, most media outlets (including The Globe and Mail) skip over these movies. Budgets are tight, and ink (and pixels) come at a premium. And even a theatrical release might not cut it: with the express purpose of seeking critical consideration, some producers rent private cinemas to screen their indie movies, a process known as "four-walling." Publications such as The New York Times and The Village Voice have cut back on reviewing such films, aware that they're merely exploiting a loophole.
Against such ambivalence, some filmmakers are finding creative solutions. In Toronto, film production company Medium Density Fibreboard Films (MDFF) has been hosting successful one-off screenings at the Royal Cinema, dedicated to the work of independent filmmakers whose movies aren't treated to a "proper release." Even if it's strictly ceremonial, the sort of theatrical bows MDFF curates restores some of that much-needed mystique to indie cinema.
For MDFF producer and co-founder Dan Montgomery, critics remain useful "pathfinders," both for the films he produces, and the ones the MDFF team books at the Royal. He's aware of how difficult it can be to drum up excitement for films with what he calls "limited marketability" beyond an already-in-the-know klatch of local cineastes. "It's a hurdle," he says. "We usually can't get press beyond a brief mention in a newspaper. That's one of the more significant challenges of not getting full-week runs."
In some cases, such limitedly marketable films may exhaust their potential local audiences with one screening. In others, the MDFF screenings pick up the slack for distributors who are curiously passing on films that have the potential to draw in crowds. Take, for example, Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth, starring Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss as a woman unravelling in a secluded lake house. MDFF co-presented a screening of the film in 2015, before it landed on VOD. "We were surprised that didn't get booked," Montgomery says. "It was a film with a marketable star, and had the potential for a larger release. It was especially weird because his last film, Listen Up Phillip, screened at the Lightbox in Toronto."
Perry recalls when he had two movies come out within a year of each other. "I was able to revise my expectations accordingly," he says. "In 2014, when Listen Up Philip came out, my expectations for how an independent movie that gets well reviewed should be released were based on the standards of 1994 to 2014. And then when Queen of Earth came out a year later, those expectations were based on 2014 to 2015. It was hard, and disappointing, and also very merciless. I was very challenged and had a hard time emotionally, and logistically, when Listen Up Philip was released. A year later, I was just over it."
Perry grew up on the narratives of filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater and Harmony Korine: scrappy young directors who made films on shoestring budgets and were rewarded with long, fruitful careers on the edges of the mainstream. But, as Perry puts it, "that ship has sailed." The micro-budget filmmakers that have emerged in the collapse of the American indie industry are forced to find new avenues. "The decentralization of distribution has left a hazy mist over independent film," says Perry. "It's no longer some straight tunnel."
It's not just indie films by hip young filmmakers that often end up scuttled to halfway-shady VOD platforms. One of the standout films of last year, for my $4.99 iTunes rental fee, was S. Craig Zahler's Bone Tomahawk: the sort of taut, effective B-movie that used to be ritually dumped in multiplexes during the January/February lulls. There was also Zach Clark's disarmingly sweet Iraq War-period indie Little Sister, which popped up on a number of 2016 year-end best-of lists (including my own) without getting a major theatrical roll-out. And stellar comedies, such as Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice and Jeff Baena's Joshy, both of which collect numerous small-screen sketch and sitcom talents, sometimes find welcome homes on VOD, even in a larger market such as Toronto.
Without major releases, or much in the way of advance critical praise, such films are relegated to their own little ghettos; barely visible ports in the hazy mist.
In the most recent issue of Film Comment, critic Kent Jones writes on the "marginalization of cinema": the manner in which the art's cultural primacy has eroded over the past decades, along with the "shared culture" of filmgoing.
While there's no shortage of big-ticket movies at the multiplex, the median quality of such films has slackened to such a point that it may be best to consider Transformers: Age Of Extinction or Marvel's boilerplate cape-and-cowl pictures an entirely different category of spectacle. They stand about as far removed from blockbuster standard-bearers, such as The Exorcist and Jaws, as Allied does from Le petit soldat.
The ransom of compelling indies and crackerjack genre pictures, along with the surfeit of older titles and "classics" worthy of either discovering or revisiting, makes VOD seem preferable to spending $22 to see Doctor Strange at a VIP Cineplex. There are also emerging services, such as ScreeningRoom, a controversial black box technology that will allow viewers to rent movies while they're still in cinemas.
The future of cinema may lay as much on the fringes and in the ghettos, where hard-core cinephiles gather to chat about new discoveries, as in the individual filmgoer who is now the primary unit of a new film culture that is not so much marginalized as atomized. "As cinema diverges from audiovisual spectacle and settles into a quieter position within the culture," Jones writes, "those of us who know it and love it will become more and more like the book people at the end of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451."
Honestly? Doesn't sound so bad. As far as recuperating something of the cinema's communal charge, it's even cool in a cabalistic, cloak-and-dagger, wink-nudge sort of way. Imagine the possible future of a Friday night at the movies: a rap on a boarded up window, a password exchanged, and then, in a whisper, "One for Juno."