“As we find out what works well for theatres and for streaming I think we’ll see more of it – I’d like to see it in the mainstream with the larger theatres,” Sneesby says. “It’s a win for movie makers, a win for viewers, a win for cinemas and a win for the streaming services.”
The traditional model of releasing a film “requires it to work theatrically to drive the engine of the economic model,” says Emile Sherman, Oscar-winning producer of The King’s Speech. “If it does well at the box office, the ancillaries [DVD, Blu-Ray, TV etc] will follow, and that’s what the distributor is relying on to make a return. So all the pressure sits on theatrical.”
The new model of a short theatrical window followed, and underwritten, by an SVOD (subscription video on demand) release is, he says, “totally different”.
“The economic model of the streaming services is to have content that drives subscribers and reduces churn,” he says. “The theatrical release serves as an enticement for filmmakers and a quasi-marketing tool, but the performance is not hugely relevant to the SVOD strategy.”
For David Michod, whose 2010 feature Animal Kingdom helped Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn and Joel Edgerton break into America, a theatrical release for The King was critical.
He had worked with Netflix once before, on the Brad Pitt movie War Machine, which debuted on the platform in May 2017. Back then, he says, “it felt like a radical thing to do, to take Brad Pitt onto a streaming service, overcoming the apparent stigma of what in the old days would have been called a straight-to-video release”.
But after that experience, he says, “I and a number of other filmmakers sat down with them and communicated our feelings about the need for the sense of an event, which is very often what the theatrical release is. And to their credit, they listened to us, and they could see the sense in it.”
By event he doesn’t simply mean a red-carpet premiere. “I mean a sense of a shared experience, of people getting to go to a theatre with friends and having a a night out. That is where a movie’s life begins in the public consciousness.”
But the friction around Roma last year – many claim it missed out on the best picture Oscar precisely because it was made by Netflix rather than a traditional studio – and Martin Scorsese’s $US160 million gangster epic The Irishman this year (many American cinemas are refusing to screen it) is evidence that the new model has plenty of detractors as well as supporters.
One local exhibitor has described it as an “existential issue”, because the two-week window of exclusivity (versus the traditional 90 days) vastly reduces the opportunity for a cinema to recoup against the very significant investments it makes in its facilities. “Maintaining state-of-the-art cinemas with brand new seats and human interactions is a very expensive business,” he says.
What’s more, the narrow-window release is not a one-size-fits-all substitute for the disappearing independent and art-house circuit. Netflix has given a brief cinema berth to around 100 movies over the past three years, but that leaves many movies as streaming-only propositions. As Sherman notes, “for the majority of films there won’t be a theatrical release. If you deliver a film that cuts through, it will have a place. If it doesn’t hit the mark it won’t.”
Equally, though, “it’s quite clear that Netflix is making the kinds of award-calibre movies that the studios used to make but really aren’t making anymore,” says Michod. “If they don’t adapt, you have to start wondering what awards shows are for.”
And so it is that a slew of awards-hungry fare is taking this hybrid path to market over the next month or so.
Amazon Prime Video – whose Brittany Runs a Marathon opened in cinemas on Thursday and drops on the service on November 14 – will release its 9/11 political thriller The Report, starring Adam Driver and Annette Bening, on November 29, but not until it has had a brief run in cinemas from November 14.
The Irishman, which brings Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and just about everyone who has ever been in a Martin Scorsese movie together, hits cinemas on November 7 before dropping on Netflix on November 27. Next up are Noah Baumbach’s relationship comedy-drama Marriage Story (cinemas November 14, Netflix December 6) and Two Popes, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathon Pryce (cinema December 5, Netflix December 20).
Ostensibly, these cinema runs are “limited”. But if Roma is any indication, they might not be; Cuaron’s triple Oscar winner played in some Australian cinemas for 18 weeks, long after it had dropped on the streaming service.
Eddie Tamir, whose independent chain includes the Lido, Classic and Cameo cinemas in Melbourne and Randwick Ritz in Sydney, has taken some criticism for his willing embrace of Netflix content. But he firmly believes cinemas need to adapt to remain relevant – and they should demand the same of others.
“Let’s turn it on its head,” he says. “If there’s great product on television – on streamers, on free-to-air, on cable, wherever – then we should be able to have a crack at bringing that content into cinemas. Better that than not being part of the conversation.
“Why can’t a cinema play Game of Thrones, say, on day one, simultaneous, and have cinema do what it’s great at, which is bring on that shared experience with that compelling product,” he adds.
“Who says it has to be just one-way traffic?”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.