Arthouse Distribution after the Death of
the Mid-Budget Movie:
Are Amazon Saving Independent Cinema?
One thing that definitely emerged from Cannes 2016 (along with the suspicion that getting booed at the festival might be a badge of honor) is that Amazon have established themselves as a major player in international art-house film distribution. The studio had five films playing at Cannes, including some of the festival’s biggest talking points: Nicholas Winding Refn’s equally booed and lauded closer The Neon Demon, Woody Allen’s Café Society, and Jim Jarmusch’s acclaimed drama Paterson. It is surely a sign of the times, even a sea-change to see several generations of internationally recognized auteurs now working effectively outside the established studio system.
Not only are major arthouse talents increasingly migrating over to Amazon and Netflix for distribution deals, but the directors themselves are waxing euphoric about the kind of creative freedom the streaming companies are offering. Nicholas Winding Refn has even gone so far as to suggest that Amazon is saving independent film: “The best offer I’ve ever gotten in my life was from Amazon. Their whole approach is a blessing. They’re pretty much the key factor in saving independent cinema.”
To understand how this situation came about – how the arthouse moved away from the major theatrical release studios – we need to trace how Hollywood’s business model has changed dramatically since the 90s, and video streaming giants have capitalized on what has become marginalized in the era of mega-budget franchises and summer tent-pole movies.
If you cast your mind back to the 90s – not so long ago really – a very different cinematic landscape emerges. Hollywood made blockbusters, of course, dominated by great storytellers like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, and movie stars like Will Smith and musle-bound hold-overs from the 80s like Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. But Hollywood also produced a great deal of comparatively modest budget, adult-orientated films: it was a time when big studios and independents could support existing talents and name-brand directors like Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Michael Mann and Oliver Stone, and even experimental visions like those of John Waters, Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch. New adult or arthouse-orientated talents like PT Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Quentin Tarantino could also emerge. Somewhere between then and now, everything changed – the mid-budget Hollywood drama became an increasingly rare (almost extinct bird) and the big arthouse directors became isolated, struggling to get funding for their projects. What happened?
The movie industry was affected, like all other businesses, by the financial crash. It also had unique problems associated with technological disruptors: file sharing and piracy issues really began to emerge around 2002/2003. During the same period, audience tastes were changing in fundamental ways. Stars had always been the major currency and brokering chip in the film world: they drew audiences to films, and their participation green-lit film budgets. There are still movie stars, of course, but the number of actors who can open a movie by their presence alone has dwindled, and it feels like the star commodity just doesn’t influence movie-goers in the same way anymore. Beginning modestly with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000, superheros and sci-fi/fantasy franchises have increasingly become the recognition brand that sells movies.
All of this increasingly left the arthouse high and dry. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, Hollywood responded to the increasing riskiness of investment by putting all their eggs in a smaller number of gigantic buckets. They funded less films, and focused on the mega-budget, tent-pole end of the spectrum, effectively squeezing out the mid-range where the arthouse market flourished. This model might infuriate cineastes, but it is clearly working: we have moved very rapidly into a era where a film is considered a fiscal disappointment if it doesn’t clear a billion in global box office returns. The phenomenal dominance of Disney – with both the Marvel and Star Wars juggernauts in their paws – are emblematic of the era of extended franchises and billion-dollar blockbusters, and clearly represent the model that other major studios are desperate to emulate.
All of this made the arthouse giants of the 90s increasingly marginal figures, and for a few years television seemed like the only option available to the lost mid-range. In a 2012 interview with the Independent, David Lynch expressed this new pessimism: “It’s a very depressing picture. With alternative cinema – any sort of cinema that isn’t mainstream – you’re fresh out of luck in terms of getting theatre space and having people come to see it.” Lynch added that television was “way more interesting than cinema now”, and that it “seems like the arthouse has gone to cable.” If true, this would have been terrible – in a sense, the arthouse can’t migrate to television. Sequential television is still fundamentally narrative-based, whereas arthouse or experimental cinema allows filmmakers the opportunity to work outside the constraints of conventional narrative – to explore cinematic form, tone and imagery in ways that just aren’t possible on television. Lynch’s own debut Eraserhead couldn’t exist in any medium other than the cinema theatre. The theatre experience itself – so intrinsic to cinema’s form and impact – cannot be replicated at home, no matter how much television screens have evolved and expanded.
In 2016, however, the picture may not be so bleak, and television may no longer be the only option available for arthouse directors. As well as producing Allen and Winding Refn, Amazon have signed deals with several directors who embody the more independent spirit of the 80s and 90s: Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and Terry Gilliam. Much of the fuel for Amazon’s indie-friendly production policy derives from the aptly named Ted Hope. Hope is the current head of production for Amazon Original Movies, and he has a rich pedigree in American independent film, going back to early work with Hal Hartley on The Unbelievable Truth and Trust. Amazon hopes to produce about 12 movies annually, falling into the 5 to 25 million budget range which has effectively vanished from Hollywood’s radar. Crucially for directors, the company has expressed a commitment to theatrical releases rather than VOD only; the films will become available on Prime Instant Video four to eight weeks after theatrical debut.
While it is perhaps too early to say how successful Amazon and Netflix will be as producers in terms of sustainable theatrical releasing, it represents a fascinating development in the ever-shifting landscape of film production and distribution. Video streaming was initially seen very much as a threat to theatrical presentation; now the streaming companies seem be emerging to fill the vital arthouse/independent drama market-place which the major studios have all but abandoned. ù It represents the beginnings of an antidote to the pessimism which has clouded independent and experimental cinema in recent years, and is hugely promising news to those of us who cherish cinema in its native theatrical space. Fingers crossed, the arthouse may not have gone to cable just yet.