Sunday, July 5, 2015

Falling Through the Digital Distribution Cracks

I'm very excited about making time to see "Advantageous," a new independent dystopian science-fiction film directed by, written by, and starring Asian-American women.  However, I almost missed it - the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but was then acquired by and premiered exclusively on Netflix last week with little fanfare. 
With no theatrical release, that means that the title didn't appear on the film release calendars I use - Wikipedia and Boxofficemojo currently.  Because Netflix paid for exclusivity, "Advantageous" is only available online - it's not even considered a VOD release.  That means that many film outlets didn't run reviews.  At the time of writing there are only twelve reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes for "Advantageous," 75% positive.  The big names like Variety and the New York Times covered it, but not most of the smaller publications and websites.  I only learned about the movie because I stumbled upon a rave by Katherine Trendacosta at io9 through a content aggregator site, and then another review over at WIRED - neither of these sites appear to be counted by Rotten Tomatoes, mind you.   I'm subscribed to a couple of film blogs, Film School Rejects and Indiewire, specifically to catch smaller titles like this, but neither of them have run anything substantive on "Advantageous" aside from basic synopses from when the film premiered at Sundance.
As an Asian-American woman and science-fiction fan, I am the exact, dead center, target audience for "Advantageous."  Outside of monitoring the new release schedule for Netflix, there was no way for me to know that this film existed, even though I'm a cinema buff who makes a point of keeping an eye out for films like this.  Netflix has generally been considered great for indie films, because they can get smaller films in front of more people.  However, it doesn't really have the resources to promote them the way that other distribution outfits might.  I'm fairly sure this release strategy makes "Advantageous" ineligible for any awards that might give the picture more buzz and coverage.  Also, the film is stuck in an odd kind of media jurisdictional limbo.  It's comparable to if it had been picked up by one of the premium cable channels like HBO or Showtime.  The lack of a theatrical release means they're treated like television films, which often end up being covered by television writers and reviewed by television critics.  Exceptions are made occasionally when there's an auteur involved, as with Steven Soderbergh's "Beyond the Candelabra."  Netflix isn't television, though, so which critics should lay claim to "Advantageous"?
This is a rare occurrence now, but it won't be in the future.  Netflix's recent push for more content had lead them to acquire more and more films themselves.  So far it's been mostly documentaries, including the Oscar nominated "The Square" and "Virunga."  "Advantageous" is the first feature they've acquired in a while, but it will soon be followed by Cary Fukunaga's "Beasts of No Nation" and Richie Smyth's "Jadotville."  Netflix is also producing a new "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" sequel, a Pee-Wee Herman movie, all those cringeworthy Adam Sandler comedies, and Brad Pitt’s upcoming “War Machine,” which Netflix recently paid $30 million to finance and distribute.  And I have no doubt that Amazon, and other competitors will soon follow in the film distribution game - Amazon is already chasing film directors like Woody Allen and David Gordon Green to create programs for them. 
Most of the coverage of the "War Machine" brought up the implications for theaters, but there will surely also be an impact on viewers as well.  There are more films being made now than ever before, and so many, many places to view them.  It's going to become tougher to keep track of current releases when they're scattered across multiple VOD platforms, streaming services, theater chains, and other venues.  Television is already in the thick of it.  Did you hear about the superhero series "Powers" that's being run on the Playstation Network? Did you know the Playstation Network existed?  I expect that the existing organizational tools I use will be updated eventually to reflect this, or that better alternatives will be come available.  But for now, during the transition, I'm going to have to either become more vigilant or just learn to be okay with letting a few titles slip through the cracks.

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