I’ve written about why physical media has the edge over digital when it comes to making sure you have access to your movies for years to come. But streaming and digital certainly have a place in the film-watching, and filmmaking, ecosystem: There’s no better way for the cinematically curious to explore than via streaming and on-demand services.
Set aside Netflix, for a moment, with its movie-of-the-week model and its dependence on ’90s staple “Friends” for viewers. Consider instead the forthcoming Criterion Channel, debuting April 8. The Criterion Collection has long been the go-to label for cinephiles, its curation serving as a sort of canonization of films old and new. In addition to the thousand-plus titles in the Criterion library, they’re rolling out special programs such as Columbia Noir, which will highlight noir movies by auteurs including Don Siegel (“The Lineup”) and Fritz Lang (“The Big Heat”). It’s a perfect entry point for folks who want to learn more about an important movement in movie history.
Those concerned about cost, however, might want to check out their local libraries. Many offer free access to a service called Kanopy, which also offers titles from Criterion’s library.
“Kanopy is basically the Netflix for public libraries,” said Cara Cook Sonnier, digital services librarian for the Alexandria (Virginia) Library. “A lot of the content on Kanopy is not what you would find on Netflix, however. So, we wouldn’t have the latest ‘Avenger’ movie or Oscars. However, they do have Criterion Collection and the Great Courses, a lot of independent and foreign films.”
One option for the curious is “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” Thom Anderson’s character study of the home base of the American entertainment-industrial complex and the ways in which the City of Angels has been portrayed on-screen over the years. It’s not the sort of thing that could play in theaters for any extended period of time. But it’s a fantastic movie for anyone who is interested in, say, the way L.A.’s Bradbury Building has been used – and used, and used – in movies over the years.
Kanopy is not quite like Netflix, which wants its customers to go on endless binges, in that every month patrons get four credits, and they don’t roll over. However, Sonnier had a recommendation for those looking to rack up a few extra credits.
“If you have library cards at multiple libraries, you can combine your credits,” she said. “If you’re an Alexandria resident you can also get a D.C. library card, you can get a Fairfax County library card, so if you have those and you want to team them up, you can do both.”
The streaming and video-on-demand revolution has also expanded the range of first-run pictures available to audiences. Consider the case of “Dragged Across Concrete.” Despite A-List talent including Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn, solid reviews and prestigious festival placements, “Dragged Across Concrete” is playing in only a handful of theaters. And for good reason: It would have been a hard sell to mass audiences.
Its mood is best described as Grindhouse Antonioni; director S. Craig Zahler’s film is languorous, luxuriating in the lives and milieus of its characters and punctuating that lived-in sensibility with moments of extreme violence. It’s great, but it’s not for everyone, so it’s wonderful that viewers who won’t have access to the movie in a theater can catch it on video on demand.
While most people will end up seeing the film at home, the limited theatrical run is an important sign for viewers, said producer Dallas Sonnier (no relation to librarian Cara).
“It’s a signal to the audience member at home that this is a movie that someone believed in it enough to put it in a couple of theaters, give it a chance and also make it available to you online or in your home,” said Sonnier, the chief executive of production company Cinestate. “We’re able to charge premium VOD pricing, and be in the ‘In theaters now’ folder if we are in approximately 15 to 25 theaters around the country.” That premium is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, all told.
In recent years, Cinestate – the company behind cult hits such as Western-horror “Bone Tomahawk” and the brutal jailhouse thriller “Brawl in Cell Block 99” – has emerged as a fascinating independent studio. Sonnier said its business model is similar to the direct-to-video efforts of old.
“You keep the budgets super low. You go to a tax incentive film location. ... You sell the domestic rights for distribution up front, and you sell as much of the foreign territory distribution rights as possible before you start shooting,” he said. A big difference in Cinestate’s offerings compared to the straight-to-video efforts of Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme is the quality of the filmmaking.
Treat yourself to “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek,” a recent offering from the studio. Despite being made on a shoestring budget, writer/director Henry Dunham’s picture about a militia attempting to figure out which of its members engaged in a mass shooting at a police funeral is shot and lit with verve and style. The coterie of character actors Dunham and Sonnier assembled sell the drama, making “Standoff” feel larger than its setting: a couple of rooms in a lumber warehouse.
“The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” can’t compete at multiplexes with the likes of Disney and Marvel and Fox (but I repeat myself), being a smaller story aimed at adults without a huge name attached to it. But its quality speaks for itself, just as the quality of “Bone Tomahawk” and “Brawl in Cell Block 99” galvanized audiences to seek out “Dragged Across Concrete.” The appearance of “Tomahawk” and “Brawl” on Amazon Prime is complicatedly bittersweet.
“Streaming to us is a golden handcuff. It is an amazing way for tons of people to see your movie that did not see it in theaters, did not buy the Blu-ray and did not rent it on VOD. But, and this is a giant but, the streaming is the end of the road for the most part for your revenue stream,” Sonnier said. On the plus side, streaming can also serve as a form of advertising: “You try to capture all the attention and the eyeballs from one movie, and you use it to generate interest in your next movie.”
Anecdotally, this tracks with what I’ve seen on social media: After posting my review of “Dragged Across Concrete” on Twitter, I heard from several folks who expressed interest based on the studio’s previous efforts – which they had seen via a streaming service.
Again, I strongly suggest buying movies you love, given the impermanence of digital; I myself recently purchased several Cinestate titles despite their availability via streaming to make sure I would always have access to them. But those of us looking to explore, to try something new have never been offered more (and better) viewing options, at a more reasonable price, than right now.