When the Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow was released to video on demand this month, it came packaged with a shiny new title: Live, Die, Repeat.
It was a cutthroat move from investors, hard-pressed to turn a profit on a film that was a domestic disappointment. Cutthroat too for its winking irony, Live, Die, Repeat being Hollywood’s only modus operandi. Over the last 50 years, filmgoers have watched as the independent theater killed the movie palace, then VHS killed the independent theaters, only for the multiplex to spring up in its place.
VOD has become the second life of the second-run theater experience, but the Internet has given video on demand the kind of universal reach that revival houses could scarcely dream of. If the multiplex is a practically a studio oligarchy—screens bought and sold with advertising dollars—video on demand at least attempts democratization. It’s the only market where last year’s smash hit blockbuster could be put up against this year’s shoestring independent fare, and where the indie movie might actually win.
Or at least, we have to trust that indies can win, because it’s not as if on-demand platforms are releasing their profit margins any time soon.
Democracy has its limits, and in the 21st century no capital has more value than transparency. So long as VOD platforms like iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix are able to withhold the financial reports on their products, they can retain the final word on the viability of this new distribution method. At this nascent stage of VOD’s development, the lack of transparency is likely just as motivated by survival instincts and disorganization as it is by corporate greed.
So what is doing well on VOD these days? Well, it depends where you look. Across the board, the kind of big-budget action films that make it at the box office tend to make it on demand. Superheroes, sci-fi, and special effects might be designed for the big screen, but you’d never know it by looking at the charts for on-demand and home video sales, as films like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Godzilla top iTunes charts just as they topped theater charts. But among the independents, a sure thing is hard to find.
Certainly it helps to have a movie star. Audiences don’t seem to mind trying untested filmmakers or original scripts, but when it comes to entertaining new faces, people follow the same rules for movies as they would for guests. It doesn’t matter if you’re coming off a string of disasters like Nicolas Cage—currently enjoying success on demand with Joe—stars are our old friends, and nobody likes entertaining strangers.
However, even with stars, success is no guarantee. The Kirsten Dunst vehicle Bachelorette might have earned an unprecedented $8 million on demand two years ago under the exuberant direction of first-timer Leslye Headland, but that’s had no bearing on Dunst’s current film, the period thriller The Two Faces of January, which follows a group of con artists as their security (and their alliances) collapse around them—and which even without official numbers seems like an all-but-assured misfire. Hollywood is a business full of analysts—both amateur and supposedly professional—all ready to diagnose the reasons why a film like Two Faces of January might slip between the cracks. It had better reviews entering the market than Bachelorette, it had a twisty plot, it had the stars. So what happened?
Maybe hard data has the answers, but even without VOD platforms offering up numbers, the difference between Two Faces of January and Bachelorette seems clear enough. Enthusiasm counts, and so does innovation. Just look to the left of Two Faces of January, to the melodrama that was a hit this summer, Amma Asante’s Belle.
Belle is the story of a biracial woman entrenched in the British aristocracy at a time when most black women in Europe were being sold into slavery. Belle relies on stories that are familiar enough to be cliché—the triumphant court case, love across class—but its familiarity works as a smokescreen for its politics, which are as pressing as they are complex. We’ve seen these scenes before—the heroine standing up to her family for the sake of love, a suitor’s lecherous friend forcing himself on our beautiful protagonist—but Assante maps new meanings onto these familiar poses, crafting an engaging testament to the importance of black self-love, and a deconstruction of the way that structural racism affects not just those who hate us, but those who love us too.
What Belle lacks in polish (my kingdom for a new cinematographer!) it makes up for with passion. Every line and every shot announces itself with the urgency that Two Faces of January lacks.
Turns out that when you put an indie up against the Transformers and the Captain Americas of the world, a little self-importance doesn’t hurt.
Certainly, documentary film never had this much cultural cache when it was competing for theater screens. But between the comfort of home, the limitations of the small screen, and the low stakes of VOD prices—which can range from a half to even a quarter of the average movie theater ticket—the documentary has never been more impactful. Last year’s Blackfish succeeded in slashing the profits of the Sea World corporate giants. This year’s damning portrait of big-government meddling, Dinosaur 13, enjoyed its time in the iTunes Top 10, and Fed Up, the latest attack on big food industries, has taken its place.
But for artists like Terry Gilliam or Kelly Reichardt, whose interests extend beyond (or even exclude) storytelling and social justice into the realm of cinematic formalism, the success of VOD is never absolute.
While investors would be undoubtedly pleased with a hit on demand for Terry Gilliam’s neon nightmare Zero Theorem or Kelly Reichardt’s slow-cinema thriller about a pair of geopolitical terrorists, Night Moves—the victory of box office success comes with the sacrifice of the holy theater experience. And when those films can’t even succeed on VOD, supposedly the destination for fare too challenging to succeed in the cutthroat multiplex, the disappointment is compounded. At least if Night Moves had flopped in the theater age, the few people who saw it would have been able to see it in perfect conditions—projected on film, blown up onto a big screen, protected from the outside world by the isolation and the darkness of the theater room.
Maybe that’s why VOD platforms are holding onto those receipts so tightly. It’s bad enough having to admit to investors that you’re not making money when everyone thinks you provide a good service. But when the emperor has no clothes, the only shield that’s left is ignorance.