Ever since Netflix officially made its way to Australian audiences last year, video-on-demand or “VOD” are terms being thrown around more than ever before. What started as a disruption to the traditional movie distribution model has morphed into one of the fastest growing niches in entertainment, with services like Presto, Stan, Quickflix and ABC’s own iView fighting for attention.
VOD is broken down into two categories: There are subscription-based options (like the above) where customers pay a monthly fee for access to the service’s library of content, and then there are on-demand services like iTunes and Dendy Direct which allow you to purchase films or TV shows individually. For people who watch a lot of movies or TV, the financial benefits of video-on-demand become quickly apparent, with both options offering movies at a far lower price point than cinemas.
However, not everyone is happy about the rise of video-on-demand. In an interview with Vulture, Quentin Tarantino said “The idea that somebody’s watching my movie on a phone, that’s very depressing to me”. Christopher Nolan expressed a similar sentiment when speaking about Sean Parker’s recently proposed Screening Room service, saying “We don’t understand why the industry would want to provide audiences an incentive to skip the best form to experience the art that we work so hard to create”.
Director Christopher Nolan
While both Nolan and Tarantino’s perspective on VOD is valid, some people just prefer the home theatre experience. When her film Sunday released through video-on-demand platform Stan last year, producer Dustin Clare was quick to point out that “In many parts of Australia people would normally be waiting a long time after the release date before the film reaches them. Video-On-Demand and streaming services like Stan are completely changing access”.
And she’s right – video-on-demand lets audiences decide when and how they want to watch something. Some people don’t want to deal with things like the cost of popcorn and movie tickets, rigid screening times and a loud or rude audience, and video-on-demand caters to those people. It also holds within it a lot of potential on the filmmaker side-of-things.
As put by Australian director Clayton Jacobson in an interview with The Iris, “finding an audience is getting harder but there is a huge shift taking place with VOD formats”. When you don’t have to leave your house to watch a film, you’re much more likely to take a chance on it – and that benefit of the doubt can make-or-break the success of smaller releases.
Rolling a film out in cinemas can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars that independent filmmakers simply don’t have. In comparison, releasing through VOD-services is worlds easier and more expensive. Putting out an indie film through iTunes aggregators like Distribber and Veam can cost a couple thousand dollars. Meanwhile, smaller services like Vimeo or IndieFlix only cost you a couple hundred annually.
Video-on-demand services proved pivotal for Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, overtaking box office profits in half the time and turning around an initially poor financial reception to the film. A similar story followed the release of Tasmanian drama film The Hunter and the Screen Australia-backed Fell. The stakes are always going to be high in film production and VOD offers up a low-risk, low-cost and low-fuss way to mitigate some of that.
However, this freedom can be a double-edged sword for some. It might be easier to get your film out there but it’s also harder to get it noticed. Part of this is a natural consequence of stepping away from the logistical support of the studio model, but it also plays to the perception that video-on-demand releases are films too cheap or low quality to ‘earn’ a proper theatrical release. In spite of the high quality of the films now finding a home through VOD, it’s still not a stigma that’s easy to shake.
For some, the key to breaking this perception lies in producing work of such a quality that it can’t be ignored. Netflix made headlines last year when they pushed their war film Beasts of No Nation as a contender for the Oscars. Unfortunately their efforts fell flat when the film failed to garner a single nomination from the Academy.
Despite this critical non-starter, the scale of video-on-demand releases is only set to rise. Joss Whedon’s In Your Eyes launched through VOD day-and-date with its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq premiered through Amazon Prime and Brad Pitt’s War Machine is expected to grace Netflix sometime this year. As more big names move towards VOD-releases, it’s a wonder that the doubt surrounding the viability of video-on-demand persists.
In an interview with The Iris about his film It’s A Disaster, comedian David Cross recounted his initial-skepticism towards VOD. According to Cross, “I remember when I heard about the plans for this movie… I remember being disappointed. It sounded like they weren’t that hot on it. But they were saying “trust us, trust us… this is the new model.” And I was doubting it. But I was definitely proven wrong. It’s done very well that way, it was a smart thing to do”
VOD-releases have an allure of their own. While the rise of Netflix is often regarded as synonymous with the decline of rental chains like Civic Video and Blockbuster – the underlying culture around streaming services is distinctly different. Watching a movie at home used to be about having a night in, it’s now about having all-night-and-then-the-next-day-in. Platforms like Stan and Netflix have cultivated binge-watching audiences of their own, and a VOD-release is an easy gateway to that audience – and that can count for a lot whether you’re a filmmaker just starting out or an industry veteran. One thing’s for certain: audiences have already decided that VOD is here to stay.