The biggest story coming out of Sundance in the last week is just how dominant both Netflix and Amazon have been in aggressively buying up movies. Sometimes the deals are just for streaming and sometimes they come with the promise to find a partner for theatrical distribution at or around the same time the movie in question debuts on the streaming service.
While that’s notable in and of itself – and I have plenty to say on that topic alone – it also has to be put together with the news yesterday that IFC Films signed a deal with Hulu to make it the exclusive streaming partner of all the studio’s future documentaries.
I’ve written before about how it would be nice to see the companies who are distributing these online-only releases experiment with new form factors for key art and other media. So we’ll see if there’s any innovation or evolution in how these Sundance-sales are marketed. In a traditional sense.
More than that, though, the news of so many streaming deals has me thinking about how movies have become a commodity being used to market the services themselves. In other words, Netflix and Amazon want you to watch a movie, sure. But that’s secondary to their desire that you sign up for their services.
The overall mindset has always been true. AMC, Regal and other theater chains don’t really care which movie you come see, they just want you to come buy a ticket and, more importantly, popcorn and soda. They offer a variety of attractive movies the same way Target and Walmart offer a variety of toothpastes. With similar product offerings it’s up to them to differentiate on experience and service. AMC gets your money because it’s closer, you like the seats more, they have the Coke Freestyle machines or any of a number of other factors.
Now, though, the underpinning of that idea has changed. If you want to watch the much-buzzed about Manchester By The Sea, you’ll need to be an Amazon Prime subscriber. Yes, there may be a theatrical release but it’s likely to be limited in the way most indie films are so if you’re not in an urban center Amazon will be your *only* choice. There’s no market to choose from based on preference or, specifically, existing subscriptions.
It’s great that these movies are getting on-demand streaming deals. That’s the kind of thing people like myself who don’t live within convenient distance of Music Box or other theaters that play these niche movies have been dreaming of. We can finally see all these movies at the same time as everyone else (discounting festival attendees). But we should be wary of a world that’s divided along subscription lines because that means we’re being devalued in new and interesting ways. Hulu doesn’t want your money to watch an IFC documentary. It wants your money to watch that and “Brooklyn Nine Nine.” Netflix doesn’t want your money for The Ridiculous Six. it wants your money to watch that and “Parks and Recreation.” They’re meant to be differentiators between one and the other – Netflix wants you to choose it and not Amazon – as opposed to letting customers choose in a non-exclusive marketplace.
That’s why I think we’re heading toward another wave of something along the lines of the Paramount Decree, which broke up the vertical monopoly held by studios that controlled production, distribution and presentation. With both Amazon and Netflix getting into original productions we see the same kind of situation developing and it might only be a matter of time before someone has something to say about that. Until then we can choose with our subscription dollars, but it will be hard for movie fans to really make that choice since it inherently means missing out on a certain percentage of the films they very much want to see.