No matter what any given pundit might say – including us – things are very much in flux when it comes to screen exhibition right now. Yes, it’s a given that the theatrical space is largely dominated by big, four quadrant franchise films (the shorthand for this is Marvel & Star Wars or, even shorter, Disney) but they’re not filling every screen in every session. Smaller, nichier films still find room in the cinema – or at least, some of them do.
Add to that the streaming explosion and things get complicated quickly. Streaming and VOD is here to stay; while some players have already been squeezed out of the market (Dendy Direct, Foxtel’s Presto), the big dogs like Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime and Hulu are here to stay. The latter has yet to announce any plans to launch in Australia, but it’s only a matter of time. Plus we’ll be getting Disney’s proprietary streaming service before too long, and Apple’s, and god knows what else. They won’t all make it. Australian consumers are already complaining about the cost of maintaining the current streaming offerings – inevitably there will be casualties once the market does its grim work.
But for now, and for most people, streaming means Netflix and Netflix means streaming, much like Band-Aid means sticking plaster and Kleenex means tissue. But we can’t seem to be able to decide if Netflix is a prestige platform or the modern day heir to DTV. It’s kind of both, in truth; for every Beasts of No Nation there’s a Cloverfield Paradox, for every Irishman a Titan.
For all that Netflix is increasingly focusing on original content and attracting prestigious talent like Martin Scorsese (The Irishman, in case you didn’t know, is one of his), they’re also becoming known for picking up projects that the studios are worried won’t do well in the theatrical space. That’s a double-edged sword – how do you position yourself as a prestige distro and exhibition hub when you’re simultaneously picking up the fish John West reject?
The Cloverfield Paradox is probably the most notorious case study here. Cleverly marketed during the Superbowl though it was, it may have done some damage to the Netflix brand when viewers rushed to see it immediately after the big game only to discover that it was, frankly, a bit crap. It was clear that Netflix had picked up a dead duck and had managed to package it in such a way that it became, oh so briefly, a must-see movie – at the cost of leaving a whole bunch of subscribers feeling burned.
The more interesting example, however, is Annihilation, the sophomore film from 28 Days Later and Dredd scribe Alex Garland. Annihilation was earmarked for theatrical distribution when word suddenly came that it would only hit the big screen in a few selected territories, with Netflix delivering the film via streaming to the rest of the world. Reaction, based on comments on the FilmInk Facebook page, was less than enthusiastic.
Interestingly, despite excellent reviews Annihilation flopped at the US box office. Unfortunately Netflix famously doesn’t release viewing figures so we can only speculate on its streaming fortunes, but its continued presence on the front page means it was probably a good investment for the platform (or else the algorithm is just feeding our own personal predilection for sci-fi horror – either/or). Still, the numbers seem to indicate that Netflix and Annihilation‘s original studio, Paramount, were right; the film floundered on the big screen, but found a respectable audience on streaming, no matter what the social media comments say.
Here’s the crux of the matter: genre fans often and loudly cite a desire to see their sort of film theatrically, but fail to carry through when it comes to putting actual bums on actual seats in actual cinemas. It’s a problem that predates the ubiquity of streaming, but is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that, for films that aren’t perceived as “must see”, you know in your bones they will, more likely than not crop up on the small screen of your choice before too many pages fall off the calendar, and at no additional expense to you personally. The problem is that this behaviour perpetuates the problem fans complain about – nobody turns out for genre fare, distributors and exhibitors become reticent to program genre films, and the potential audience feels once more that their tastes are being ignored.
But now Australians have an opportunity to repeat the Annihilation experiment for themselves, in a roundabout way. Cargo, Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling’s feature expansion of their viral short, hits Australian cinemas today, mere days ahead of its Netflix release elsewhere. A zombie flick that sees Martin Freeman’s hapless dad trying to find safe harbour for his baby during the apocalypse before he himself turns ghoul, it’s earned great reviews – including by us.
Not only is Cargo getting a theatrical airing here, we’re the only territory in the world where that’s happening – it’s an Australian exclusive, as is the eventual DVD/Blu-Ray release, with the planned Netflix release date months down the track. Right now, the only country where you can see it on the big screen is Australia.
We’ll be watching Cargo‘s box office performance very carefully – and we won’t be alone. As the exhibition space settles into its new, post-streaming, pan-global configuration, the film’s release represents a fairly unique opportunity to see how critically acclaimed genre content performs when divorced from other competing market drivers. Cargo‘s performance is set to affect not only its fortunes and those of its creators, but that of all Australian genre content going forward, both in terms of how such films are exhibited and their perceived financial viability overall.
Look, nobody likes to be told they have a duty to see a movie – there’s nothing worse than seeing some well-meaning but draining film fare out of a sense of obligation. Still, hand on our hearts, if we had skin in the Aussie genre game, we’d be making time for Cargo. Monday’s box office results are a little more important than usual this week.