Although still not given the full credit it deserves as a viable release platform, in 2014 straight to home media distribution saw a resurgence in Australia, with many of the year’s best titles – including Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Ti West’s The Sacrament, and Xan Cassavette’s1 Kiss of the Damned – skipping theatrical and festival run altogether, seeing straight to home video release. I was optimistic that Australian distributors were finally realising that, in many cases, profit could be maximised by foregoing a cinematic run, bringing a wide array of diverse, niche content to their respective audiences without spending money on costly theatrical promotion and release. In a few cases we saw distributors creating affordable and content-heavy packages – as was the model of nostalgia-based labels like the UK’s Arrow Films or Australia’s own Glass Doll Films – rather than securing cinema spaces that would never be filled, a tendency that could have, and should have, become the norm for smaller, independent features.
As nice as it is to see interesting and diverse content on the big screen, realistically a large proportion of film festival favourites will never be financially viable if theatrically distributed outside of a festival setting in a country as small as Australia. Such a reality in our current distribution model creates a financial disincentive to invest in interesting content, with little to no chance of positive financial return. The home video releases of last year signalled that larger film distributors might finally be accepting this fact. Alas, this level of insight was not to continue – 2015 marks a regression in attitudes towards straight to video releases, with far less interesting content seeing first run release through the medium and stacks of quality independent cinema stuck in the doldrums without any Australian distribution.
Although a lot of great content from the festival circuit has skipped wider theatrical release in favour of moving straight to home media formats, many of these releases have been barebones or otherwise less than satisfactory (there is no Blu-Ray release of Haemoo in Australia, for instance) and the wealth of quality non-festival content that went straight to home media last year has been near absent from this year’s release slates, with home media once again embodying a graveyard for less than stellar, low-budget “trash” cinema (see: Area 51 – of which it feels I am the world’s only fan – Lost River, Kill Me Three Times, and The Final Girls). That’s not to say that quality stuff hasn’t been coming out – the US has seen the release of Entertainment, Digging For Fire, The Mend, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Misery Loves Comedy, and Mala Mala,2 a few of which will probably see some form of Australian release in 2016 – however there’s been no Resolution, no All Cheerleaders Die, not even a Blue Ruin to appease Australian audiences this year in the home video market.
The only film to really buck this trend was a film that saw US release two years ago, Coherence, and the only other film which came close was Blackhat, which was slated for theatrical release in Australia at one point before bombing dramatically in the US (so lumping it in the same category as most VODs hardly seems fair). Such a fact seems ridiculous given the introduction of Netflix (and a number of Netflix mimicking subscription VOD services) to Australia, platforms that make a straight to home media release just that little bit more viable, however the reality of the situation is that filmmakers and distributors are still pushing for a heavier theatrical presence for films like Now Add Honey, Freeheld, The Emperor’s New Clothes and Infinitely Polar Bear, despite all reasonable logic pointing towards profit loss from a theatrical release and the potential for straight to VOD success regardless of the quality of the content.
Our current domestic home media climate screams of an industry unwilling to innovate and uninterested in putting in any of the legwork to reshape consumer preferences in a bid to maximise potential profits. Content that goes straight to home media should not be seen as relegated art, content that skips theatrical release should not be seen as somehow “lesser” than their cinema-screened counterparts. The bigger players in the industry need to adapt to keep up with technological innovation and changing consumption practices rather than throwing money into the theatrical distribution hole or they will risk forcing themselves into obsolescence. Where’s our VOD ad on Blu-Rays in the same vein of the “see it on DVD“3 ads of the VHS era? Perhaps worst of all, this is another year without an Australian home video release of the magnificent The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, a film that is now three years old and will probably never find Australian distribution, seeing its well-deserved Australian festival debut at the Queensland Film Festival a full year (!) after US VOD release.
It’s not all bad on the home video front however; as previously mentioned Netflix and a number of clones have launched in the country, giving our subscription VOD industry a much needed push and exposing audiences to a more diverse (if a little underwhelming compartive to its international counterparts) back-catalogue of cinema. Additionally, niche home media labels (both domestically and abroad) have been breaking apart the Criterion cartel that traditionally controlled high-quality releases of the broader cinephilic canon. However, in saying this, neither development has had much of an effect on first run home media releases, a shame as both models of business are likely what will eventually lead our straight to home media release strategy out of the doldrums and into the mainstream conciousness.
Below I’ve compiled a list of what I think are the top 10 films that skipped a theatrical run in Australia before hitting home media from the past year. You’ll notice that there’s minimal overlap with my full top 10 list which will be appearing early next week, and all but two (Blackhat and Coherence) played extensively at festivals across Australia, compared to my list last year which featured five non-festival films and another which premiered on Australian VOD before most of its later festival run.
Felix’s Top 10 – Straight to Home Video