The moniker of ‘straight to home video’ is often assumed to be indicative of quality – if a film can’t muster theatrical distribution, it’s either too obscure, outlandish or just plain bad. That’s not always the case, as many solid films unfortunately slip past theatres and end up straight on the shelf or on VOD platforms, without any strong advertising campaign or promotion. This discussion between editors Conor Bateman and Felix Hubble seeks to highlight some of the diamonds in the rough.
Felix: It’s been a really interesting year for straight-to-video releases in Australia with the increasing popularity of services like Google Play and the launch of Dendy Direct, we’ve definitely seen a lot of smaller flicks and festival hits skip a theatrical run altogether with distributors favouring a quick release onto the online marketplace. Madman are the obvious example here with the way they’ve handled stuff like Enemy, Starred Up and Joe. It’s a fairly interesting development in the Australian distribution landscape – the former two on that list would be fairly high on my top 10 of the year list if they’d seen theatrical release.
Conor: I’m definitely with you with regards to a theatrical release for Enemy. I’m not as big a fan it as you but that film deserved a wider reception, its sense of paranoia and claustrophobia could only be heightened by an in-cinema experience. I think Netflix coming to Australia next year will perhaps see a bigger increase in these quality films shipped straight to VOD, just increasing the impact that Google Play and Dendy Direct have had already.
Felix: Netflix is definitely going to be an interesting development. I’m curious to see if any mid-lower budget films will be making a debut on the service before they hit the online marketplace. Regardless of if it does or not, I’ve definitely appreciated the access to smaller genre flicks the new focus on online distribution by some of the more major independent distributors has given me. It’s been great to have the opportunity to check out really out there stuff like All Cheerleaders Die that traditionally wouldn’t have much of a shot at being seen anywhere in Australia unless it got picked up by SFF, SUFF, MIFF or something like Monster Fest.
Conor: That’s because there’s a much bigger market for those genre pictures overseas, right? We have these great smaller festivals here but outside of that the only way to see these films is VOD. I can’t think of a film that walked the line between the two and made money theatrically here. You’re Next is the only one that comes to mind. It’s true though that VOD is pretty important in keeping this sense of alternative cinema alive, and as theatrical releases become divided into indies with hearts of gold, Palme d’Or winners and blockbusters, more people are likely to go to VOD, for content as much as pricing.
Felix: Definitely, one thing I definitely think has happened is that the distribs have really nailed their pricing model in terms of renting – there’s still quite a way to go in terms of digital ownership, especially when you can get a tangible, physical copy of the same product from JB HiFi at a lower cost – but paying $7 for an instant HD stream of a new release is fairly decent, especially considering that I no longer need to leave the house to rent it.
Conor: You’ve seen a whole lot more VOD films than me this year, and I know that, somehow, our lists have overlapped – both of our top 3 films have two in common. What made Enemy and Happy Christmas the best VOD films for you as well?
Felix: There was just something about Enemy that really clicked for me, from the moment I started watching it I was just completely blown away – I’m a real sucker for mood and tension, and the underlying dread that permeates the whole thing just had me hooked. It’s up there with Killers as my favourite film of the year, I’ve seen it a few times and I like it a lot more than anything that got a theatrical run this year. Happy Christmas was always going to be up the top of any list I knocked together this year; I really love what Joe Swanberg has been doing, I love Anna Kendrick, and it’s a film that centres on inertia and growing up in a very real, naturalistic way. I’m a sucker for low-budget films like this, like Enemy it’s a very me film.
In a way, it’s a bit unfortunate that VOD is in its (relative) infancy – a lot of really great films are coming out this way but the wider Australian media landscape hasn’t found a way to latch onto and promote the fantastic content that does its first run on DVD and VOD services. Hopefully a couple more films like The Mule will force a system that highlights and promotes these titles into play. There are a lot of films I think deserved more recognition this year that were released straight-to-video, often without a prior festival run. Enemy is the obvious example here, but something like Blue Ruin should have garnered way more domestic coverage than it did.
Conor: I’m with you completely regarding Happy Christmas, a film that should have had a Dendy or Palace run for sure.1 That’s my second best of the year in terms of straight to video, mainly because it is such a total pleasure to watch. As I said in my festival review of it, I wasn’t able to stop myself from comparing it to the superior Drinking Buddies, but it is just so refreshing to see an intimate and conversational film that’s funny and light (and I don’t mean that at all as a slight on the film). Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is another of the big VOD releases this year for me, a really impressive lean revenge thriller that seems exemplary of some of the best independent American cinema out there. It’s lack of pretension and almost methodical approach to narrative was really riveting, also Macon Blair delivers a really great central performance.
Felix: I didn’t enjoy Blue Ruin as much as you did but I did think it was a really solid genre flick and was a far sight better than a lot of this year’s theatrically released revenge flicks. I’m a big genre fan and it’s great that a lot of these international festival hits like Blue Ruin are seeing a low-key release in Australia, even if it isn’t theatrical. That’s the case with pretty much the entire latter half of my top 10 list – while they’re not necessarily amazing films they’re all really cool for what they are, low-budget genre flicks that are much better than most comparable films that saw theatrical release. No one’s going to be able to convince me that Tusk deserved its theatrical run over The Sacrament (pictured in the header) – a Vice-doco-esque riff on the Jonestown massacre from one of the most interesting modern Horror directors – or that Annabelle was more worthy of a theatrical release than Cheap Thrills – E.L. Katz’s directorial debut drenched in glimmers of future greatness.
Conor: The only other releases I’d mention here are Blue Caprice, a slow-burning and elliptical film that is based on a true crime narrative – the Beltway snipers that stalked Virginia and Washington DC in 2002. Alexandre Moors’ film has some impressive performances, Isaiah Washington is fairly threatening and Tim Blake Nelson has a nice supporting role. Also of note there is the score by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, frustratingly unavailable anywhere. Rounding out my list, and admittedly I’m only half-fond of it, is The Terror Live, a South Korean thriller set almost in real-time which tracks a terrorist who uses an over-the-hill news anchor as his mouthpiece to the people. It’s thrilling, sure, though it’s reveal is mightily silly. There’s a whole lot I missed though and definitely want to seek out – They Came Together, Veronica Mars and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints top my list.
Felix: Having caught Veronica Mars I don’t think you missed out on too much unless you were a big fan of the show, the story behind its production is pretty fascinating though. I’m super regretful I haven’t got around to watching Wetlands yet, that’s a film that could have probably made my top 10 list. I also didn’t get around to The Mule, Joe (which I know you weren’t crazy on but I am a big David Gordon Green/Nic Cage fan), Life After Death From Above 1979 or Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films – I’m sure one or two of those would have made my list as well. It’s an exciting time for VOD/Straight-to-video releases, who knows what’s going to happen next year when Hoyts launches its streaming service and Netflix comes to Australia – these lists could potentially contain more hidden gems than our festival and theatrical ones.
|Felix Hubble||Conor Bateman|