With our country under strict “stay at home” orders amidst pandemic escalations, moviegoing normalities have come to a screeching halt. Shuttered megachains like AMC Theaters are panicking without ticket or concession sales and no foreseeable return to pre-COVID habits. Conglomerates like Warner Bros and ViacomCBS are delaying their tentpole blockbusters in direct response. Entertainment journalists struggle to pitch stories since opportunities like Fast & Furious 9 and Black Widow have vacated calendars, while critics cancel travel plans to would-be festival cities. It’s anything but “business as usual.”
Though streaming services offer plenty of old favorites to enjoy, many lament their inability to see new movies. What needs to be better communicated to these audiences is that new indies hit VOD and streaming each week, and how to find them. Even amid theater shutdowns nationwide, it’s as easy as ever to play new movies at your leisure.
Vivarium (Vertigo Releasing)
That’s why I found it odd to discover a few weeks back, continuing since, that multimedia websites aren’t helping to dispel the stigma against direct-to-video indie releases. Per my Monday tradition, I checked Rotten Tomatoes’ “Opening This Week” tab, which has historically tallied every new release between mainstream Marvel sequels and the tiniest video-on-demand character dramas. Imagine my surprise to find that the widget no longer adorned Rotten Tomatoes’ home page. Instead, a new column titled “Top Streaming Movies” pointed users towards studio home releases like Birds of Prey or The Invisible Man. Under that was a “Classic Streaming Movies” feature that directed readers towards Jurassic Park or Forrest Gump. No mention anywhere of a title like Vivarium, an independent film releasing that Friday on VOD, nor numerous other upcoming digital releases.
Everyday moviegoers rely on professionals to recommend the next no-budget stunner that’s worth their $3.99-$7.99 splurge. Those grassroots indies live and die on word-of-mouth support, tenfold now, which makes their erasure from a website as large as Rotten Tomatoes—considered invaluable in the fight against endless VOD database scrolling—a massive blow. Meanwhile, journalists are scrambling to effectively and profitably cover an industry in purgatorial flux. Sites are running on skeleton crews, tighter budgets, and zero assurances, and in many cases must reorganize to capitalize on current trends in order to stay in the game.
Sea Fever (Eagle Films)
But the crucial reality is that movies are still releasing. The month of April saw the release of Fangoria’s Porno, Gunpowder & Sky’s Sea Fever, and The Horror Collective’s The Perished—independent offerings that clawed their ways through festival hordes to secure one-in-a-lifetime distribution deals, but that weren’t acknowledged as “Opening This Week” alongside We Summon The Darkness or Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge. This brand of “renegade,” do-it-yourself cinema faces unique obstacles amid COVID-19’s disturbance and, much like small businesses, will disappear first if online revenue numbers aren’t lucrative enough for private investors. The question is: what can be done?
Valuable online real estate given to newly streamable studio releases could better benefit the industry as a whole in the hands of a film like Porno, screened exclusively through “virtual cinemas” where revenue shares go directly to mom-and-pop theaters of choice (a donation with bloody wicked rewards). These partnerships between independent theaters and distributors offer “virtual” links to “ticket holders,” which not only helps combat brick-and-mortar revenue loss, but offers indie titles that would otherwise play single-digit locations to unlimited audiences anywhere. It’s a business model born from necessity that could impact theatrical operations as we know it.
Butt Boy (Epic Pictures)
It’s here where the wide-reaching voices of Rotten Tomatoes and the like come in. In a perfect world, we’d exorcise the stigma of video-on-demand’s minor league reputation. Now is our chance to prove that it isn’t lackluster quality that brings movies directly to general VOD platforms, or niche streaming services like AMC’s horror-only Shudder. Depending on a film’s market-friendly potential (those obscurities you’d “wait to catch on streaming” anyway), video-on-demand has become a more viable option for titles that maybe can’t even afford theater rollouts. We tend to be more adventurous with our at-home watches, indulging in subtitled imports or divisive topics. Who knows? Tyler Cornack’s stinky VOD-bound noir Butt Boy might be the pungent blast of originality that proves to some mainstream-only purists how far more gonzo and gratifying efforts exist if you search a little harder.
Not only are home audiences already hesitant to gamble on VOD-onlys, but when shutdowns commenced, studio releases like The Hunt and Bloodshot created a groundswell of hype when they decided to test the waters of going straight to VOD. Meanwhile, titles like 1BR, Sea Fever, Vivarium, et al need to be recognized as “Opening This Week.” Blumhouse can eat The Hunt being a financial flop and still endure a reality where their next thriller doesn’t hit theaters for even a year from now, while alternatively, indie directors and producers might only have one shot at making their mark. Audiences need to know that new movies are still an option, and independent cinema deserves to have a future when this [gestures around] is all over.
The Perished (Celtic Badger Media)
Now more than ever, indies rely on audience support. COVID-19 restrictions haven’t clocked any reliable timetable; scientific research suggests we could be social distancing well into incoming years. Can theater chains withstand that long, will Hollywood persevere, and how will our industry evolve when fear may keep box office numbers insufficient even when the all-clear is given for intimate interaction once again? Things will return to “normal” eventually, hopefully before our hair grows into Joe Dirt mullets. “Normal” might just adopt new meanings, so don’t take for granted what we have, fighting those good fights, in the now.
Featured Image: Cinestate/Fangoria