The second most famous line in Sunset Boulevard comes near the beginning. Joe Gillis has broken down and is looking for help with his car. He pulls into the garage outside a seemingly empty mansion, where he is assumed to be an undertaker by the Miss Havisham-like figure lurking inside. She is wrapped up in a leopard print robe and hides behind dark glasses. Gillis turns to leave. "Wait a minute, have I seen you before?" he says. "Get out!" the woman commands. "You used to be in silent pictures, you’re Norma Desmond! You used to be big.” Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, straightens her back and lowers her gaze. “I am big,” she informs him. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
She was right. Today many of us are as familiar with watching movies on a tiny laptop, mobile phone or tablet screen as with going to the cinema. You can order DVDs through the post, download new releases legally from iTunes or stream on demand from a growing number of back catalogues online. The model that held following the advent of video – cinematic release, home release, television – has broken down. With House of Cards and Arrested Development being funded and released simultaneously on Netflix, what reason is there to stop movies being produced in the same way? While mammoth international releases are unlikely to relinquish their box office potential; small, independent productions limited to big city art houses, are taking advantage of the potential for immediate release online.
A contemporary example. The German film Lore is currently on limited release, mainly in independent and specialist cinemas. Its distributor, Artificial Eye, is part of the same company that owns the Curzon Cinemas and launched Curzon on Demand last year. Now you have a choice: watch the film at home or at the cinema. This is exciting because it has the potential to provide greater exposure to films – art house, foreign language, short, experimental and documentary films – that would otherwise fail to make it to widespread release.
But what does this mean for film as an art form, cinema as an experience? Squinting in the dark, listening to baseless audio and leaving poor Joe Gillis floating in the pool while your broadband buffers itself stupid, or worse, you are subjected to adverts - is this really the way we want to watch films? The jury is out and the precise direction of simultaneous distribution is unclear. Below are five of the most interesting services available in the UK, each approaching on-demand viewing in their own way. The list is by no means exhaustive, so let us know of any (legal) alternatives below.
The most famous line from Sunset Boulevard comes at the end. Norma is lost to her cinematic delusions. The times have changed and so have the pictures. “All right, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up," she announces to the camera. She's not alone.
Curzon on Demand
Currently available online and on Apple devices, Curzon on Demand works much like a bespoke iTunes for independent cinema fans. New releases cost £10 (£9 for Curzon members) and viewers are provided HD streaming for seven days. Because CoD isn’t a subscription service, there is no free trial. Because they are connected to Artificial Eye, arguably the finest selection of independent and foreign films released in the UK rests at your finger tips, for £3 or £4 a pop.
In Britain we have are used to receiving light versions of successful US services. A number of companies (Xfinity and Hulu, for example) have designs upon the UK market, but like Netflix before them, are likely to encounter licensing and pricing difficulties. In the States, the cable TV provider HBO (aside from providing box sets in advance at the rate of one episode a week) is responsible for producing feature-length television dramas and high quality documentaries. They have a little-known British cousin: HBO UK. Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God was made for HBO, and is available to stream online in the US, while on at a small number of cinemas in the UK.
Mubi has existed in various forms since 2008. The Turkish-born entrepreneur Efe Cakarel decided that given so many people were already watching films online, there had to be a way to “monetise” the phenomenon. In its current form, Mubi offers users a new film every day, available to stream for one month, curated by the company’s editorial team. They also run a neat digital film magazine, Notebook, which keeps users up to date on film news, and explains the rationale behind their selections. For example, We Have a Pope became available when the current pontiff announced he was doing a runner, Proud to be British kicks off a Nick Broomfield retrospective, and Martin Scorsese’s personal account of Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy, was made available to coincide with the general election. The service costs £2.99 per month, a price which is liable to rise, but you can get a free month here.
Tesco entered the online streaming bizz in 2011 when it bought a majority share in video-on-demand service Blinkbox. The service attempts to rival iTunes by offering a massive array of TV shows and movies priced between 99p and £3.49. Interestingly, it also offers a number for free, with adverts spliced into the heart of the action 4od or SkyGo style. It does not offer the same video quality and easy of use iTunes does (particularly for Mac users), but because it is Tesco, in-store promotions are quite common.
There is a lot of power behind Film4oD. Not only does Film 4 play a large part in distributing a great many British films, their video-on-demand provider FilmFlex is co-owned by Sony Pictures and Disney. As a result, it offers wide-release movies – Skyfall, On the Road, Taken 2 – somewhere between initial launch and DVD/rental release. Among these are excellent indie films which fall into the same category: This is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi, Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio and the superb documentary McCullin. It offers 48-hour online streaming or download options, and films cost up to £3.99. There are no subscription fees and the site is neatly curated. One to watch.
The market for on-demand viewing is in flux. Google, Amazon and Apple all have nascent “instant” or “on demand” services, mostly channelling diverse subscriptions into one place. The Guardian has established a “screening room” which provides content via Distrify, a business which tries to sell premium "content" through already popular sites. The BBC’s iPlayer should not be underestimated. Its films come and go quickly, but there is always something there worth a look.