Cinema on demand: the top five places to watch new films online

Cinema is dead, long live cinema!

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.

HBO UK

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

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.

Blinkbox

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.

Film4oD

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.

A still from the film Lore, recently released in cinemas and online.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.