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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder