I’m at a spanking new local cinema for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Don’t ask). The film is playing at a small 90-seat house, on a smallish typical multiplex screen. This cinema has gone through a major renovation. It has new, but narrower, leather seats, supposedly new projectors and somewhat better sound proofing. The ticket price went up a little because of the renovation, but that’s OK because I paid HK$188 (US$24) for a yearlong membership that gives me 20% discount. I’ll make that money back in discounts in no time.
The projector starts, three ads – two of them for credit card loans – play, followed by several trailers. The Baywatch trailer got less laughs than I’d expected, which makes me wonder whether the film will do well.
The film begins, and I finally spot it – A small, blue pixel around the left-center section of the screen. I know that it’s probably from the projector and not the print, but I was hoping that it might go away once Guy Ritchie cuts to the next shot of the giant elephants.
It doesn’t. The dot is there for the entire film, and I can’t help but stare at it when the film gets boring, which is more often than I’d like. It’s been a month since the cinema opened, and that’s how long the dot has been there. I know because I’d watched Power Rangers (again, don’t ask) on that very same screen a month earlier and thought the dot was just a growing pain that would be resolved during the soft opening period.
A blue dot on a small screen hardly represents all the problems with going to the movies in Hong Kong, but add that to unusually dim projection, terrible soundproofing, cancellation of ticket discounts during peak periods, steep price hikes (Wanna watch a film that’s over 135 minutes? Prepare to pay an extra $10!), less-than-ideal screening scheduling for small films, and the deterioration of audience behavior, cinema management is not making moviegoing easier for anyone. And the real estate market in Hong Kong is contributing to that with outrageous rents that challenge even large cinema chains backed by huge corporations.
Hong Kong is not the only city in the world with problematic cinemas. Chinese cinemas have a track record of behaving badly, Korean cinema screenings come with ten minutes of ads, Japanese cinemas…OK, moviegoing in Japan is fantastic, but so few people are going to the cinemas that the film industry rely on TV drama/comic/novel adaptations most of the time to draw people. Yelp reviews for my neighborhood cinema in the US feature the word “bedbugs” way more often than I’d like.
I watch about 300 films a year, and that includes at least 3-4 cinema visits a week (3 a day during festival periods), with 99% of those tickets paid out of my own pocket. I also pay for Netflix, Amazon Video, Mubi, Festival Scope, various movie channels on my IPTV and iTunes.
If there is anyone who is more obsessed than me with paying for consuming films, that person should be questioning his/her life goals and e-mail me so I can buy him/her a beer. But I digress.
To keep track of film trends as a journalist and a film buff in Asia can be frustrating. Our consumption is entirely based on decisions of distributors, if they even buy the films we want to see at all. It can take well over a year for certain festival titles to reach this side of the world because of scheduling strategies, and when they do, distributors who are not releasing new Hollywood studio films or the big-budget Hong Kong-China co-productions face trigger happy cinema operators who are all too eager to take out screenings to fit more people into a screening of the latest blockbuster. With the farthest arthouse cinema being just a 45-minute trip away, I can fit my life around those odd screening times most of the time. But that’s not how most film buffs, let alone regular people, operate.
The film industry is a machine, run by many gears that are oiled by money, including production companies, sales companies, distributors, exhibitors, film festivals, and media organizations that rely on industry access and advertisement money to cover the industry. I myself am a minuscule gear in that machine as a former trade journalist, a blogger who covers the film industry, a writer/translator for local film companies, as well as a magazine editor whose job is to encourage people to watch films in airplanes. My livelihood depends on this machine being well-oiled.
During the jury press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, a journalist asked jury president Pedro Almodovar if he would rather win the Palme d’Or or have a film that would be released in 199 countries. However, I think she was asking the wrong question to the wrong person. Almodovar is a veteran award-winning filmmaker with his own production company and a reputation that would easily earn him financing for his films (as long as he keeps them at his usual budget, of course), largely thanks to the effectiveness of that well-oiled machine.
She should’ve asked Bong Joon-ho, who had to fight an American distributor who demanded him to cut 20 minutes from Snowpiercer, whether he would rather win the Palme d’Or or work with a company who would give him US$50 million (a budget that a Korean company would never be able to afford) and let him make the film he wants to make.
Ask the film buffs in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan whether they would be able to see a festival circuit film at a single local festival screening that would be their only chance to see the film because no local distributor wants to buy a US indie film with no star or a southeast Asian indie.
Ask the Japanese indie filmmaker whose film is only getting a one-week, one-show-per-night release in a mini-theater because Tokyo is running out of cinemas that would show indie and foreign arthouse films – a problem that came way before Netflix and other streaming services joined the scene.
Ask the Hong Kong filmmaker who’s tired of making concessions for the mighty China Money. Or ask my podcast partner, who has to make a five-hour trip just to watch a new Hong Kong film in a cinema because he lives in a small town in the US.
When Netflix went global, it had a problem – it needed time to negotiate with distributors of individual countries to expand their catalog, and all it did was give time for people to express their disappointment that Netflix hadn’t been able to work through the messy rights deals to give them the American shows they wanted to see in their part of the world. That’s why it began to spend money on its own content that it could distribute worldwide and attract subscribers. That’s why it had to attract big stars and reputable filmmakers with the promise of creative freedom and simultaneous global distribution. For a filmmaker working with Netflix, the trade-off for creative freedom and guaranteed global distribution is that most of the world won’t get to see his/her film in a cinema, but rather on a tablet, a smartphone, or at best, a large television.
It’s a difficult deal, but as someone who’s been to film school, I believe that most of my classmates (including a two-time HK Film Award nominated scriptwriter) would take the Netflix deal in a second.
(Since we’re purely discussing on a theoretical level, let’s forget about gripes about how Netflix pay too little to indie filmmakers for all-rights deals. It’s another debate for another time)
I love the cinematic experience. Even on that small-ish screen with the blue dot, I know that I wouldn’t be able to recreate the experience of watching a giant elephant battle in a theater with the speakers and 42-inch TV I have at home. I’ve flown to other countries just to watch movies in the cinemas at film festivals. I’ve watched films in an opera house (LOVE the Teatro Nuovo in Udine, by the way), the 2000-seat Grand Lumiere theater in Cannes, a 30-seat arthouse cinema in Seoul and a small 40-seat Hong Kong cinema with a handprint running across the left side of the screen. I love watching films in a dark room on a large screen, enveloped into the world of those stories. I always encourage people to take in the big screen experience if there’s a choice. But if I’m trying to recommend an independent Korean film or a Bollywood movie to people, whether they have easy access to it matters more to me than the cinematic experience they would never be able to get via the traditional model.
That brings us back to Okja. Even before the aspect ratio projection problem came up at the Cannes screening, people booed the Netflix logo. My guess is that the hecklers are either 1) super grumpy that it’s 8:30 in the morning, or 2) truly believing that Netflix is taking audiences away from cinemas. That’s why they boo Amazon (more on that later), and if Apple ever produces a film, I’m sure the logo would get booed because they probably think that iTunes is destroying the cinema experience, too. In fact, it’ll probably get double the boos for killing music.
However, I believe that the real reason that Netflix is getting such a big pushback in Cannes from many in the film industry is because they challenge the workings of the machine. As the New York Times reported, the French cultural exception law has a very strict media chronology term for film releases – theatrical release, followed by video-on-demand release after four months, cable television after 10, free television after 22, then finally streaming services after 36. The argument has been all about protecting the sanctity of the cinematic experience, but it certainly seems more like the law is about protecting exhibitors (French cinema owners have seats on the Cannes Film Festival’s board) and media conglomerates who own television networks and video-on-demand services. In other words, they don’t like that Netflix is throwing a wrench into the gears of the machine, because let’s face it, how many of those cinema owners are really going to give Okja a wide release over Fast & Furious 9 or a new Transformers film?
“Why can’t Netflix be like Amazon and do a short theatrical release before putting it on streaming?”
Amazon’s ability to become accepted as part of the machine (look at Manchester By The Sea’s success at the Oscars this year) is by snapping up theatrical rights and working with distributors in the US on a traditional distribution window (including a paid VOD period) before putting it on Amazon’s unlimited streaming service. Amazon’s films are distributed by Amazon only in the US – they only serve as the US distributor while sales companies sell off to local distributors in the rest of the world, who exercise traditional release strategies to determine release dates (most countries in Asia didn’t get Manchester until just before the Oscars, and Chi-raq was never released in Asia). Prime Video in Hong Kong doesn’t have a single Amazon Studios film because they all follow the traditional release model. That’s why Amazon doesn’t ruffle as many feathers (er, I mean gears) in the machine.
To make theatrical releases happen for Netflix’s productions, Netflix would have to either directly distribute in all 190 territories – something that only Hollywood studios can afford to do in most of the world – or find distribution partners in all their territories, who would likely refuse a day-and-date global theatrical release because one country’s perfect release date may be the worst weekend of the year for another.
What Netflix can do alternatively is select certain key territories and release all their original films theatrically in those countries (for Okja, that’s the US, UK and South Korea) shortly before a global release, but the money spent to properly market and distribute these films theatrically in multiple territories would probably be done at a loss, solely out of their need to appease part of the film industry and a number of film buffs. After all, how much money would I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore – the Grand Jury Prize winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – gross in Asia if there is an Asia-wide theatrical release before it went to streaming?
Netflix is stuck between a rock and a hard place – it wants respect from a well-oiled machine that believes its existence would throw the gears out of whack, and it also wants to satisfy a global customer base who feels like their monthly subscription fee entitles them to watch every (American) show ever made. What’s a global streaming giant to do?
At the same time, I’ve expressed again and again on my podcast East Screen West Screen that I understand how many companies still rely on the traditional distribution strategy to make their investments back. I also believe that a country like South Korea would not have been able to gain respectability in the global film festival circuit/industry as quickly as it did (for example, five Korean films in the Cannes official selections this year) had the sale divisions of their film companies not play the machine so well.
As a film buff who loves watching a 35mm print of a film on a large cinema screen as much as the idea of being able to watch the new Bong Joon-ho film as soon as it’s released for the rest of the world, I share the same opinion that Tilda Swinton expressed at the Okja press conference: “There’s room for everybody.”
For what it’s worth, at least Netflix will show Okja in the correct aspect ratio – something that even the Grand Lumiere technical staff had trouble doing for 8 boo-filled minutes.
Also read: How Netflix can save Hong Kong cinema