With the unprecedented multiplatform release of Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England, LWLies considers the ever-shifting paradigm of film distribution.
Disillusioned by a traditional film marketing system that had seen his debut feature, Clerks, take seven years to become profitable, in January 2011 Kevin Smith decided to try something new.
Assembling a crowd of potential buyers at Sundance, ostensibly with the intention of auctioning off distribution rights to his latest film, Red State, Smith duly set about blindsiding everyone. Announcing that he would tour the film across North America before releasing it directly to DVD and video-on-demand, Smith sold the rights to himself for $20. "It’s not just about making the movie, " he declared to the crowd. "It’s about releasing the movie. True independence is not about handing your work over to some jackass.”
Though most probably wouldn’t choose to put it quite as bluntly, it’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by many. Last year, Kids director Larry Clark chose to release Marfa Girl exclusively through his website as a means of bypassing what he referred to as "crooked Hollywood distributors," with no intention of seeking a theatrical or DVD release. Meanwhile, his former protégé, Harmony Korine, toyed with the idea of 'releasing' Trash Humpers by "leaving the film on a sidewalk somewhere," before deciding to take ownership of it for himself.
Earlier this year, Shane Carruth elected to self-distribute his second directorial effort, Upstream Color, away from the confines of the conventional model. Concerned with how a studio might have chosen to represent his film, Carruth was eager to retain control of the film’s marketing. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in January, he elaborated further. "As a filmmaker, you try to make a compelling case for an audience to stick around minute by minute… Hopefully for viewers, framing the film this way and staying true to the film’s intent makes it a bit more of an intimate relationship."
With the likes of Clark, Smith and Carruth opting to 'self-distribute' their work, it’s little surprise that others are following suit, with the paradigm shifting increasingly in favour of the independents. "In the States, I think that’s very much where everything’s going now," muses A Field In England producer Andy Starke. "In five years time when every single piece of entertainment is on a server somewhere that’s being downloaded to your phone or to the cinema, it’s just going to seem ludicrous that people gatekeep stuff."
In May, Film4 raised eyebrows following the announcement that A Field In England, Ben Wheatley’s trippy follow-up to Sightseers, would be arriving in July, launching simultaneously in Picturehouse cinemas, on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray, accompanied by a television broadcast on Film4 that same evening. While simultaneous VOD-theatrical releases are nothing new, the inclusion of a broadcast on a free-to-air channel was unheard of, but it’s a decision that seems to have struck a chord with audiences.
"I’m personally of the opinion that audiences do not understand structures that have a set number of weeks or months before they can get hold of something," observes Anna Higgs, Commissioning Editor for Film4.0, Film4’s new innovation banner under which A Field In England was developed. "With the Netflix model, with things like House Of Cards, TV has really led the way that you can be watching things. There are emerging behaviours that mean that audiences are thinking: 'Why can’t I watch my cinema like this?'"
With a multitude of viewing options now on offer to consumers, opportunities are continually emerging for filmmakers to subvert convention, broadening the scope for their films to reach the widest audience possible. Nevertheless, the proposition of a civil war-set acid trip was always going to be an intriguing sell to a mainstream audience. But while A Field In England would doubtless have found an audience of its own accord, its multiplatform release strategy in partnership with Film4 and Picturehouse, which was discussed relatively early on in the development process, has afforded the film an unparalleled marketing opportunity.
"We knew that we were dealing with a niche film and we also knew we were dealing with a film that we weren’t going to have a large P&A budget for," explains Gabriel Swartland, Head of Communications at Picturehouse. "When you throw TV in to the mix, what that suddenly brought to the table was a huge amount of marketing welly that we would not otherwise have for a film of this size."
For producer Andy Starke, the decision to release the film on multiple platforms was as much a reaction to the technology available to filmmakers today as an attempt to broaden the film’s audience. "The reason we’re out to make films and the reason we made out first feature film was because of technology. I don’t want to spend my life as a producer having meetings about financing for films that never get made. And it’s much more important to me to be making films and getting stuff out there. With digital distribution and digital programming, if you’ve got a screen at a cinema, you don’t have to run that film on every slot on that screen. You can programme it in a much more clever way. The practicalities of the technology allow people to be much more flexible."
Working with Picturehouse enabled the team at Film4 to tailor a promotional strategy that would appeal much more broadly. "By working together, we get to produce something that’s very much the sum of its parts in terms of the campaign," explains Higgs. "Working directly with cinemas and exhibitors is really interesting because they know their audience in a way that none of us in other parts of the film industry really do. It’s about kind of trying to get a Venn diagram to work with the film being the exciting proposition at the heart of it."
The approach isn’t without its risks of course, and Swartland is cautious about free-to-air broadcasts becoming a regular fixture. "That’s going to be an absolutely massive hurdle for any distributor to cross for a more commercial title," he concedes. "We’ve got a channel behind the production of this film, so immediately we’re in a position that the majority of other films don’t have. I don’t think the same approach is going to be something that we see in the near future. We believe people will come to the cinema to experience film the way the filmmakers intended. If anything, we hope this experiment will confirm some of those assumptions."
The crux of the issue boils down to ownership, however, and the idea that the filmmakers' relationship with a film extends well beyond its completion. "It’s about being really close to the film and being engaged with it,” says Starke. "We’re doing a double Vinyl album soundtrack and an online masterclass. We want people to know that we care about it. It’s about doing more than that. We like what we’re doing. It just seems to make sense to me. We’re not churning stuff out to make a load of cash, although it would be nice if it did," he laughs. "We’ll know in six month’s time if it was a really dumb idea or not!"