Berlin: Indies Move to Cooperate, Not Clash, With Streamers

Pain and Glory Still - Publicity - H 2020

Indie distributors are finding new models to jointly buy and release films with SVOD platforms that both boost subscriptions and fill theater seats: "We want the entire industry to grow, online and off."

A few years back, the independent film industry was hit with what might be called near-term streamer anxiety. The rapid expansion of on-demand video platforms including Netflix and Amazon Prime, coupled with an apparent decline in box office for indie movies, fed the fear that SVOD would kill the cinema star.

Theatrical exhibitors and distributors made calls to boycott streamers from film festivals (Cannes, the most prestigious, complied) and battle lines were drawn. In the indie business, for a while it felt like you could either be for streaming or for cinema — but not both.

It all seems so 2016.

At this year’s European Film Market in Berlin, streaming is still on everyone’s mind, but the buzzword these days is not "confrontation," it’s "cooperation." Independent distributors are finding new models to jointly buy and release films with SVOD platforms in a way that both boosts subscriptions numbers and fills theater seats. Out of the U.S., boutique indies like Neon (which has an exclusive streaming deal with Hulu for its theatrical releases) and A24 (which inked a similar SVOD output agreement with Showtime late last year) see clear benefits in working with, not against, the streamers.

Mubi, a U.K.-based SVOD platform focused on art house titles, has seen success with its Mubi Go service, which offers free weekly movie tickets to its subscribers to leave the house and watch a film in a big dark theater with a bunch of strangers. These include titles Mubi distributes itself in the U.K., such as Malgorzata Szumowska’s Toronto Festival entry The Other Lamb, but also films released by other distributors. Mubi Go’s new service in India included free tickets to Knives Out and even the studio title Joker.

Mubi founder Efe Cakarel says the streamer-exhibitor team-up is mutually beneficial because they share "all the data on our users we possibly can" with exhibitors so they can better promote and market their movies. "We want the entire industry to grow, online and off," he says. "We want to champion great cinema."

Adds Jaume Ripoll, "It’s funny when people talk about this as a new trend, streamers and theaters cooperating, because we’ve been doing it since 2012." Ripoll is the co-founder of Spanish SVOD platform FilmIn, whose shareholders include Spanish art house distributors Golem, Avalon, Vertigo and Wanda Vision, as well as indie production shingles such as El Deseo, owned by Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar. FilmIn has doubled its subscriber base over the past year across Spain and Portugal by working closely with indie distributors, cross-promoting its releases, such as Pedro Almodóvar’s recent Oscar contender Pain and Glory, in exchange for exclusive rights to their titles after a four-month theatrical window.

"We need to bring people to the cinemas because most people who go to the theaters will pay for a movie subscription," says Ripoll. "This is our audience."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 22 daily issue at the Berlin International Film Festival.