How Indie Streamers Offer an Edgy Alternative to Netflix

Courtesy of Cannes
Matteo Garrone’s Cannes competition film 'Dogman.'

While the big players like Apple TV+ scour the market for mainstream fare with broad appeal, regional SVOD outlets are offering a new platform for the unconventional and niche: "We're not the model of 'sit back and chill.'"

Even Cannes, the bastion of the big screen cinema experience, knows streaming is inevitable. While the French film festival continues to defend the primacy of theatrical releases — and continues to ban Netflix from its competition — the independent film industry at the Cannes film market is scrambling to find a business model that will let them make money from streaming movies online. Netflix will be in Cannes, buying films if not screening them, and could generate some heat around certain titles, foreign-language films and documentaries in particular. But David Garrett of Mister Smith Entertainment notes that Netflix’s buyout policy makes them less attractive for many.

"There’s no upside on a Netflix deal so, apart from a warm glow, the number you negotiate with them is all you are going to get," he says. All eyes are on Apple, which launched its new SVOD service Apple TV+ shortly before Cannes and is expected to be shopping for titles at this year’s market. Apple’s buying strategy remains unclear, but sellers note the company will be focusing on quality over quantity and shying away from controversy in favor of family-friendly fare. "We get the sense they don’t want anything too extreme or radical," says one European sales agent. 

As the global streaming giants focus on mainstream, commercial fare (see Amazon’s seven-figure deals at Sundance for Mindy Kaling’s New York-set comedy Late Night and Jillian Bell starrer Brittany Runs a Marathon), producers of art house cinema are increasingly looking at alternative, independent platforms such as MUBI, which last year bought four films in Cannes for U.K. theatrical and online release; pan-European streamer Chilli, which has had success with Matteo Garrone’s Cannes competition film Dogman; and U.S.-based Kanopy, an on-demand streaming service for universities and public libraries that includes about 450 Cannes titles in its lineup.

"We’re not the Netflix model of 'sit back and chill.' We’re appointment viewing for our users," says Kanopy CEO Olivia Humphrey. "And we’re doubling down on our art house niche."

Adds Philip Mordecai of British distributor and cinema owner Curzon, "We’re not seeing any cannibalization of theatrical release from online; we’re actually seeing an increase in consummation across the board." Curzon added an SVOD service to their brick-and-mortar operation and successfully released titles such as Cannes best director winner Cold War on all platforms.

"The biggest challenge for independent cinema is to adjust the business model to how the audience wants to consume their content," says MUBI founder and CEO Efe Cakarel, noting that his company is crunching user data to inform its acquisitions strategy in Cannes. Revenue at MUBI doubled year-over-year in 2018, and the company just turned a net profit for the first time.

Recognizing the growing importance of indie VOD, the Cannes market will host a Meet the Streamers event on May 21, during which international indie streaming platforms can convene with sales agents and producers.

"We’re sitting down with these new players and hearing them out," says Christine D’Souza-Gelb of Endeavor Content. "Anything that brings more buyers to the table and more eyeballs to our films has to be a good thing."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 15 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.