One of the most widely anticipated films of 2018 has just been released on Netflix in the UK. And for us, it was well worth a watch. Alex Garland’s Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac and Jennifer Jason Leigh is a sci-fi thriller of great scale, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s first novel in his Southern Reach trilogy.
The plot centres around a group of military scientists entering and investigating an alien dimension that has formed on Earth, within a US national park. The alien zone is known as “The Shimmer” and is a mysterious and potentially dangerous place for both scientists who are within it and the wider world.
The film has received critical acclaim and widespread praise for the acting, direction, visuals and screenplay however it has also reignited debate around how and when films are released on demand; through streaming partners such as Netflix and Amazon versus traditional movie theatres. What has made Annihilation so unusual in this arena, is the delivery of it’s release differing so wildly between UK and US markets.
Given a VOD only release in the UK, the film has been distributed and opened in movie theatres in the US, Canada and China. So why did Paramount decide to effectively ignore cinemas in the UK and Europe for such a big release? And what does this decision show us about future movie releases in cinemas versus on demand?
Having enjoyed the overall film, marvelling throughout at the cinematography and plot of Annihilation, we were in the first instance disappointed at not having been able to enjoy this on a bigger screen, with the benefits that Dolby Atmos or IMAX can bring to big sci-fi films. This film was crafted to be shown at a cinema, for viewers to be immersed in the environment to which Garland created. And that maximises the value of sound and visual technology, housed in cinemas, not in your living room.
Garland has been both supportive and critical of the decision to not give the film a cinema release in Europe – he acknowledges the benefits of Netflix launching it, in that it gives the film access to a wider audience and none of the box office opening weekend focus. However, it also means the UK audience is seeing this release not as it was originally intended. We can only presume that Paramount’s decision to go straight to VOD is another example of a studio not wanting to bet on anything other than concrete box office hits, like the latest Marvel release or Pixar animation. The most obvious show to date of distributors being extremely risk averse.
What is unusual about this film is that it isn’t a niche, independent film that would not get an audience in UK cinemas. It’s a sci-fi offering (so historically has shown to be a good horse to back in cinemas), with Oscar winning leads and a $40 million budget. It would have normally had at least a two week stint at the box office in the UK. So what does this mean for my local multiplex? Are cinemas going to stop showing anything other than Disney produced fare?
As with any good story, there are highlights and plot twists. Annihilation has shown that you can release a big budget film, get general praise and acclaim and not have an opening weekend at the box office. It’s also proven that audiences do want to see certain types of films on the big screen, especially if they were crafted to be enjoyed in a cinema setting. There has been a fair amount of noise, (not too dissimilar to our own feedback) which is based on audiences wanting to see films like this in a cinema. For films to maximise the benefits of a cinema environment. Which is a huge positive for venues that are struggling with admissions year on year.
Most significantly though, it’s shown that there is a new mainstream model of distribution arriving on our shores, an optioned VOD and box office release. That we may just see more and more VOD only releases in the future. This means that cinemas are going to have to sell even harder to audiences, why you should see a film on the big screen and not at home. Especially if you’re not especially bothered about the cinema experience. Local multiplexes will need to look at customer feedback and data even more closely to understand where to focus their efforts and where to cut their cloth.
We welcome being able to access new films through services such as Netflix. In fact, we’d happily pay more (subscription or not) to get access to a wider programme of films through these services. Not only would it potentially limit the damage done to the industry by people illegally downloading the latest releases online but it opens up the door to a much broader array of visual arts. Hit us with more foreign films and independent offerings that barely get a 25 cinema release!
But this doesn’t have to be done at the expense of a trip to your local cinema- on the contrary, Annihilation being only available via Netflix has emphasised the importance of cinemas in the UK for showing films, the way they were made to be seen. It does mean that cinemas will need to work even harder for their place in the factory line, especially when it comes to programming. They will need to fight to show the films it thinks will do well commercially as well as offering a really great experience for customers every time they visit. So that when the decision comes to whether to see a certain type of film in the cinema or in a living room, people make the best and most enjoyable choice.