Indie Cinema Online
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Indie Cinema Online

Sarah E.S. Sinwell

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eBook - ePub

Indie Cinema Online

Sarah E.S. Sinwell

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About This Book

Indie Cinema Online investigates the changing nature of contemporary American independent cinema in an era of media convergence. Focusing on the ways in which modes of production, distribution, and exhibition are shifting with the advent of online streaming, simultaneous release strategies, and web series, this book analyzes sites such as SundanceTV, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, and other online spaces as a means of redefining independent cinema in a digital era. Analyzing the intersections among cinema studies, cultural studies, and new media studies within contemporary convergence culture, author Sarah E.S. Sinwell looks at sites of media convergence that are often ignored within most studies of digital media. Emphasizing the ways in which the forms and technologies of media culture have changed during the age of convergence, this book analyzes contemporary production, distribution, and exhibition practices as a means of examining the changing meanings of independent cinema within digital culture.

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Indie via Instant Viewing

Now Streaming on Netflix and Hulu
As the 2018 Academy Awards approached, the question as to whether such Netflix films as Mudbound (Dee Rees, 2017) and Okja (Bong Joon-ho, 2017) would receive Oscar consideration came to the fore. In order to be eligible for the Oscars, films must be publicly exhibited “for paid admission in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County.” This is significant for films on streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, since they may not be exhibited publicly (or they may only receive an extremely limited theatrical release).1 Purchased for $12.5 million at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and the first Netflix feature film to compete in the Academy Awards, Mudbound won no Oscars, but it did receive four nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Song. Whereas it received an extremely limited theatrical release in only eleven U.S. cities on the same day it became available for online streaming in November 2017, six months later more than 20 million hours of Mudbound had been streamed on Netflix.2 Though Okja did not receive any Oscar nominations, during its screening at the Cannes Film Festival, the Netflix title card was reportedly booed, and Cannes later announced that films that do not receive theatrical exhibition in France would no longer receive consideration at the festival.3 With these limited theatrical releases, Netflix films such as Mudbound and Okja are pushing the limits of traditional modes of theatrical exhibition by dramatically shortening (and even eradicating) the strategy of windowing (the time between theatrical release and distribution on home video or streaming sites). Usually averaging about four weeks, the theatrical windows on streaming sites such as Netflix and Hulu are shrinking to zero or just a few days.
John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, stated, “We see Netflix as basically trying to use theaters as a marketing platform for awards and to get their subscribers juiced about their movies. But we don’t see them seriously interested in the business of theatrical exhibition.”4 Offering up new possibilities for accessing the means of production, distribution, and exhibition, streaming sites such as Netflix and Hulu create new online spaces (and nontheatrical audiences) for independent films. In this chapter, I focus on the ways in which instant access to independent films online redraws the relationships between independent film producers and the corporate entities that distribute and exhibit these films on new media and online platforms. Analyzing the ways in which the availability of independent films online through streaming has impacted the visibility and popularity of independent filmmaking, this chapter argues that the immediacy of screening indie films via Netflix and Hulu has created new (nontheatrical) access to distribution and exhibition while also limiting the possibilities of this access, since these companies’ film catalogs frequently vary according to their ill-defined distribution deals with larger companies such as Fox and Disney.
As Barbara Klinger has noted in Beyond the Multiplex, cinema exists as a “schizophrenic identity”; “it exists as both a theatrical medium projected on celluloid and as a nontheatrical medium.”5 As she writes, cinema has always existed outside the confines of the theater itself: in “street carnivals, amusement parks, opera houses, tents, ocean liners, airplanes, schools, prisons, churches, museums.”6 Thus, it is not only in an era of media convergence that cinema has existed outside the multiplex. Since its inception, cinema’s distribution and exhibition patterns have been constantly in flux. In the current era of media convergence, cinema’s meaning is being rewritten as viewers experience cinema on their computers, tablets, and cell phones. However, this proliferation of screens impacts not only the content that is available but also the audience’s viewing patterns, particularly in terms of access and control.
Chris Anderson points out in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More that companies like Netflix and Hulu seem to offer unlimited access to programming.7 However, this chapter will argue that this seemingly unlimited access is in fact limited by the ever-changing film catalogs of these sites. As Chuck Tryon notes in On-Demand Culture, “Despite the promises of digital utopias, on-demand culture is characterized not by universal access but by the process of limiting and restricting when and where content is available.”8 This chapter addresses the ways in which these restrictions and limitations impact the availability of independent films on Netflix and Hulu.
These new modes of independent film viewing have led indie viewing audiences to move from outside the cinema into the home, car, subway, train, and bus stop. This mobility of video access across platforms such as phones, tablets, and laptops has also enabled indie audiences to grow. Whereas prior to these streaming practices, indie films were primarily available at art house theaters (often only in urban centers) or video stores,9 online streaming brings both more availability and more variety to audiences that otherwise may not have had access to these independent films.
Thus, this chapter investigates not only the ways in which streaming video technologies have cemented viewers’ desires for on-demand culture but also how this has impacted the popularity and growth of independent cinema online. As Wheeler Winston Dixon notes in Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access, the streaming landscape is in a state of “constant permutation.”10 Though, at the time of this writing, other streaming sites such as Amazon, Criterion, Kanopy, SnagFilms, Rivit, NoBudge, IndieFlix, and Tugg also host a variety of independent films, this chapter addresses both Netflix and Hulu as two of the streaming sites in which independent films are most prolific.
Taking a three-pronged approach to this study, I will first focus on the ways in which media convergence structures streaming sites such as Netflix and Hulu by mapping out how indie film production, distribution, and exhibition are shifting in this context. Next, I will focus on independent programming itself as a means of defining the relationship between Netflix, immediacy, and indie branding. Finally, I will examine the ways in which Hulu’s corporate interests intertwine with those of independent and documentary filmmakers. To this end, this chapter aims to uncover the ways in which online streaming on Netflix and Hulu both enables and limits modes of access to independent films.

Infinite Access to Indie Cinema? Netflix, Hulu, and Media Convergence

This section examines the ways in which media convergence impacts access to independent films on Netflix and Hulu. I use the term “convergence” because of its explicit investment in integrating studies of the media industry and its audiences with changing media distribution and exhibition practices.11 As Henry Jenkins has famously argued, media convergence is “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want.”12 In this context, convergence “represents a paradigm shift” toward the interdependence of different media delivery channels and more complex relationships between corporate and independent media. At the same time, as Bolter and Grusin indicate, the convergence of the telephone, television, and the computer leads to a seemingly endless supply of entertainment.13 As streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu continue to grow, so, too, does access to independent programming.
In his discussion of the histories of the videotape and the VCR, Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright, Lucas Hilderbrand points out that issues of access, aesthetics, and affect are also intertwined with video technologies.14 He argues that the VCR suggested “a shift toward a sense of access entitlement” and “a critical starting point in what might be called on-demand culture, wherein audiences want access to entertainment on their own terms: what they want, when they want it.”15 In Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store, Daniel Herbert has noted that “video stores increased Americans’ degree of access to movie culture … [and] fostered a conception of media abundance and catered to people’s sense of entitlement to this abundance”; video store culture enabled viewers to access video content physically, as “tangible, portable objects.”16 The invention of the remote control and the VCR afforded viewers more control over video content, enabling them to replay, slow down, and fast-forward at their leisure. The invention of online streaming not only allows this kind of control over content but also provides a fantasy of immediate access to a seemingly unlimited library of video content.
This concept of unlimited access and unlimited mobility can also be linked to Chris Anderson’s concept of the long tail,17 which points to the idea that companies such as Netflix and Hulu would “thrive on selling niche content rather than focusing solely on blockbuster hits.”18 This is particularly significant in relation to the digital distribution of independent films, since they are included among this niche content. As Chuck Tryon notes in his book On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies, this concept of “platform mobility” encompasses “the ongoing shift toward ubiquitous, mobile access to a wide range of entertainment choices.”19 At the same time, “the introduction of platform mobility complicates traditional concepts of medium specificity, creating a situation in which many of the technological and physical properties associated with film and television as media may no longer be relevant, forcing us to rethink our understanding of the media.”20
As Michael Newman points out in Indie: An American Film Culture, “Independent cinema has come to signify a parallel American cinema of feature films for exhibition venues that are alternatives to mainstream first-run exhibition.”21 In his discussion of film festivals, he notes that they “adopt art world categories rather than mass culture categories to classify films and identify their significant traits.”22 In the cases of Netflix and Hulu, it is the algorithms that create this taste culture as they encourage viewing of their own original programming as well as alternative categories such as “Independent Films with Strong Female Leads” or “Quirky Romantic Independent Comedies.” This also points to the ways in which the audience for independent film is changing as a result of these streaming options.
Expanding on Newman’s ideas, this chapter also points to the ways in which indie is constructed as a taste culture. According to Newman, indie cinema offers “an elite, culturally legitimate alternative to the mass-market Hollywood offerings of the multiplex.”23 To this end, streaming sites such as Netflix and Hulu incorporate ideas of indie cinema as high culture as a means of reinforcing streaming as a viable option for quality media viewing. This construction of indie cinema as “quality” and “high culture” also combats anxiety about the large quantity of banal programming on such sites.24 Yet, the ephemerality of these online locations for the streaming of independent films also points to the ways in which streaming is full of both endless possibilities (seemingly unlimited titles) and limitations (films may only be streamed for limited periods due to licensing restrictions).
At the same time, this chapter also addresses the growing integration of television and film as these online streaming services create not only feature-length independent films but also independently produced documentaries and television series intended for indie viewing audiences. Much of the media climate associated with the rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu reveals the convergence of film and television formats. In his essay “Indie TV: Innovation in Series Development,” Aymar Christian discusses the ways in which the industrial and distribution strategies for independent film change in the online video market.25 As Adam Sternbergh has noted in his blog for Slate, “The same swashbuckling energy that gave rise to the indie-film movement has migrated to TV programming online. By this analogy, Netflix is Miramax, Amazon is Fox...

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