How filmmakers adapt in the era of direct-to-streaming releases.

Estimated read time 7 min read


During the time before the internet, it was considered a great embarrassment for a movie to be released straight to video. This category, which could be found at discount stores or gas stations, was typically reserved for low-quality films such as Disney spin-offs, questionable erotic thrillers, rejected Troma films, and hyperactive ninja movies starring Michael Dudikoff.

But this cinematic silt had a certain trashy sustenance value and the random delight of the tombola. Now straight-to-video is no more, and instead we have straight-to-streaming: hundreds of feature-length films are dumped online every year (to be precise, 107 to streaming in the US alone in 2022, and then there is the TVoD pay-per-view market on top). A few of us at the Guardian sift these releases every week, and I am often stunned by the creativity and levels of invention on show down there. Especially since the pandemic, when the number of releases ballooned, streaming has been the place for a go-for-broke freedom rarely glimpsed in the ossified corporate mainstream. Chillwave dream odysseys, hipster sasquatch hunters, subwoofers grafted into human flesh … the sights I have seen.

The COVID-19 pandemic was the main factor in the increase of popularity for streaming, according to Andrew Pulver, reviews editor for The Guardian. When theaters closed down, the publication turned to digital release calendars as a way to provide content for its readers. As theaters began to reopen, it was deemed unfair to disregard digital releases once again. Pulver explains that digital releases are not limited to low-quality thrillers or cheesy Christmas romantic comedies. There are also intriguing categories such as art documentaries, elevated horror, and non-commercial studio films that deserve attention. Otherwise, the publication would be neglecting vibrant industries and falling prey to aggressive marketing tactics from larger studios.

I often question how many individuals actually watch these online curiosities. Does streaming a film really benefit a filmmaker’s career? It seems even critics do not pay much attention to niche streaming titles, as they rarely make it onto end-of-year film lists. However, one film that should have been included is the Canadian thriller Violation, which brilliantly reinvents the rape-revenge genre and is one of only three films I have ever given a five-star rating. Originally premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 2020 to a physically distanced audience, it was ultimately released on streaming platforms due to the pandemic.

However, the director Madeleine Sims-Fewer explains that the film was designed to excel in a less regulated area. During her initial discussions with co-director Dusty Mancinelli, she recalls saying, “This is our debut feature with a budget of $500,000. It’s also possibly the only time we won’t have anyone dictating our actions as we’re also the producers. So this could be our only opportunity in the next decade to truly go all out and express everything we want to say.”

The movie was acquired by the online horror streaming platform Shudder. Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli had a positive experience working with both Shudder and their sales agent, XYZ. However, three years later, they still have not received any information on the viewership numbers for their film, Violation. Shudder claims that, like most streaming platforms, they do not publicly release this information but do keep filmmakers informed. While they had creative freedom, as young directors, they had less bargaining power and were unable to negotiate a more favorable deal. According to Mancinelli, the current system is designed to benefit distributors and sales agents, particularly for emerging filmmakers who have little leverage. It is difficult to change the traditional structure of these deals.

One reason for the unequal distribution is because sales representatives are under pressure to make quick profits from initial sales, particularly in the fleeting online market. According to Mancinelli, films like this have a short period of success and are easily forgotten afterwards, making it difficult for sales agents to secure new purchases and territories. The situation was worsened by the swift piracy of Violation, which further hindered sales. However, this cut-throat digital business setting is not conducive for emerging directors. Sims-Fewer comments that there seems to be a lack of distributors who prioritize building long-term, meaningful relationships with filmmakers.

The Violation team had a supportive experience compared to others when their debut feature, Danny. Legend. God., was released. Yavor Petkov, an independent Bulgarian director, invested $85,000 of his own money, earned from working in financial-crime prevention, into the film. The film centers around Dimo Alexiev’s unforgettable performance as a coercive Balkans wideboy, and it left a lasting impression on viewers. Similar to Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli, Petkov does not have specific figures for the film’s success. He estimates that it did poorly overall. In the UK, the film was released through Trinity Creative Partnership and distributed by Reel2Reel Films. As of now, Petkov has not received any royalties or profits from the film beyond the initial sales licensing fee.

Danny Legend God.View image in fullscreen

Petkov had the idea to create a movie focusing on corruption in Bulgaria, inspired by the controversial film Man Bites Dog. He believed that these types of films were not being made anymore and he wanted to be the one to bring it back. However, he faced difficulties in getting his film produced and distributed. Despite his efforts as a producer, he was unsuccessful in securing support from festival-film development labs and only managed to secure a small release in Bulgaria. He then turned to promoting his project at the Berlin film festival, where he eventually caught the attention of a sales agent who was able to secure a single sale after three years of trying: to Trinity.

Petkov claims that Reel2Reel abruptly ended their partnership with Danny, which he believes is a highly praised film. He believes that Reel2Reel’s strategy involves acquiring a large number of films, knowing that only a few will generate profit. Despite reaching out to multiple critics who typically enjoy thought-provoking films like Wake in Fright, the lack of marketing and support from Reel2Reel resulted in Danny. Legend. God. receiving minimal attention and praise on platforms like Amazon and Apple. The Guardian was the only publication to initially review the film, and Petkov had to actively seek out other critics for coverage. Unfortunately, the film struggled to gain traction and was ultimately overlooked online. (Reel2Reel declined to comment on the matter.)

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Perhaps his personal experience may not be a typical representation. However, in the unpredictable world of streaming, there is a delicate balance between creative freedom and visibility. Unique and undefinable films like Danny. Legend. God. – not quite mainstream or strictly arthouse – struggle to succeed. On the other hand, genre films have a better chance. Petkov, who has been discouraged by his difficult journey, has no intention of making another full-length film. The economics of online streaming simply do not make sense, especially if you are funding the project yourself. He mentions a friend who made a film shot on an iPhone and received 160,000 views on Amazon, but was only paid $500 by the platform.

Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli, who have just finished a second feature, also lament the nebulous nature of online releases. It not only robbed them of close interaction with people who viscerally connected with a project that was highly personal to them, but also on a practical market research level, of a strong sense of who their future audience might be. Which is a strange thing to say, given all the data supposedly available through digital means.

Some individuals see streaming as a platform for starting a career, citing examples such as BlackBerry executive Matt Johnson who kickstarted his career with the web series Nirvanna the Band the Show, as well as the recent Canadian horror film Skinamarink. However, getting noticed is crucial. Actress Sims-Fewer states, “It’s definitely achievable, it’s a promising environment. But there’s a lot of competition.” With such an abundant pool of content and audiences craving for originality, we could be utilizing this resource more effectively.


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