When I was a kid, there were three ways for me to find out about movies. The first was what was scheduled at my local cinema. There was only one cinema in town at the time (I remember when the second was built, and it was a huge deal), but mostly it seemed to show a decent selection of what one would call “mainstream” movies and odd mid-budget films. Almost all of these came from the studio system, but not all of them were made with studio money.
The second was by browsing the films on offer at a video rental store. There were several of these around, and I would often spend hours picking up videos and looking at the artwork, reading the back and excitedly imagining what it might be. I didn’t have immediate access to the internet via my phone because… well, the internet wasn’t really a thing, and so the information on the box (and the clerk’s occasional opinion) was pretty much all I had to go on.
The final way was by simple catching it on TV, searching through the TV guide (which came in paper form!!!) or simply flicking through the channels and seeing what was on. Oftentimes this would lead to the strangest discoveries of all, especially with the likes of Alex Cox’s Moviedrome or BBC Two’s custom of playing old school horror movies in the early hours of the morning.
This isn’t meant to be a revelation or anything. Most people my age and older have exactly the same memories. And all the experiences of discovering movies had their faults, and they had their good bits. The cinema was an event, trailers shown pre-movie would get you excited for what was to come, and the options were far more varied than they are now. Meanwhile, the video rental and TV options were more like going in blind. You never had much information to go on beyond maybe a short summary and some reviewer quotes.
Most of my favorite movies were discovered this way, from The Wicker Man – which I happened to catch on TV late one night and was totally mortified by – to John Carpenter’s The Thing, which I so desperately pleaded with my parents to rent because of the weird two-headed man on the back on the video case.
These days films are way more accessible to everyone. The cinema options have simplified, with studios now more or less by-passing the smaller budget and mid-tier movies in favor of three or four “big” releases across the year, while the TV and video rental options have been replaced with a cacophony of streaming services, from Netflix to Amazon Prime.
And this isn’t a nostalgic “wasn’t it better then” post, this is all just context. I actually think today’s cinematic landscape, and the way in which we can discover previously unseen films, is far better. At least… it’s far easier. Type in a genre on Amazon Prime and it’ll throw up more films than you can shake a stick at, most of them you’ve probably never even heard of, and the trailers are often right there for you alongside the synopsis and an IMDB score.
I mean, in terms of looking for something to watch, that’s pretty much all the work done for you, right? And yet… we don’t seem to use this incredible box of goodies to do anything but binge-watch shows we already know we like and rewatch movies we’ve seen dozens of times before.
Back in the day (I had that expression) it would cost £3 to rent a movie and every movie I rented was pretty much a risk. I rented plenty of crappy films I’ll never bother to rewatch, many of which I don’t even honestly remember. But the fact that occasionally it would throw up a genuinely great film made the risk worth it. I loved it.
These days it costs you nothing - well, nothing but your time and the cost of the subscription you’re already paying – to click play and check out a film, and yet people have become far more selective in their viewing habits. Does that not strike anyone else as odd? I can’t remember the last time someone who wasn’t me said “I watched the great little movie online the other day”. Instead everyone is just talking about Stranger Things or when the latest Season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine will be dropping.
Not that I have anything against Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Seriously, even if you give the film half an hour before switching it off and watching something else, it’s still less of a risk than it was when I was renting Anaconda.
Look, I get the uncertainty with regards to the cinema. Not everyone is crazy like me, and the billion quid it costs to get a ticket these days means you’re going to stop to consider whether something is really worth your time. That makes sense, and while it’s a shame that studios seem to be pushing the smaller movies less and less with each passing day, I understand the audiences’ reluctance to go and see a movie they don’t really have any idea about.
But when you’re on a streaming service what’s the deal? Why aren’t we constantly discovering new gems, random indie films and the like? Basically, why aren’t you all watching Follow the Crows? It’s free if you have Amazon Prime. FREE! Give me money, dammit!
All joking aside, it seems a real shame that as the risk of discovering news films has lessened, and the ease of finding them has become… well, easier, we’ve stopped looking. I’m not saying this applies to all of you, of course, but it certainly a trend I have noticed, at least inside my own little bubble. And it’s a sad one. Much like straight to video when I was searching through shelves and flicking through channels at the age of 13, streaming should be a treasure trove of undiscovered potential. It has the potential to become a booming industry with a brand-new wave of B-Movie style indies waiting to be made cult for future generations.
To be clear, I'm not talking about studio backed "indies". You know the ones I mean. The ones that are "indies" in the sense that they're outside of the Hollywood mainstream, but in all other sense of the word they're not. I'm talking about the real indies. The DIY filmmakers, the one's putting stuff out there that costs next to nothing and was made solely through passion. They were the ones that, when VOD streaming first became I thing, I was the most excited about.
Why is it that this simply hasn't taken off in quite the way I hoped it would? Is it because there's just too much out there? Is it too difficult to wade through the literal thousands upon thousands of movies? Is it, possibly, that our time has become more precious now, politics and technology moves so fast, perhaps life does too? Or is it that the studios moving to three or four bigger movies a year means that all mid-tier projects have fallen to VOD themselves, and therefore the truly lower-budget, independent movies get knocked off in favour of Martin Scorsese (seriously, why wouldn't you give Scorsese a studio release... you gave Joker one, and that was like a pale imitation!). After all, Netflix have a pretty low acceptance rate for these smaller movies, and while Amazon take almost anything, maybe that in and of itself is part of the problem.
Either way, I think audiences should be embracing these movies, made not only outside of the mainstream, but outside of any stream. Total, independent filmmakers, many of them self-financed, making weird, interesting and creative movies available at the click of a button. It's such a shame that this just never happened. It's all there, easily accessible to everyone, and yet... instead we’re all just watching Marvel.