While Hollywood fights the streaming wars, almost everyone I know is completely and utterly confused about what is available to watch online and where to find it. Even I have trouble finding things, and while I would never argue that I’m particularly in-the-know, I do follow industry news, and I’m in touch with a variety of publicists about new releases. I also keep a running list of upcoming movies directed by women, which requires some research and digging. And yet, it took me ten minutes to figure out where I can watch Julie Delpy’s new movie, My Zoe, which releases in theaters February 26. I’m still confused about whether or not I can see it at home. It doesn’t look like it’s playing in virtual cinemas, and there’s no information about when and where it might be available for rental or streaming. I’m interested in reviewing this movie, but I’m not sure what the point is, if no one will be able to watch it. It would make more sense to wait until the movie has a streaming date, but what is the streaming date? Why doesn’t it say on the movie’s website? Is it that they don’t yet have a streaming date and/or platform? Or are they holding back the information because they feel it would be inhibiting to someone who is considering seeing it in theaters?
Unfortunately, Hollywood is already inhibiting a lot of movie-watching with its poor communication strategies. There’s the lack of transparency around distribution dates and platforms, but then, once things are streaming, there’s another layer of confusion. I’ve had multiple people complain to me that there aren’t many new movies coming out, and I’m like, are you kidding? Warner Bros is putting all their 2021 releases onto HBO Max! Netflix comes out with a new feature every week! Hulu and Amazon are dropping tons of new movies! But then I realize that I only know this because I’m on Film Twitter and I listen to movie podcasts. When you get on the streaming platforms, it is not obvious what is new and how long it will be available. For instance, the other night, I watched Judas and the Black Messiah on HBO Max. This is one of the Warner Bros. movies that was supposed to come out in the theaters, but instead is having its premiere on the network. After I watched the movie, I happened to return to the movie’s home screen, where I reread the summary and noticed that the last sentence said, “Available until March 14.” Wait, what?
I then read this article that explains that all the HBO Max premieres have a limited release window. This was apparently part of the deal that Warner Bros. struck with HBO. Okay, that makes sense, but why is there not some prominent visual cue alerting viewers to the fact that they are deadline with this particular movie? The way it was displayed, it was written in the same size and color font as the description. There wasn’t even a line break. When I get a book from the library that has limited check-out time, they put a big sticker on the book’s spine to remind you that it’s due in two weeks. There was nothing to like that to let you know that the movie would be gone soon. No banner, no headline, no flashing lights. You just had to know.
I know I sound cranky. But the level of confusion I’m hearing is real. Nomadland hasn’t come out yet (it premieres on Hulu this weekend), but because it’s been in the zeitgeist so long, and is in so many awards conversations, that there’s the collective sense that it’s come and gone. People only really know the specific release dates of huge movies like Tenet, Wonder Woman, and Soul. Occasionally a Netflix movie breaks through, mainly because it’s relatively easy to find a thing if you know it’s on Netflix. (Though I’m often surprised how often Netflix fails to recommend a movie that I would obviously like, given my other viewing choices.) I firmly believe that people want to watch new movies, and when they hear an interesting critical conversation starting around one, they want to join in, but the movie isn’t easy enough to find. Maybe it’s on the streaming channel that they don’t subscribe to, or maybe it’s on Kanopy and they don’t have a library card, or maybe it’s $19.99 on Amazon and they don’t want to give Amazon any more of their money. Or maybe it’s only in “virtual cinemas” and they don’t want to watch a movie on their laptop. Or maybe they would do any of those things but they can’t figure out where to watch it because when they google the movie’s title, they get two years of reviews from film festivals. That’s what happened to me when I tried to find My Zoe.
In some ways, the movie world is beginning to resemble the book world, in that release dates don’t really matter. Readers tend to define “new” books loosely, to mean anything that has come out within the last year. Unless a person is a big fan of a particular author, and willing to preorder a book before it has been reviewed, there isn’t much awareness around when a book will be published. Even your average literary person who follows book chatter will probably only have a vague sense of the pub date, e.g. “Fall 2021” or “Early Spring 2022.” It’s only reviewers who pay attention to exact pub dates, because they are timing their reviews to come out when the book is available in stores. But the difference between movies and books is that books are available everywhere on their pub date. You might not hear about a particular book until a few months or weeks after it’s published, but once you decide you’re interested in reading it, it’s very easy to find the book online or in a local store or library.
I’m beginning to think that movies should be available everywhere on their release dates, with the price varying according to your subscriptions. For instance, if a movie drops on HBO Max, it would be free for subscribers, but also available for rent at a premium price, elsewhere — ideally, some neutral rental platform that is not affiliated with Amazon, a kind of universal video store where you can rent any new movie and stream it on your TV. Maybe the release window would still be shortened, or maybe it would be more like the old model where the release window would vary depending on the popularity of the movie. There would probably also be niche rental sites for art house movies. Whatever! The point is there would be some kind of online multiplex where you could reliably go to find whatever new movies people are talking about.
This will never happen because everyone is trying to get subscribers for their streaming channels, but I think it would be better for the industry as a whole if it did, because it’s very difficult to get any kind of critical conversation going right now. I miss the buzz around the movies, even if it was always partially manufactured. Now there is no chance of a sleeper hit or even a cult favorite because people are so out of sync in their viewing habits. Films don’t have the chance to build any momentum. It’s sad to see good movies get totally ignored. This happens in the literary world all the time, but that’s because most people don’t read. But most people do watch TV and movies. And I think a certain segment of the audience would watch more new movies, or at least a greater variety of them, if they were easy to find.