With nearly two years under varying lockdown conditions globally, the cinema industry experienced a major change, as first-run films moved to streaming to capture audiences that were trapped at home.
For regional filmmakers, the challenge has been going on longer than that, as access to cinemas — with their limited time available for small and independent films made outside of major studios and distribution channels — has been shrinking, even as screens abounded in multiplexes to be viewed by smaller audiences.
Streaming films and television brought a further splintering of audiences as screens became even smaller, compressed right down to the size of a smartphone for some viewers.
For Bahamian filmmaker Maria Govan, director of Play the Devil, going through a large distribution agency proved a hard learning experience.
The distributor had exclusive rights over major territories, which limited the filmmakers’ ability to distribute on their own. As a result, the film was limited to the regions in which it could be licensed for streaming.
Play the Devil was a selection for the Watch a Movie On Us (WAMOU) initiative, a pandemic-inspired project by FILMCO, a Trinidad & Tobago coalition of filmmakers and producers.
The limited licensing arrangement to stream the films was paid for by the National Gas Company, but the streams were severely geofenced (blocked by geographic location) for viewing.
“Our sales agent won’t take the conventional [distribution] route in the future,” Govan said. “We would rather go to streaming platforms rather than large distributors, especially with a niche film like Play the Devil.”
Govan and her team found it difficult to get access to financial specifics on their film. Distribution took a hefty percentage of the profits along with additional fees that were billed as expenses.
Trinidadian Maya Cozier’s first major outing as a director, She Paradise, was picked up for streaming on Amazon after a short run in T&T cinemas. The sales representative placed the film through Samuel Goldwyn Films, who secured distribution on Amazon, YouTube’s paid viewing channels, and Vudu. The extensive distributor requirements meant the handover took several weeks.
The financial return from cinema screenings can be a difficult proposition for filmmakers pushing the boundaries for local audiences.
Kim Johnson’s PAN: Our Music Odyssey enjoyed some success on French television, on PBS, and in cinemas in Japan. But when it screened in Trinidad, just four people turned up, Johnson recalled. The film was not picked up for streaming during its initial distribution.
For films in production, Netflix asks for 4K capture (a resolution of 3,840 by 2,160 pixels), while Amazon requires a quarter of that at 1080p.
According to Gian Franco Wilson, CEO of Pavilion+ — a new streaming service targeting the diaspora — those requirements are forward-looking and there might be flexibility about earlier films.
Wilson, born in Trinidad but living in the UK for most of his life, fondly recalls visits to the country where, for him, the most exciting thing was watching local programming.
“It’s not just the quality of the format — it’s the storytelling,” Wilson said. “We can’t expect Oscar-winning films right out of the gate, but content has a role in reflecting ourselves back to us.”
He noted the fracturing of the audience, first from a single television channel then to multiple cable channels. “Now with the internet,” he said, “you aren’t just dealing with hundreds of channels; you are competing with other forms of entertainment.”
Fifteen years ago in business school, he decided that he wanted to create the Warner Brothers of the Caribbean. After years spent at Microsoft and Amazon in mobile, gaming and TV, he had what he described as his “ah-ha” moment.
First, he secured a deal with the Roku channel and became the largest supplier of regional content to them — but soon began fielding complaints that viewers outside the US, UK, and Canada were geofenced from viewing.
Pavilion+ was his response.
The platform was launched in mid-June and within a few weeks had tripled the catalogue it offers for viewers. That count for regional films today is less than 100 discrete titles, which only scrapes the surface of content created and being created across the Caribbean.
Viewers are interested in a wealth of content in a diversity of styles, but every streaming service has started without enough, and worked quickly to build the kind of catalogues that attract subscribers. But the pool of available regional material is still relatively shallow, and building sustainable streaming services depends on subscription revenue. Without investors to create more films, the region faces a chicken and egg conundrum that is still sorting itself out.
Of Roku’s 55 million viewers, the Caribbean regional section managed to attract 500,000, and that’s the first audience target for Pavilion.
After the pandemic inspiration of WAMOU, the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival crafted its own streaming platform — ttff+ — to build on the momentum of online viewing.
“Online distribution is unavoidable — not only is it the future, it’s also the present,” said FILMCO’s interim executive director Mariel Brown. “Going online puts the power in our hands, in terms of deciding what gets shown and when.
“For too long,” she says, “local filmmakers have had to work within a hostile broadcast environment in which filmmakers [often] were asked to pay for air time, or to hand over their content for free or otherwise participate in some nebulous revenue-share agreement.”
The first WAMOU in March 2020 clocked 36,000 views for fewer than a dozen films made available weekly. That’s slowed down considerably since countries have reopened, but the project is a long-term undertaking.
“Online distribution is not the miracle panacea that many people think it is, unless you’re Netflix or YouTube,” Brown said.
Wilson hopes to change things for filmmakers, not least because he is ramping up to do his own productions to generate titles for Pavilion+.
“With streaming, you have to keep feeding the beast,” he said, “and there are shows that we will produce to meet the interests of our subscribers.
“I would love to see some fun stories. We are such a witty community of people that I’m surprised that so many of the films are so grim and full of drama. The more we get into general entertainment, the broader our audience will be.”
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