Magnolia Pictures has been at the forefront of specialty film distribution in North America for over a decade, maintaining its foothold in the theatrical market even as it blossomed in the growing digital marketplace. In 2018 alone, the company found major success with two eventual Oscar nominees — documentary “RBG,” which grossed over $14 million at the box office, and foreign-language contender “Shoplifters,” which made over $3 million. At the same time, Magnolia was quietly exploring another phase of growth, launching the subscription service Magnolia Selects with virtually no fanfare.
Now, as the monthly service expands from availability on Amazon Prime to Roku, Magnolia Selects is ready for its closeup. The streaming-VOD service collates hundreds of films from Magnolia’s library that aren’t on other SVOD platforms, making them available to audiences for $4.99 month. While that alone may not set the service apart from others out there, Magnolia’s library is distinguished by its focus on a range of quality options, much of which it has acquired at festivals over the past two decades.
“We have always been rigorous about our offerings being quality films at best, and a good TV sit at worst,” said Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles in a phone interview. “I think we appeal to many demographics.”
Magnolia Selects’ expansion to Roku is part of a broader move by the OTT service to make subscriptions available to its users — other new offerings include Showtime, Starz, and the Smithsonian Channel Plus. Viewers who sign up for Magnolia Selects will have access to the full scope of Magnolia’s biggest hits, including acclaimed documentaries like “Man on Wire” and “The Wolfpack” as well as many of its international genre offerings, such as “Let the Right One In” and “Hobo With a Shotgun.”
Magnolia has a history of experimenting with new models even as it has remained loyal to theatrical release strategies. The company was ahead of the curve in 2006, when it experimented with an early day-and-date release strategy by broadcasting Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble” on HDTV on the same day it hit theaters, then releasing it on DVD a few days later. It was an early indication of the direction many companies would take with certain films better suited for the VOD market but aided by the marketing bump provided by theatrical.
With Magnolia Selects, the company joins a growing trend of companies aiming to consolidate their libraries into subscription services distinct from the sprawling options on Netflix and its ilk. Earlier this week, indie distributor Gravitas Ventures launched its own $4.99 monthly SVOD service, Gravitas Movies, and April will see the long-awaited premiere of the Criterion Channel, which will make selections from the venerated classic film library available on a variety of platforms for $9.99 per month.
Bowles said that the options on Magnolia Selects stand out from some of the competition in that the company has consistently acquired acclaimed movies with an eye toward accessibility. “We have a pretty broad range of titles that Criterion would not have. We have a lot of films with big stars in them from the VOD days,” Bowles said, citing movies like Lars von Trier’s beloved Kirsten Dunst vehicle “Melancholia” and “I Am Love,” which stars Tilda Swinton. “We can appeal to sophisticated film fans and more general ones.”
The boutique subscription service model has proven challenging for some new players. Tribeca Shortlist, a joint venture by Lionsgate and Tribeca Enterprises, features a smaller set of options brought into the platform from other libraries. FilmStruck, the streaming platform launched by Turner Classic Movies and the previous digital home for Criterion’s library, lasted two years before parent company Warner Media shut it down last fall.
Meanwhile, the industry as a whole is bracing for a new showdown between deep-pocketed OTT players, as Disney gears up for its Disney+ service launching this fall, Apple revs up its original content play, and Warner Media’s own streaming platform is around the corner. “More than other companies, we’ve been much more selective and curatorial,” Bowles said. “At the same time, we have a library of hundreds of films because we’ve been putting out dozens of films for the last 10 years.”
Nevertheless, Magnolia Selects has yet to become a significant aspect of the company’s current business model. Bowles declined to offer specific figures about the service’s current subscriber base, but said it had seen only positive monthly growth since its launch last year. He projected that it would reach 100,000 subscribers by the end of the year, following the additional visibility of the Roku launch and Facebook marketing. That figure matches the reported number of subscribers for FilmStruck when Warner Media pulled the plug.
Bowles shrugged off the comparison. “I won’t say that it’s a driver for us yet,” he said. “The good thing is that a dollar is a dollar wherever it comes from. But the bread and butter of our films is the theatrical release of new product. That’s going to stay as it is. It feeds the SVOD thing, this steady flow of new product.”
He remained optimistic about the company’s future, while managing expectations for its growth. “We’re going to do what makes sense for us,” he said. “We know there’s some extra money in the cycle, but it’s nothing really profound.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged that could change as viewer habits continue to evolve. “Listen, the whole world is heading toward a subscription model,” he said. “It’s just the natural order of things.”