Before the brakes of civilization screeched to a halt, 2020 was shaping up to be an exciting year for me: “Agony,” a psychological thriller I produced and directed in Italy starring Asia Argento, was set for a 10-city theatrical release via our distributor Gravitas Ventures. One week before the April 3 release, I received a phone call from Gravitas’s VP Brendan Gallagher, asking if we should agree to forfeit the theatrical release and shift focus on the VOD day-and-date release that was planned. Just like that, the assembly line of DCP’s, theatrical bookings and PR halted. It was a mutual decision that reflected some of the bigger questions in relation to what filmgoers have witnessed as the moviegoing experience vanished from our culture.
Filmmakers make films to see them projected in the collective dream space of cinematic cathedrals, but for a film of the “Agony” scale it has always seemed apparent to me that the theatrical release would act as a plume in the cap of the film, acting primarily as a marketing asset in preparation for where most people will discover the film. The film is now available on VOD across the majority of cable platforms, iTunes, Amazon, and so on — without having to undertake the financial burden on the distributors’ behalf to mount the theatrical release. The positive news at this juncture is that all the cable providers were excited to offer the in-theaters day-and-date release structure for making the title available.
But this development doesn’t convey the challenge facing films that are still trying to figure out how to introduce themselves to the world, and that’s the challenge I am currently facing with my latest project.
It was exactly a year ago that I was in Norfolk, Virginia starting principal photography on “The Gateway,” a neo-noir thriller with actors Bruce Dern, Olivia Munn, Shea Whigham and Frank Grillo. Three weeks before the nation went into lockdown, after months of editing, I finalized our color grading, final sound mix and a DCP master of the picture was sent to Cannes by our producers and CAA in hopes of a premiere at Cannes.
Excited by the prospect of a second film releasing this year while “Agony” was streaming online, my phone rang and my producer had a proposition: He felt that we should bypass the fate of the film at upcoming film festivals and open up the door to selectively screening the film to distributors in this moment of unprecedented market demand for at home content. After all, two-thirds of the world is at home and binge-watching their boob tubes. As a business decision, this approach makes perfect sense, provided the investment can be recouped and we can project a PR campaign and market a film in this new wild west of virtual shopping.
A film like “The Gateway” will thrive best as a discovery film via word of mouth and grassroots marketing. It remains unclear how to replicate this kind of phenomenon on platforms. Years ago, when I was a film student in New York, we would line up to see the latest indie films at Angelica or Nuart — to witness the latest cinematic works as a point of discovery, something that creates a subculture of inside fetish and thrills that has never been replicated in this brave new universe of thumbnails and streaming queues. Studio tentpoles have media marketing muscle, mass publicity and hype, but with smaller films, snakeskin oil salesmen charlatanism can creep in and muddy the waters of a genuine discovery. At the moment, these films could use a new paradigm to ensure they don’t get lost.
The future is a wide open highway of speculation for everyone. In recent days, I’ve spoken with agents, writers, journalists, DP’s— and the ubiquitous question is: When will the wheels of commerce reopen, and what will this new world look like? I take solace in thinking to the past for the road ahead. Ingenuity is the father of invention. Televisions used to be black and white; they were 4:3 long before 16×9 HD brought a comparative high fidelity resolution revolution into our living rooms that matched cinematic capabilities. After wax, we had eight tracks, then cassettes, CDs, iPods, and now a virtual tower of babel of music is available to all.
I think back to the visionary filmmaker Jean Pierre Melville. During his time as a WWII resistance fighter, he learned techniques that he later applied tactically as a guerrilla filmmaker, at first relying on real locations and smaller crews to inspire his creativity; that work later encouraged the French New Wave. Melville eventually funneled his success into building his own studio by the late ‘60s only to have it burn down in a fire. Perhaps this is an opportunity to shape our own creative visions with the means of production. We are obliged periodically to deconstruct old models and embrace change — a process so primal it feels almost Darwinian — and I’m reminded of what Fritz Lang said in reference to Cinemascope and other coming trends, innovations, and fads of his time: “It was a format not made for people. It’s only good for snakes and funerals.”
Movies are often defined as a populist art form — so whether it’s a race to get asses into theater seats or eyes on a TV screen, the more folks who can discover and enjoy a work, the merrier. The rest is really semantics, new skins for old ceremonies.
Michele Civetta’s “Agony” is now available on VOD.