ANON: The Quandary of the Joint Home/Cinema Release

Just to clarify, starting a title with Anon is not me trying to go all highbrow and Shakespearian on all of you. It does of course refer to a new picture being released next Friday, starring Clive Owen & Amanda Seyfried, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, which is being promoted with a curious affectation: it is both being released in UK cinemas *and* on the Sky Cinema service as a premiere simultaneously on the same day. In a world where people worry about how Netflix Original movies are threatening to make cinema obsolete, this only adds fuel to the fire.

Now I haven’t seen Anon. My website Set The Tape was at the press screening and our guy there gave it a decent review, but the film didn’t set his world alight. I will refrain from judging Anon until I’ve seen it, and I will see it, but will I see it at my local cinema? Probably not, in all honesty. Why would I? I’m fortunate enough to have the means to have Now TV, and by extension Sky Cinema, so I can get home from work on Friday, grab a snack from the cupboard, put my feet up on my sofa, and watch Anon on my 45’ plasma. Alternatively I could travel five miles, pay for snacks, sit next to a stranger, and not even be able to stop the film for a cuppa. Again, why would I?

This sounds like I’m down on the cinema as an entity. I’m really not. There remains nothing like the experience of watching a movie on a big screen with an audience. Last year, I experienced the beauty of hundreds of people in hushed, hold your breath silence at the end of La La Land, or this year dozens of people crying out when *that character* suffers a potentially fatal blow in Avengers: Infinity War. You can’t replicate that at home on your couch. The honest truth, however, is that unless you’re an absolute fanatic with time to spare, a Cineworld Unlimited card (or variant), or it’s your job, you won’t watch everything at the movies. In this world, we have to pick and choose what we go and see.

Which makes the package of Anon even more interesting, because it seems designed to actively try and encourage people to stay at home. In the press screening, Owen & Niccol discussed in a Q&A afterward the unique release of Anon and whether it was at all a good thing, or cinema was ‘falling out of fashion’. This seems unlikely. Infinity War is set to make $1 billion in a week, beating the previous record of 12 days by Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Cinema is as popular as it ever was, and remains our primary global source of mainstream entertainment. Anon, however, continues exposing a trend for major companies such as Sky, or Netflix; attempting to replicate the cinematic experience in the home, and encourage you to watch their streaming or cable output rather than venture to your local cinema.

Sky Cinema have been experimenting with this beyond Anon this year. They earlier in 2018 announced ‘Sky Cinema Original Films’ (not at all inspired by Netflix Originals…) in which they have acquired exclusive rights to movies they can show instead of them getting a cinematic release, and commissioning productions themselves. This is an active move by the cable giant to edge into a space Netflix has dominated, to push back and challenge their hegemony. Sky Cinema’s first efforts have been lukewarm though at best – animated comedy Monster Family, a Rob Cohen action film called The Hurricane Heist, now Anon, with a British film called Final Score to come. All of them were or will be in selected cinemas on the exact same day they showed up on Sky.

Anon may yet turn out to be a critical hit, if not a commercial one, but thus far these streaming and cable services have yet to produce much in the way of truly great cinematic content in the manner the existing studios do. Netflix, as much as they suggest they have created some of the best cinema over the last couple of years, have been on an execrable run; Will Smith starring Bright, insipid The Cloverfield Paradox, and just name any Adam Sandler film put together for Netflix – none of them are any good, and most of them would probably have tanked at the box office. Particularly with The Cloverfield Paradox, the feeling among many is that Netflix has been a dumping ground for films studios know aren’t very good, and quietly want to bury inside Netflix’s vast catalogue.

Sky, in this sense, are taking a bigger risk than Netflix, at least in the UK. Their plan to release Anon, as they have done with their aforementioned earlier exclusives, has not been matched by Netflix, which instead bought the rights in the UK to show Alex Garland’s much anticipated Annihilation *instead* of it getting a UK cinematic release, much to the chagrin of many a UK cinema goer. That was an interesting example of a film, for many, not getting its due; Garland is a proven talent with a following, while Annihilation itself is adapted from a successful, cult, highly regarded book. The film was no dud either, unlike some of the other Netflix entries mentioned; it deserved a cinematic release in the UK as it managed to get in the US and other territories.

So what is the thinking behind this move to joint-release certain movies? Tellingly, Monster Family—the first Sky Cinema Originals picture—was eschewed a release in the three biggest UK cinema chains: Cineworld, Odeon & Vue. This would have significantly decreased its audience share at the cinema itself. Anon is getting a wider release due to the talent involved – Clive Owen remains a major British star, while Andrew Niccol is a writer-director of quite some pedigree. Nonetheless, major distributors on both sides of the Pond have not yet taken to this attempt by streaming and cable services to change the model of viewership, continuing to adhere to the more traditional model of releases.

A cynic can look at what Sky are doing and suggest they are throwing money after bad; this isn’t exactly Dunkirk they’re bankrolling here. Monster Family is never going to join the annals of great cinema. Are they simply trying to maximise a level of profit while controlling their own product? It’s fair to say that Sky Cinema have been losing the battle this year when it comes to premiere content; they are still providing access to major international releases, but Amazon Prime and sometimes Netflix are beating them out to films like La La Land or Detroit. For every Baywatch that Sky throws up, there seems to be The Florida Project or The Killing of a Sacred Deer popping up on a rival streaming service. The dominance of Sky in the UK when it comes to home entertainment platforms showing not just the newest, but the best, releases is very much over.

Again, however, I return to the initial question: why should I go to the cinema to see these movies when I can just watch them at home, as part of the package I already pay for? What is the draw to go and see Anon, and pay near enough a tenner, when I’m already paying a Sky subscription package? At this stage, I’m not sure there is one. Netflix seem to understand where their bread is buttered and are investing content in major TV show projects – Stranger Things, The Crown, Orange is the New Black etc… all of which have made some kind of dent or ripple in the cultural consciousness over the last couple of years. Their ventures into film appear to almost be the opposite; either rescue ‘in trouble’ movies from studios or throw money at talent who can’t really open a weekend anymore (raise your hand, Mr Sandler).

Is anyone making a major cinematic event as a dual release? Not really. You don’t see Disney doing this with Marvel or Star Wars, and why? Because they still seem aware of the power of the cinema as a cultural force. For the vast sums of money these studios and production houses invest in bringing Avengers: Infinity War or The Last Jedi to life, they seem to appreciate these are movies worth getting out the front door and travelling to the cinema to witness. Cinema remains a power societal unifier; a screening of a hugely popular film can bring together people from all walks to life, all united around their love of a movie or excitement for its release. No matter how much of a vast stride TV has taken, it simply cannot replicate that.

And when you boil it down, the simple fact is, you can watch Anon or Monster Family or The Hurricane Heist on your TV, for less money, in your own home with your own comforts, as easily as travelling to the cinema. If this was Infinity War, would you really want to just be seeing that movie on your TV—however shiny and curved it may be? Would you not want the spectacle of seeing such a massive picture on a big screen? Almost certainly, for most people, the answer would be yes. What Sky are doing, and what Netflix are attempting to dip their toe into, are essentially removing the power of the cinematic experience by giving people a choice: watch this fairly low-key movie at home, or go all the way to your multiplex for it. Which, honestly, would you do?

This isn’t to say what Sky are doing is not without merit, but you wonder with Anon just how many people will truly try and make that film a cinematic event worth experiencing. If the cinema itself is no longer essential, are we not in danger of heading for a world in which film itself loses the power it has always retained?

You ponder that while I exit, pursued by a bear.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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