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Streaming in a time of Covid: the year we completed Netflix and went indie

How specialist streaming sites kept us sane during lockdown

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
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This week sees one year since the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. To mark what we’re calling the Pandemiversary, Time Out is looking back at the past year in cities around the world, and ahead to what the future may hold.

Remember last March? One minute we were at work, the next we were plonked at home, trying to fill the endless void of time and space. We took up baking. We vowed to learn a new language. We used the word ‘unprecedented’ a lot in emails. We googled things like ‘what is a pangolin’ and ‘what’s an acceptable time to eat lunch?’

Mostly, though, we streamed. And let’s be real: where would we have been without The Tiger King’s extravagantly moustached Siegfried & Roy tribute act Joe Exotic and his arch-nemesis Carole ‘Big Cat’ Baskin? Or Normal People’s achingly lovely soulmates Marianne and Connell to make us sob into our ’90s tribute turtlenecks. Or Michael Jordan nursing what seemed to be a chalice of whiskey while casually trash-talking old NBA foes in The Last Dance. Roaming our houses in our pants, crayoning the walls is where.

Since there’s been… deep breath… The Mandalorian, I May Destroy You, The Crown, The Boys, Little Fires Everywhere, Ted Lasso, Soul, The Witcher, Ozark, WandaVision, the enthusiastically named High School Musical: The Musical (spoiler: it’s a musical), RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Undoing, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, The Queen’s Gambit, Bridgerton, Lupin, Pen15, It’s a Sin, and a host of others. Our French friends chuckled indulgently at us for taking five years to discover Call My Agent! Ditto the entire nation of Canada when Schitt’s Creek finally went viral. We joined – gasp – actual Hulu Watch Parties and they turned out to be less terrible than they sounded.

LupinNetflix’s ​Lupin was viewed by 70 million households within its first month

Around the world, tens of millions of people who’d never shelled out for a VOD subscription before joined the party. UK streaming doubled in the month of April alone, according to a report by Ofcom, the country’s media regulator. In Australia, Netflix subscribers went up by a million in three months. Disney+ has just celebrated its 100 millionth subscriber. If 2020 was a terrible year for cinema, it was a great year for multinational entertainment conglomerates.

The arrival of the indie kids

Fast forward a year and things look a little different. Sure, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and, to a lesser extent, Apple TV continue to wheel their big guns into our living rooms – Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Zack Snyder’s The Justice League will shortly be filling your social feeds with Spandex-clad memes, yet – whisper it quietly – this was the year we got a bit bored of the big platforms. We took a few more risks in our viewing. We branched out.

Since last March, a host of smaller, specialist streaming platforms have either popped up or grown rapidly. Sites like Russian cinema platform Klassiki from the UK’s Kino Klassika Foundation which launched during lockdown. Rather than a splurge of content, Klassiki offers Russian movies from filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dinara Asanova to an audience of cineastes, Russophiles and (hopefully) chain-smoking dissidents. ‘Personally, I feel overwhelmed when I get on Netflix and Amazon,’ says founder Justine Waddell. ‘We’re a small fish in a big sea but our space is very different.’

With 60 films and one rotating ‘pick of the week’, it’s less of a warehouse, more like one of those lovely boutiques where the bell rings when you enter, everything is hand-picked and if you stay long enough, someone will bring you an espresso.

BaitBait was the most streamed film on BFI Player in 2021

It’s been a similarly big year for MUBI, the global arthouse streaming platform that’s been around since 2007 but that’s been jet-propelled by the pandemic. The thirst for Bong Joon-ho seasons and Céline Sciamma binges has seen its global subscriber base double since the beginning of 2020. 

Likewise, BFI Player, the UK platform hosting a trove of classic British and international cinema, old and new, from Rashomon to Rohmer to Riz Ahmed. It’s a well-established streaming site that even walking movie database Quentin Tarantino admits to coveting (though even he can’t get round the geoblocking). But the past 12 months have seen streams double (brilliant Cornish sea shanty Bait was the most streamed film).

Nouveau niche

Rather than learn that new language, a lot of us did the next best thing: we watched things with subtitles – and not just Lupin. According to Ursula Grisham, co-founder of Filmatique, Parasite’s Oscars win revealed an increasing appetite for subtitled fare that’s accelerated during lockdown. ‘Amazon, Netflix et al have great content but their offerings are quite uniform,’ says Grisham. ‘In my opinion, people are finishing their queues and [are] more willing to experiment with niche content such as ours.’ 

I feel overwhelmed when I get on Netflix and Amazon. Our space is very different

For just under five bucks a month, Filmatique offers US and Canadian subscribers access to a rotating library of 52 American indies, foreign-language films and deeper cuts that are hard to find elsewhere. As a New York Times article about the service put it, it’s ‘where to stream foreign movies you can’t find elsewhere’. So if you’re more interested in watching Chloé Zhao’s debut film that her upcoming Marvel entry, it has you covered.

If the strengths of the streaming behemoths are well known, then so are their weaknesses. Amazon Prime is probably the most cinephile-friendly, with a beefy back catalogue of old movies available for subscribers or to rent. There’s been plenty of room for VOD sites like LaCinetek to co-exist with them. The French site has the Criterion-y sounding curation policy of hosting ‘the greatest films of the 20th century’ – you will not find a single Kevin James film here – and it’s non-headachey and manageable to navigate.

‘The key for a successful platform is to have curation,’ says LaCinetek’s Jean-Baptiste Viaud, ‘to be editorialised.’ You don’t just get the film, in other words, you get mini-seasons, essays and other thoughtful bonus material. If you’re looking to ace your next film quiz night or just bore your friends about Bela Tarr’s use of chiaroscuro, it’s the best two euros you could spend each month.

Words on screen

But it’s not just lockdown that’s fuelled the surge in specialist streamers. Successful platforms have built cosy online communities and picked up the slack when film festivals have gone digital (the BFI Player hosted BFI Flare, the UK’s biggest LGBTQ+ film festival, at just a few days notice when the pandemic struck). They’ve also helped keep struggling cinemas afloat and connected with their audiences. Singapore’s famous
The Projector cinema launched its own platform, The Projector Plus, last July. ‘With cinemas closed, having a VOD platform has been a lifeline for us,’ says general manager Prashant Somosundram. A
ccording to a report by EUROVOD, Europe’s network of indie VoD platforms, nearly a quarter of European indie platforms had set up a partnership with a cinema by July.

Dead Pigs​Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs on MUBI

Another lockdown launch that’s built a loyal following from a standing start is Lesflicks, a lesbian VOD platform established to fill another gap left by Netflix et al. ‘Too much LGBTQ+ or any other niche content risks turning off the majority,’ says founder Naomi Bennett, ‘and that is what keeps Netflix going. They have just enough to be inclusive, but most films have a six-month or one-year contract and then they’re gone.’  

With the help of a team of volunteers, the site has gone from ‘strength to strength’ since launching in November. ‘We’ve grown faster because of this pandemic,’ says Bennett.

What happened with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor contributed to our growth

Alongside features and music videos, Lesflicks hosts docs and short films. At FilmPixsthey primarily champion shorts (as well as international documentaries). ‘Our audiences always tells us that they really don’t get enough opportunities to connect with short films,’ says FilmPix’s CEO Henrik Friis de Magalhães e Meneses. ‘And for young and emerging creators, they’re the core medium.’

Great as they are for blockbuster films and long-form series, true crime and cheesy romcoms, the streaming giants are never going to be a go-to for shorts and docs. Amazon Prime has actively stopped accepting documentary submissions. According to the founder of Black film platform KweliTV, DeShuna Elisa Spencer, that’s creating an opportunity for smaller VOD platforms to build relationships with up-and-coming filmmakers and showcase those films. ‘We’ve been having panicking documentarians saying: “Oh my God, what am I going to do?” Amazon is trying to predict what people want to watch and maybe if it’s not a sci-fi or a zombie apocalypse, they’re not interested. We curate content that reflects the artistic side of filmmaking.’

KweliTV, which Spencer launched as a streaming platform in 2017 with ‘$20,000 and a dream’,  representing the African Diaspora experience. ‘It’s built for everyone,’ she says, ‘but our main mission is to make a safe space for people of African descent to see themselves and not see stereotypes.’

I am Black and BeautifulI Am Black and Beautiful on KweliTV

Like its fellow VOD specialists, KweliTV has seen a huge boost in users during lockdown. Users went up by 123 percent in 2020, mostly in May and afterwards when lockdown curiosity was powerfully backed up by a newfound interest in social movements and racial justice. ‘What happened with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery meant that people were starting to become more intentional about understanding the Black experience,’ says Spencer, ‘and that contributed to our growth. We’ve had lot of white people subscribing too, trying to understand the Black experience.’

Filmatique’s Ursula Grisham seconds the point: ‘
It’s no coincidence that the prolonged lockdown has dovetailed with many social justice movements,’ she says. ‘Now is a time for introspection and heightened awareness.’

What’s next? 

The smaller streamers are well aware that no one is going to be cancelling their Disney+ and Netflix subscriptions when we’re all out in the wild again. Instead, longevity will depend on offering something different. ’There is definitely room alongside the streaming giants as long as [you] don’t try to compete with them,’ says LaCinetek’s Viaud. ‘You have to be complementary – and focus on curation.’

But there’s real confidence that audiences will emerge from lockdown with a wider palette and a new willingness to give something new a go – and not whatever it was that James Corden was doing in The Prom, either. ‘Would we have launched without lockdown? I don’t think we would have,’ says Klassiki’s Waddell. ‘But if lockdown has shown us anything, it’s that audiences are sophisticated. They’re ready to search for more adventurous cinema online.’ 

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