Film buffs need subscriptions to catch the year's best movies

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, starring Tim Blake Nelson, which is on the Oscars voting list but available in Singapore only on Netflix.
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, starring Tim Blake Nelson, which is on the Oscars voting list but available in Singapore only on Netflix.PHOTO: NETFLIX

SINGAPORE - Hoping to catch this year's crop of Oscar contenders? Instead of buying tickets to the movies, film buffs might have to pay for a subscription.

Two films, the Western anthology The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, and the Mexican family drama Roma, to be released next Friday (Dec 14), are works on Oscar voting lists. In Singapore, they are available only on the streaming service Netflix.

As streaming services set their sights on adding prestige films to their libraries, film fans in Singapore seem to be stuck: Either buy a streaming service subscription, or miss out on films.

Publications like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety are filled with stories about how traditional cinema operators are upset at deep-pocketed platforms like Netflix changing the game by buying up festival films and locking them within its walled garden.

This has raised some concern for moviegoers, who enjoy the experience of watching a film in the cinema.

Take for example writer and poet Yong Shu Hoong, 52. For him, how he watches a film is as important as what he watches. Television, tablet and mobile phone screens are poor substitutes for the real thing, he says.

"I think watching online takes away the pleasure of watching great films on the big screen, in one sitting, giving it full concentration," he says.

Film distributors in Singapore have said they are affected by Netflix and Amazon, who are indeed the Godzillas of the market, trampling smaller operations like theirs, but acknowledge that these streaming services do help to lift the quality of films being made.

Director of Lighthouse Film Distribution Thomas Chia says Amazon and Netflix have complicated the film buying process, but he does not see his relationship with them as a straight win-lose competition.

He notes that a film like Alfonso Cuaron's Roma might not have been made in the first place, if not for financial support from Netflix. Mexican film-maker Cuaron is known for the science-fiction Children Of Men (2006) and the Sandra Bullock film Gravity (2013).

"Roma is over two hours long and a drama in black and white. A lot of studios would not support a film like that, even if it comes from Cuaron," says Chia.

Encouraged by how Netflix seemed to be relaxing its famously strict online-only policy for Roma when it screened the film in select theatres in the United States, he asked about buying rights for a cinema release here.

"I thought there would be a chance for Singapore, but I was turned down. I don't know why," he says.

At press time (Dec 4), Netflix had not responded to queries from The Straits Times.

It has been reported that the streaming giant had given both Roma and The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs a small release in American theatres at the request of film-makers hoping to give fans a cinematic experience, and to meet the eligibility requirements of film competitions, such as at the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscars. Film-makers like Steven Spielberg have argued that Netflix content should compete only in television categories.

Vincent Quek, founder and head of independent distributor Anticipate Pictures sees the entry of the two streaming giants into the prestige film space as a mixed blessing.

"Amazon sees value in cinema releases, and that is good for me and for film-goers," he says.

Amazon Studios produced the much-lauded drama of addiction Beautiful Boy, and its sales agent sold Chia's Lighthouse the rights to release it in cinemas here. The film is still showing at The Projector.

An agent for the studio also sold Quek's Anticipate the rights to release highly-praised psychological horror film Suspiria here. Quek plans to screen it in early January. The film will also be available on Amazon Prime Video next year.

Given how Amazon values the theatrical experience, Quek believes that it wants to find a sustainable niche within the film market ecosystem. Netflix, on the other hand, with its goal of aggressively growing subscriptions, seems to be more willing to step on toes, he says.

Meanwhile, cinephiles like the poet Yong have already made sure to cover all the bases.

"I have both Netflix and Amazon Prime, so right now I'm not complaining about paying extra."