Multi-platform film release may change movie going forever

if you’re pushing a film these days it pays to be canny and do something different.

Ben Wheatley's Sightseers movie
Ben Wheatley's Sightseers movie

Step forward Film4 and Picturehouse, which put out Ben Wheatley’s trippy horror A Field in England via a bespoke multi-platform release that included cinemas, DVD and Blu-ray, a free television screening and video-on-demand.

In a crowded marketplace it was a bold move, maybe even an inspired one. And given the off-kilter subject matter – a motley band of soldiers and alchemists find themselves seeking treasure as a battle rages during the English Civil War – the multiplex circuit probably never figured in the plans. The film is the fourth feature from Ben Wheatley, the man behind Kill List and Sightseers, and was written by his wife and co-screenwriter Amy Jump.

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Screen Daily reported that it screened in 17 cinemas, often to sell-out crowds.

On television it played on the Film4 channel without commercial breaks and drew a combined audience of 288,000 viewers. Early figures, which include recorded viewing on Saturday and Sunday, bring the total to 357,000 – up on the channel’s slot average of 346,000.

Anna Higgs, commissioning editor of Film4.0, which fully financed A Field in England, said she was “ecstatic” with the results. “We had the best possible results,” she said. “By having all platforms working together, we generated a real buzz and put the film on the map.” For Wheatley the film represents perhaps a last chance to do a purely personal project that streams with his filmic idiosyncrasies. Kill List and Sightseers pushed his clout to a new level, which, one assumes, brings with it higher budgets and more responsibility.

Steven Soderbergh experienced the same pressure. In 1997 he made the anarchic indie comedy Schizopolis and promptly hid it from studio execs who had hired him to make the George Clooney/Jennifer Lopez thriller Out of Sight.

This, then, may represent a new method of reaching out to audiences tired of the multiplex stranglehold and an arthouse circuit that increasingly appears to play only the same 12 or 15 titles from venue to venue, town to town. And as traditional film programming becomes increasingly populated by live “simulcasts” of everything from Glyndebourne operas to National Theatre productions, so left-field approaches such as that which delivered Wheatley’s film to an eager audience may be the way forward.

Call it progress but it also represents another nail in the rapidly closing coffin that is the film industry. How much longer can cinemas continue to compete with punters’ desire to see films in their own homes?

Great directors like Stanley Kubrick, Fred Zinnemann and Billy Wilder made big films for the big screen. Kubrick famously kept a close eye on every theatre that presented his work and chastised them if his movies were presented incorrectly.

That means on a movie screen. Not a wide-screen TV. Or a laptop. Or a mobile phone…