Hemlock Grove, House of Cards and the Future of Digital TV Distribution

Hemlock Grove

After the success of Netflix’s re-imagining of the political drama House of Cards, a follow-up for the digital distribution model was inevitably quick to follow. This week saw the release of Hemlock Grove, Eli Roth’s take on urban fantasy TV, just with added Rothian gore. The first episode is a strangely paced affair with strange accents, overly emphasised meaningful glances and inconsistently signalled shifts in timeline. I’ll watch more, for now, but right now I’m more interested in the distribution model and what it means.

One curious decision is the attempt to break away from the TV-style schedule, which sees viewers waiting a week between episodes. Instead Netflix gives us the entire 13 episode ‘season’ in one go. It’s a curious decision because, while viewers enjoy being able to watch at a schedule determined by their inclinations and free time, it means that the buzz about the show is often over in short order. Instead of 13 weeks of excitement and live-tweeting and the free advertising that comes with it, it’s all over in a heartbeat. The ‘water cooler moment’, these days perhaps replaced by social media, is almost entirely absent.

Still, it’s a bold step into a new world that Netflix takes, and one followed closely by the competition.  Amazon-owned Lovefilm will pilot TV shows online, including a ‘TV’ adaptation of the movie Zombieland. Microsoft is also keen to get in on this game via their XBox entertainment distribution medium (they stopped being ‘mere’ gaming consoles a long time ago), and have said they intend to revive Heroes as an XBox TV show. Even the BBC intends to broadcast some programmes on iPlayer first, beginning with Doctor Who material.

A common factor with all these offerings is the fact that, as yet, this market isn’t mature enough for independent offerings; they are not a distribution medium for the indie filmmaker, who will have to stick to the barely monetised Youtube or Vimeo. House of Cards had Kevin Spacey and David Fincher attached; Hemlock Grove has Famke Janssen and Eli Roth; Zombieland, Heroes and Doctor Who are known franchises. The point of this exercise is to attract eyeballs and the wallets they’re associated with. An independent film or TV show with no big name attached to them won’t lure viewers from rival platforms.

That’s not to say that digital distribution of independent movies can’t succeed; my favourite such offering is Ink. It won Best International Feature at the Cancun Film Festival, but couldn’t get a distribution deal. Instead they sold the movie directly, distributed it on peer-to-peer networks and had it shown on Hulu and Netflix, eventually building to commercial success. But as yet this is an outlier, especially in the short term until the medium of digital TV and movie distribution matures. But, as eventually became the case for music, this is an inevitable and exciting journey. And one that, eventually, independent filmmakers will benefit from.

Update

Amazon’s LoveFilm have put the Zombieland pilot up to watch for free. It’s the same characters, but different actors. It has none of the charm or wit of the movie and it was actually a chore to watch. It was so bad that it actually elevates Hemlock Grove in comparison.

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