TIFF rolls out the red carpet for streaming services

A growing wave of Canadians wants to watch new movies and TV shows on their own terms and, as the Toronto International Film Festival kicks off for 2018, TIFF is welcoming the streamers.

With rival streaming services from Apple and Disney on the horizon, Netflix makes a big push into feature film

The world premiere of Outlaw King, a Netflix historical drama starring Chris Pine, kicks off the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It's one of eight Netflix movies screening at the fest this year. (Netflix/TIFF)

Sara Santos-Tran wrangles both a new baby and a preschooler daily at her Toronto home, but she recently caught the buzzy rom-com To All the Boys I've Loved Before and might squeeze in Switched at Birth on her iPad during naptime or relax with Suits after the kids are in bed. 

Meanwhile, David Lewis just finished Luke Cage and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The Ottawa-based communications advisor is anticipating Jack Ryan next, along with searching out new releases to watch on his laptop, smart phone or TV via XBox. 

Both are interested in what's new from Hollywood, but like a growing wave of Canadians, they want to see it — and stream it — on their own terms wherever they want. 

This is the reality facing the Toronto International Film Festival, which is rolling out the red carpet for streaming services.

At the 2018 festival, which kicked off Thursday, TIFF is showcasing eight Netflix movies, led by director David Mackenzie's Outlaw King, the historical action drama starring Chris Pine. The film nabbed the festival's high-profile opening night slot and is slated for release on Netflix in November.

"We want a film that's got a great story, that our audiences are going to respond to, by a filmmaker with real renown. This film fits the bill," said TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey.

"We like it when people come together to watch movies — there's something special about that," he said. "Films are being made and produced and delivered in many different ways now."

Amazon is also in the TIFF mix this year with Homecoming, a new drama series starring Julia Roberts.

Julia Roberts and Stephan James appear at a July panel discussion in Beverly Hills, Calif., to promote their upcoming Amazon Studios series Homecoming. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

First TV, now film

Streaming services have radically challenged the traditional TV business, swooping in to sign A-list showrunners and getting customers hooked on cross-platform, on-demand viewing. 

By the end of 2020, more Canadian households will be signed up for streaming services like Netflix than will have traditional TV subscriptions, according to a forecast released this spring from market research firm Convergence Research Group

But success with feature films has been more elusive for streaming sites.

Will Smith's fantasy thriller Bright was a blockbuster production for Netflix, but got a rough reception from movie critics. (Matt Kennedy/Netflix)

Despite some awards season recognition for films such as Manchester By the Sea, Mudbound and The Big Sick, streamers are still more often associated — movie-wise — with poorly-reviewed fantasy thrillers like Bright or Adam Sandler's much-maligned Netflix oeuvre. A pushback from French theatre owners last year ultimately forced Netflix out of the Cannes Film Festival, cramping its rise as a major player in moviemaking.

Still, with competition on the horizon, Netflix is getting serious.

The streaming leader has brought a powerful slate to TIFF this year, including new entries from noted names like Alfonso Cuaron (Roma), Nicole Holofcener (The Land of Steady Habits), Paul Greengrass (22 July) and Sara Colangelo (The Kindergarten Teacher). These filmmakers are creating the kind of prestige movies that vie for Oscars but which many traditional studios have largely abandoned in favour of blockbusters and franchises.

Overall, Netflix says it plans to spend $13 billion US on content in 2018 alone. Amazon, for its part, is expected to spend between $4-5 billion US.

The lobby of the Netflix studio "has sort of become Hollywood's waiting room. I've been in there and George Clooney is sitting across from me. Seth Rogen. Jane Lynch. It's staggering," said Canadian producer Carrie Mudd. Her company, Peacock Alley Entertainment, produces the sci-fi series Travelers, picked up by Netflix as an original series after being carried by both the streamer and Showcase (which cut ties after two seasons).

"We're competing with Oscar-winners. That's just the way the world works now."

Rivals on the horizon

The field will only get tougher with a host of ambitious new competitors vying to catch up to Netflix: everyone from Facebook and YouTube to Disney and Apple are getting into the business of creating and streaming new, original movies and shows.

Established services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, CBS All-Access and HBO Go completely upended the entertainment industry. The addition of more subscriber-based streaming rivals means more disruption for studios. That's great news for audiences, according to Jason E. Squire, a professor of cinema practice at the University of Southern California.

"It's great for customers like us and for the creators of content because there are more choices in each category," he said from Los Angeles.

New streaming competition for Netflix and Amazon from companies like Apple, YouTube, Facebook and more is great news for consumers and content creators, says industry watcher Jason E. Squire. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

"The world of small screen entertainment will certainly become a series of subscriber choices," Squire added.

"Every time the industry has redeveloped a way to distribute product, pricing has been an issue... it will be the same with these new platforms."

This soon-to-be-crowded field may mean that in addition to paying for broadband internet to access streaming services in the first place, consumers will also have to decide which ones are worth it or perhaps juggling subscriptions — which some early adopters are already doing. 

Value for money

Patrick O'Rourke, a 29-year-old managing editor for tech news site Mobile Syrup, currently favours Netflix and occasionally rents movies via iTunes. He's never subscribed to cable and isn't opposed to quickly jumping between services to keep costs down. For instance, he subscribed to CraveTV just long enough to binge the new season of Letterkenny or some HBO program before cancelling to try something else. 

As more streamers launch in Canada, "people are going to have to start making conscious decisions about what services they really value when they're shelling out that monthly fee," O'Rourke said.

With the potential for more streaming options forthcoming, consumers must decide which services they really value, says early adopter Patrick O'Rourke. (Rasulov/Shutterstock)

To build that successful entertainment pipeline into our homes, laptops, smartphones and tablets, streamers have to keep in mind ease of use, a good price point, convenience across different devices and excellent content, according to Lewis, the streaming content fan from Ottawa.

"It's about the entertainment value of it," he said. "I don't care if Netflix or Amazon does it. I just want to be entertained."

About the Author

Jessica Wong

Senior writer

Jessica Wong is a senior writer for CBC News, based in Toronto.


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