I first heard of Shane Carruth's new movie, Upstream Color, in March, soon after it was shown at South by Southwest and getting quite a bit of buzz online. It also received critical acclaim at Sundance where it was screened previously. The trailer for it is intriguing, and I was really looking forward to it. Carruth's 2004 movie, Primer, is one of my favourites, and I consider it to be one of the most underrated sci-fi movies out there.

When it was announced that the self-distributed theatrical release of Upstream Color in April would be accompanied with a simultaneous release online through iTunes, Amazon and a DRM-free digital download, I nearly fell over. Nothing like this has been done before by the big studios, as far as I know.

I waited patiently until April and when it was finally available, I went to the website, clicked through to buy the movie in DRM-free 1080p HD video directly, only to be greeted by the following screen:

What just happened here? I thought it was a self-distributed movie and not subject to stupid regional distribution agreements and restrictions that the incumbent movie studios have? Going back to the main website, I came across this line of fine print:

  • All products unavailable at this time in UK and Australia due to distribution agreements.


I couldn't find anything about these distribution agreements for Australia at the time, and I was mildly annoyed at the fact that anybody, anywhere in the world can buy this online, including those in the US where it was on limited release in some cinemas around the country. Anywhere, except Australia and the UK. Still, I was patient and figured it was just a minor technicality and it would be available to us soon.

A few months later, it became clearer what those distribution agreements were. Upstream Color made an appearance at the Sydney Film Festival in June, distributed by Palace Films (the film distribution arm of Palace Cinemas) where it garnered good reviews, but I completely missed due to lack of time. It was still not available for purchase or download, and no mention of a general release, if ever.

Another couple of months went by, and I hadn't been paying close attention to any announcements related to the film, but it came on my radar again last week when it apparently opened in cinemas around Australia. My hopes were dashed when I checked out which cinemas were screening it. There's only ONE venue in all of Sydney (a Palace-owned one in Paddington, no less).

Thinking that it's now finally in 'general' release in Australia, it might be available for us to buy it online too, but no dice. The website still shows the same 'unavailable' screen, and while you can buy the soundtrack from iTunes Australia, the movie is nowhere to be found.

Disappointed, is one word to describe what I'm feeling right now. Angry and frustrated are another couple more. There has already been a lot said about the high level of piracy in Australia (particularly for TV), and this is mostly due to the poor availability of digital downloads or streaming content, because of regional agreements with broadcasters and distributers. Even Choice (the Australian consumer organisation) has called for more services like Netflix and Hulu to be made available here (and how to circumvent geo-IP restrictions in the meantime).

It is commendable that Carruth has taken the stance of not wanting to go the traditional route for distributing his movie, to give his audiences the ability to watch it however and whenever they like, whether in a local cinema, on a DVD/Blu-ray or from a digital download. Unfortunately, this deal that was struck with Palace Films (and whoever the UK distributor is) just stings the very people who really want to support him.

I'm sure Palace has written in some kind of exclusivity clause into the deal, hence the lack of purchase or even rental options for Australians, but how is this going to benefit anyone except for Palace when it's only screening in ONE cinema in Sydney? I'm sure as hell not going to suffer through Sydney traffic to travel halfway across the city, pay exorbitant parking fees, and have the privilege to buy overpriced concession stand snacks and drinks to watch a movie that I was prepared to PAY to own since April. I'm sure Palace would rather me buy a DVD or Blu-ray that they would release when they feel the time is right, complete with the 'Australia Tax' tacked on (no, I'm not talking about the GST).

Viewers in Australia who don't live in any of the major capital cities, can't or aren't willing to go to the screening venues at the specific times will just miss out. Carruth, the director and producer ends up reaching a much smaller audience than he could otherwise if Palace didn't prevent him from selling the movie himself. Ironic that going through a 'distributor' ends up limiting the accessible market than self-distributing the movie online.

Swimming Upstream