They're original, exciting and acclaimed. So why can't you see these movies on the big screen?

When a film critic on a long-haul flight finds a movie they haven’t seen yet on the entertainment system, the pilot can probably hear their cheers from the cockpit. A couple of months ago, that’s how I discovered Beyond the Lights, a romance set in the American music business. 

I remembered having read good things about when it was released in the United States last year. It starred the British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whom I’d loved in Amma Asante’s 2013 period drama Belle, and Minnie Driver, on whom I’d had a crush ever since Hard Rain (I was 16, she was frequently soaking wet). Crucially, it also didn’t look too worthy or taxing for in-flight viewing. So I plugged in my headphones and pressed play.

The 9in, seat-back-mounted LCD display in front of me might as well have been an Imax screen. Within minutes, I was engrossed in the way that only great romantic melodramas can engross you – as if you’re simultaneously spying on a hot affair and having it.

Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, a young R&B star teetering on the brink of crisis, who falls for a straight-edge LA cop played by Nate Parker, after he bursts into her dressing room one night and talks her out of suicide.

The two leads had better chemistry than any screen couple I could remember seeing for the past year, while writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s refusal to succumb to cliché, even in this wildly larger-than-life star-is-born story, lent an unexpected rawness to the romance.

Everything the film had to say about fame and ambition, and the machinations of the music industry, felt shiveringly accurate. As soon as the film had finished, I was looking forward to seeing it again, except “properly” – which meant with an audience, in a cinema.

Before I’d even collected my suitcase from the baggage hall, I was looking up the British release date of Beyond the Lights – for one thing, I was certain this would be the film to make Mbatha-Raw a star in the UK. I was momentarily perplexed to find it didn’t have one. Then I checked on Amazon, and the situation became clear. In its lead actress’s home country, Beyond the Lights was going straight to DVD.

Much like “direct-to-video” before it, “straight-to-DVD” is not, generally speaking, a good omen. In the early Eighties, the former phrase had a certain grubby glamour, as films such as Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer and Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood – titles that would have been either heavily censored or banned outright if they’d been proposed for cinema release – were released uncut, entirely legally, on VHS tape.

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in 'The Spectacular Now' Credit: Everett/REX Shutterstock

But the ensuing “video nasty” panic put a stop to that, and the direct-to-video market instead became associated with films that simply didn’t merit a cinema release, rather than those that would be unlikely to legally obtain one.

But occasionally, great films with potentially enormous mass appeal end up in this predicament. The Spectacular Now, a critically praised teen movie with the voguish pairing of Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in the lead roles – Divergent meets Whiplash – slipped onto video on demand (VOD) services in the UK last summer with barely a squeak.

The brilliant, sticky-fingered horror anthology Trick ’r Treat, with Anna Paquin and Brian Cox, surfaced on DVD in 2009, two years after it first screened in the US. 

Then there was Brad Anderson’s supremely suspenseful rail-riding ensemble thriller Transsiberian, which ended up chugging through the snow for more than a year after its 2008 premiere at Sundance, eventually appearing on DVD without fanfare the following March. (And let’s not even get into missing-in-action titles such as James Gray’s The Immigrant and Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer: high-profile projects with A-list casts – Marion Cotillard,  Joaquin Phoenix, Tilda Swinton – which have yet to secure any kind of UK distribution.)

Timothy Spall as JMW Turner in Mike Leigh's 'Mr Turner'

So what’s going on? The story of Beyond the Lights’ quick march to supermarket shelves reveals a crack at the heart of the industry’s distribution model. It’s here that films which are neither on-trend enough to thrive at the multiplex nor highbrow enough to qualify as arthouse can all too easily tumble.

It’s rare for films as strong as Beyond the Lights to skirt cinemas entirely, but often they receive what’s called a limited release, in which a relatively small number of prints is sent out to a handful of cinemas in “key cities”, from which audience demand can be gauged.

Gina Prince-Bythewood (centre) directs Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker in 'Beyond the Lights' Credit: Everett/REX Shutterstock

When played right, the results can be cheering: Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner was strategically released in a relatively low-key 129 cinemas last year, and the resulting surge in interest – more than £7,000 made per cinema in its first week – allowed them to almost triple its screen count in the next fortnight, while profits grew in proportion. 

These are the kind of calculations Universal Pictures will have made while musing on Beyond the Lights’ fate in the UK market. When I spoke to Universal, they mentioned three key factors in the decision: the film’s theatrical under-performance in the States (it got lost in the November awards-season rush, thanks partly to its corny advertising); the crowded summer marketplace in the UK, which traditionally struggles to support more than one blockbuster and one alternative release per week; and the limited availability of the film’s cast and crew for promotional duties.

And these are all perfectly valid, sensible, depressing reasons to show a little caution. But there’s possibly another factor at work here, which has less to do with Universal than the inbuilt biases of the British cinema-going public: the race of the film’s two stars.

Though Beyond the Lights isn’t being theatrically released in the UK, it is screening twice at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in two weeks’ time. Mark Adams, EIFF’s artistic director, saw the film at its world premiere in Toronto last year.

John Cusack and Ione Skye in Cameron Crowe's 'Say Anything...' Credit: Everett Collection / Rex Features

“I just loved it from the start,” he tells me. “It’s schmaltzy, melodramatic and old-fashioned but also completely striking and contemporary. And I wanted to book it for Edinburgh as soon as I got into the office. But it’s a known issue that dramas with majority black casts don’t perform well in Britain, which means away from the festival circuit it was always going to be a tricky proposition.”

As a former critic for Screen International and The Hollywood Reporter, Adams is keenly aware of these kinds of market forces, and he points out that, while comedies with black casts tend to play well in Britain, dramas tend to fall by the wayside.

Reece Shearsmith in Ben Wheatley's Civil War film 'A Field in England' Credit: Dean Rogers

Last March, while the raunchy Kevin Hart comedy Ride Along was racking up £4.5  million at the UK box office, the far better-reviewed romantic drama About Last Night, also starring Hart, quietly came and went, making less than a 10th of Ride Along’s final take.

Grim as that may be, it doesn’t necessarily mean all hope for Beyond the Lights is lost. It’s rare that straight-to-video releases can become a respectable hit, but it happens. Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… originally bypassed UK cinemas in 1990, when it appeared on VHS a year after its US release, but it’s since become an accepted classic of the teen movie genre. And Kevin Smith’s slacker comedy Mallrats emerged on DVD in the late Nineties, though it’s since been screened to packed cinemas of audiences who discovered it at home.

In each film’s case, the taint of its original, straight-to-video release has vanished completely – and there are signs that perceptions are shifting. It’s worth noting that in the case of television, the equivalent stigma simply doesn’t exist: in fact, straight-to-VOD has become a prestige format, with series commissioned by Netflix and Amazon – among them Better Call Saul, Transparent and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – representing the very best of the art form rather than the dross.

Two summers ago, the independent cinema chain Picturehouse teamed up with Film4 and 4DVD to see if a similar strategy could be made to work for film. Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic period horror A Field in England was released in cinemas, on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD, and broadcast on Freeview television all on the same day. For the premium experience, you could go to the cinema – which, on opening night, included a satellite Q&A session with the director and cast – while those for whom finding a screening wasn’t practical, or who were wary of the film’s avant-garde leanings, could watch at home either paid-for or for free. 

It was a peculiar arrangement, but it suited this very peculiar film, and it’s hard not to wonder if Beyond the Lights might have thrived under similar treatment, with selected cinemas making a night of it, plus a home entertainment release that sells the film as the molten melodrama it is, rather than what its cover suggests will be a teeny-bopping dance flick.

As it is, if you’re fortunate enough to score a ticket for Beyond the Lights at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I hope it plays as well as I imagined it would during my in-flight viewing. And if you’re not, I can only urge you to try the DVD. It’s the best thing you won’t see at the cinema this year.

Beyond the Lights screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on June 22 and June 24 and is on DVD from June 29