Netflix: The Death of Cinema?

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Short Answer: No!

Oh you’d like me to elaborate, fair enough. Well before we delve into the matter at hand and what has started off this incessant debate throughout the media (namely words from one Mr Spielberg), let’s first go back to the beginning. It’s David Fincher’s fault! Back in 2012, Netflix was still nothing more than a library of old films and TV shows. One that had gotten close to shutdown numerous times as it sought to discover its place amongst the world. Streaming was yet to be really known as a verb, and Netflix & Chill less of a naughty euphemism rather two words that were ill fitted together. However on February 1st 2013 all of that changed. House of Cards was an American adaptation of a British political drama from the 80s, starring Hollywood power actor Kevin Spacey with a first episode directed by David (Fight Club) Fincher. All of this seems innocuous enough. TV drama was well within its so called Golden Age, with big name casts, massive budgets and inventive plots pretty common. This was something different. All episodes at once, ready and available for everybody to binge in one sitting should they feel the need. No more of this waiting week by week to soak up the next installment, this was hardline entertainment narcotics straight into the blood stream. Alongside that you had a relatively minor league media service funding and releasing its own material without the need for corporate overseers that have owned the monopoly on what we watch.

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House of Cards was far from cheap. Netflix shelling out $100 million for its first two seasons alone. Bearing in mind subscribers were still low in the grand scheme of things (globally there were 40 million Netflix watchers as of 2013, now its closer to 140 million), and they were largely untested at decision making their own product. It certainly helps that the finished product was so damn good, but critical love would have been nothing without audience recognition. In that Netflix had found a winner (sadly Netflix do not reveal viewership numbers-another controversial tactic that some find troublesome), with social media talk incredibly high. Now I know we’re not here to talk television. Netflix’s place amongst the pantheon of great TV makers has been settled, the sheer breadth of their original offerings staggering. But House of Cards did one very important thing for them. It gave them confidence.

After that the shows got bigger (not all of them a success, Hemlock Grove anyone?) and the numbers grew larger. Enough so that in 2014 word leaked out that they were considering branching out into original movies. However in order to hook viewers in the bosses at Netflix were keenly aware that what was required was brand recognition. A name that subscribers would see and immediately remember. In a decision I still cannot quite understand they went with a sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, subtitled Sword of Destiny. This was probably a way of indoctrinating itself to the emerging Asian market, as Netflix sought to become a stronger brand worldwide (its subscribers were still largely American in 2014). An even stranger choice when you consider it relatively flopped in Asia, its success largely a Western thing. Still the announcement was an indicator that Netflix was thinking big, and backing it up with the capital too.

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However before that debuted (owing to its larger budget it took until 2016 to release) Netflix swung for something wholly different as its first feature. Beasts of No Nation. The distinction being that this wasn’t fully financed by Netflix, rather it was an acquisition for the hefty sum of $12 million. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and starring Idris Elba, it was a sign of the films the streamer was really interested in. Diverse, challenging and most importantly never to be financed by the mainstream studios. Beasts is a 2 and a half hour treatise on child soldiers and the powerful painful cost of war. Using English and Twi languages to tell its muscular tale, and never doing anything to make itself palatable for regular film audiences. An awards prospect (Elba won a SAG award) but Beasts was the first sign of the trouble Netflix was about to make for the cinema chains.

Owing to its online debut hitting at the same time as its cinema release, 4 of the biggest chains in the U.S refused to show the film. Meaning Beasts could only get a limited release. Strict rules in America stipulate that for a film to show in its cinemas it needs to have an exclusive theater only run for 90 days, before it can appear in any other form. Netflix were unfazed by this, happy with their limited release (important because that way they could still be nominated for Oscars) and content that audiences around the world could easily see it online. The UK still gave it a traditional release (as opposed to the current controversy which I’ll move onto later). Emboldened by their success Netflix feverishly pursued a feature film output, made up of originals wholly funded by them and titles snapped up from across the world.

Don’t get me wrong, what followed were not always classy affairs, of the 12 films released in 2016 I cannot really recall any of them. But the confidence continued to grow. So much so that in 2018 alone Netflix released 500 original projects, of which 80 were films 100% financed by them.

So we’ve had a brief sojourn through the history of Netflix. But what’s all this controversy you ask?! It’s always been there. The challenges Beasts of No Nation faced were endemic of where things were bound to go. Yet it was a Korean film by Bong Joon-Ho that kicked things truly off..

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Okja is an odd film. A surreal fantasy about a strange creature as it befriends a young girl, and must battle against monstrous consumerists desperate to use it for its delicious meat. It tackles big corporations, environmental concerns and vegetarianism, but at its heart is a sweet relationship between girl and monster. One that owes a fair amount to Spielberg (ironic that he should so be opposed to a service that champions filmmakers clearly influenced by him), even if its a tonal misfire. Controversy landed when Netflix decided to enter it into the Cannes Film Festival. Premiering there to critical acclaim for the work but much reported boos from the crowd when the Netflix logo appeared before it. France is vehemently opposed to anything that goes against its strict cinema law (36 months between cinema release and home release as a minimum), and Okja, as well as the Noah Baumbach film The Meyerowitz Stories, did not adhere to these rules subsequently leading to Cannes festival head Thierry Fremaux to ban all Netflix films from being in the competition (meaning no Netflix film could win the Palme D’Or).

Netflix head honcho Ted Sarandos was not budging though, and stated that Netflix would from then on not allow any of its films be shown at the fest. Meaning subsequent Oscar winners such as Roma never even played there. So far so dull Hollywood in-fighting. Flash-forward to Feb 24th 2019 though, with Roma taking the awards for Best Foreign Language film, Best Cinematography and Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron, amongst 10 overall nominations including Best Picture. That award eventually went to Green Book, beginning its own share of backlash, but the real story came with a statement from one Steven Spielberg. As per the below comment from Indiewire

Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation,” an Amblin spokesperson told IndieWire. “He’ll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up [at the Academy Board of Governors meeting]. He will see what happens.”

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Spielberg has long spoken of his love for the theatrical experience and that it needs to be preserved for future generations. Netflix and its ability to provide all manner of entertainment right into viewers homes clearly clashes with that ideology. The passion is so strong from Spielberg about this that he is meeting with Academy bosses next week to demand they place stricter rules on what films can be eligible, namely that films nominated should meet the same stipulations as those metered out by the theater chains. 90 days exclusive run before a home release. Now don’t fall into the trap of what some sites are by calling this a Netflix boycott by Spielberg, as it is far from it. He simply wishes for films, particularly films given added push with audiences by being Oscar nominated, to be seen in the environment they are meant to be seen in. He wants nothing more than to preserve the very medium he loves. On a grander scale though this brings up conflicted feelings. A measure like this, should the Academy agree of course, may see Netflix ease off their desire to keep on making features. After all why would they finance something that most of their subscribers cannot see for 90 days. If that does become the case it would be a sad curtail to a studio (yes we should class them as equals with the likes of Paramount now) invested in real diversity.

Netflix more than any other studio is making the sort of films Hollywood fear to make precisely because the risk is lower for them. Their current model doesn’t require a lengthy advertising campaign, profit losing theater chain dealings and test screening changes to maximise audience potential that the other studios frequently deal with. They can make eclectic choices, daring decisions and fund fledgling talent simply because they want to. Spielberg himself has lamented at the loss of the mid-budgeted adult drama. The $60-80 million flick that so dominated the 80s and early 90s. One that prides character, subject matter and challenging material above pyrotechnics. Netflix is churning these out like no tomorrow. Only last year we got new projects from Paul Greengrass, Gareth Evans, The Coens Bros and David Mackenzie, amongst many many others. Netflix could do all this without the need to fund them via brainless popcorn entertainment (strangely the sort of material Netflix seem incapable of pulling off successfully, Bright for example).

In an annoying way I’m on both sides here, I want Netflix to continue what they’re doing, simply because the material is so damn exciting, but also I value the cinematic experience with such vigor I never want to see it disappear. Few offer the thrill of being in the dark with a bunch of strangers as you experience pain, joy and excitement together, cinema as community. What makes it harder though isn’t just Spielberg’s comment, but the actions recently undertaken by two of the biggest UK cinema chains…

 

Both chains have, in the wake of Roma’s Bafta success, released statements opposed to its recognition and a boycott of its awards members from their establishments, as per Metro

Penning an open letter to Bafta’s chief executive Amanda Berry on Monday, Tim Richards, founder and chief executive of Vue International, called the wins below the award’s ceremony’s ‘high standard.’ Richards wrote: ‘We believe that Bafta has not lived up to its usual high standards this year in choosing to endorse and promote a “made for TV” film that audiences were unable to see on a big screen. ‘It saddens me that the Academy has chosen to ignore the opportunity to defend this principle.’ The cinema chief exec even went as far as to withdraw his company’s support from the award ceremonies unless the academy awards revisited its judging rules. He continued: ‘I regret that in future we will not be able to support the Bafta awards as we usually do unless the Academy board reconsiders its eligibility criteria.’

Lots stand out here, namely the “Made for TV” film note. Spielberg has also used similar vernacular, and although not strictly true, its debut on Netflix is seen in many eyes to not be a true cinematic film. Far be it from me to debate the definition of what Film is, I do believe that there is a cynical edge to both chains releasing angry diatribes lamenting the cost to “film fans” of being able to see Roma on the big screen. Surely its success and likely monetary performance for them is what they’re truly missing, especially as Roma was available to see in Curzon Cinemas (owing to an exclusive deal made with them). Now I do wish I could have seen Roma on the big screen, its evocatively composed visuals and rich aural palate feeling lacking at home, but I still appreciated its mastery of cinema despite it never being seen in one. Surely the Oscars are meant to reward the best of Film, not just the best of ‘Cinema’. It also reeks of hypocrisy on Spielberg’s part when you realise most Academy members watch nominated films on screeners sent to their home, and ALL studios release films in limited release around Christmas just to be eligible for Oscar. Changing the rules for Academy nomination would affect everyone not just Netflix. If you thought the current award season was long, wait until every film has to be around for 90 days to be eligible. Oscar talk would officially begin as soon as the previous ceremony ended.

But how can we save things I hear you ask, yes you there in the back! Well that’s a much harder question to answer. Out of all the suggestions I’ve seen bandied about over the last week I’d argue the best is the idea that Netflix offer a higher subscription price for those that wish to see their original films in the cinema, offering you a code that you can use to see it at the cinema alongside the regular moviegoers who may opt to see them in the cinema on a whim anyway. Still flawed don’t get me wrong, but with refinement and agreements with the theater chains there could be a way forward.

I must admit I probably haven’t encapsulated things as strongly as I would’ve wanted to here.  But it is not the easiest of debates to wrap your head around. All I can safely say is that both sides are in the right, both sides have the noblest of intentions, both sides love film. It certainly doesn’t help that it involves Steven Spielberg, easily my favourite filmmaker ever. The most important note I will make however is for all Spielberg’s concerns; last year cinema attendance was the highest in the UK since 1970 at 170 million, and overall worldwide grosses were a record $41 billion, so cinema appears very much in rude health. Cinema is a lot stronger than a House of Cards.

 

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