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Thursday 23 May 2019

Battle royal: Netflix takes on Hollywood but what does this mean for the future of film?


Exception rather than the rule: Roma’s Oscar success was a big feather in the cap for Netflix
Exception rather than the rule: Roma’s Oscar success was a big feather in the cap for Netflix
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

With the Cannes festival just weeks away, another potential spat has emerged involving Netflix. A Netflix-distributed film called Wounds, a daft-sounding horror starring Armie Hammer, has been included in the Directors' Fortnight, an industry showcase that runs in conjunction with the main festival.

Films are selected by the French Directors Guild, and being included is considered a great honour. But festival director Thierry Frémaux may not be amused at the inclusion of Wounds, because Cannes and Netflix have been at loggerheads for the past two years. Their dispute is complex but fundamental, and comes down to two radically different ideas of what cinema is and where its future might lie.

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In 2017, two Netflix-produced films, Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, were selected to compete for the Palme d'Or. Both were well received, but when it became clear that Netflix planned to stream Okja online that June, and Meyerowitz soon after, all hell broke loose.

French law states there must be a 36-month gap between cinema release and streaming release in that territory. That may sound old-fashioned, but speaks to a proud tradition of cinema as a communal, public experience - and such protectionist measures are one of the reasons why the French film industry is the healthiest in Europe, and the biggest global exporter of movies after the US.

None of which seems to have impressed Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos, who made some snitty remarks before deciding not to theatrically release the two films in France at all. Frémaux responded by stating that if Netflix or any other producer refused to commit to theatrical release in France, they would be barred from competing at Cannes.

As a consequence, last year's festival was denied the chance to showcase Orson Welles' lovingly restored final film, The Other Side of the Wind, or premiere Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, which may well have won the Palme d'Or and went on to win three Oscars. And no Netflix-produced films will be eligible for competition this year either.

That all may sound quite petty, but could be considered one front in a global conflict between the streaming giant and traditional film-making. To put it simply, Netflix do not seem all that keen on theatrically releasing their movies, and may be antagonistic to the whole cinema concept.

Before we get all high and mighty, it ought to be noted that over the last five or six years Netflix has single-handedly revolutionised home entertainment, and for the better. It was they who pioneered the idea of binge-watching dramas and documentary series through subscription to an online library of content. Around 2013 they began producing original content, including such must-see dramas as Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things and House of Cards. Suddenly, terrestrial TV schedules seemed hopelessly antediluvian. Netflix now have almost 150 million subscribers worldwide.

It was inevitable that they'd eventually branch out into movie-making: in the streaming world, content is king, and when it became clear that industry giants like Disney were going to set up their own streaming channels, Netflix knew that they'd have to start making, or at least co-producing, films of their own. But the cinema is not necessarily where they'd want to be showing them.

While distressing for old-fashioned cinephiles like your correspondent, Netflix's attitude is entirely understandable from their perspective. Their whole business model is based around people watching things at home, on TVs and computer screens, sometimes in different rooms at the same time. They have no interest in romantic notions about the inclusive joys of cinema-going, and have shown robust contempt for the quaint notion that movies are meant for the big screen.

Other streaming services, like Amazon Prime, have seemed less threatened by the cinematic model, and have given their films proper theatrical releases with a respectful pause before online streaming. But there's evidence that streaming rivals are now beginning to follow Netflix's more hardline approach, which tends to protect at all costs the exclusivity of their online content.

Roma, for instance, was given several weeks in the cinema in the US before streaming, in order to qualify for Oscar consideration, but less than a week in this territory - and in only a smattering of cinemas. The big screen, it seems, is an antiquated nuisance to which lip service is paid only when it makes good business sense: Roma's Oscar success was a big feather in the Netflix cap.

It has to be said, though, that in terms of quality, Roma is the exception rather than the rule in the Netflix-produced movie cannon. The company's forays into science-fiction have been particularly disappointing: the 2017 Will Smith vehicle Bright was universally panned, as were the 2018 sci-fi dramas Extinction and Bird Box.

Stinkers like The Ridiculous 6, Father of the Year, The Kissing Booth, How it Ends, Mute, Brain on Fire, The Week Of and Paradox have led some to question the amount of oversight in Netflix-produced movies, and wonder if the goal at the moment is quantity rather than quality.

But traditional Hollywood studios make plenty of bad films, too, and more upsetting for me is the sight of good movies debuting on Netflix with barely a sight of a cinema. The Coen brothers' latest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, was given only a week-long limited release in US cinemas before streaming, and was not theatrically released over here at all.

"We understand that our approach to films - debuting movies on Netflix first - is counter to Hollywood's century-old windowing tradition," a company spokesman said in passing a few years back. "But just as we changed and reinvented the TV business by putting consumers first and making access to content more convenient, we believe internet TV can similarly reinvigorate the film business."

Reinvigorate is an interesting choice of word, and as you'd expect, Hollywood's heavy hitters are not universally sanguine about Netflix's growing power. Steven Spielberg has described Netflix films as "TV movies", and has echoed the Cannes stance in wondering aloud whether or not a film that isn't released in cinemas should be eligible for Academy Awards.

Helen Mirren, as is her wont, put the traditionalists' stance more bluntly. "I love Netflix," she said recently, "but f*** Netflix!", adding that "there is nothing like sitting in a cinema."

By which she means, one presumes, that while we can all appreciate the huge increase in choice Netflix has given TV consumers, we don't want them to undermine the distribution process that underpins the cinema industry. "Netflix my ass!", Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman is said to have proclaimed after emerging from a presentation of Blade Runner 2049, and one could see his point, because Denis Villeneuve's magnificent sci-fi epic is a perfect example of a movie that is hardly worth watching on a television. It should be noted, though, that almost no one went to see it.

Netflix, meanwhile, are ploughing blithely on. Recent reports suggest the company is borrowing as much as $2bn to grow its film-making ambitions, and plans to begin churning out as many as 90 movies a year.

Among its upcoming releases are new films by Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Charlie Kaufman and Martin Scorsese, whose long-awaited gangster epic The Irishman will, we are promised, get a theatrical release, though probably a brief one.

Like it or not, Netflix is now effectively a major film studio, which releases and distributes its movies instantaneously, by pushing a button.

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