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Monday 23 September 2019

Is Netflix killing cinema?

Mudbound has four Oscar nominations but many cinemagoers won't have heard of the Netflix film because of the corporation's hardline straight-to-stream policy. But is a future where the major award contenders never make it to the big screen something we should be looking forward to, asks our film critic

New era: Mudbound has never been released in the cinema
New era: Mudbound has never been released in the cinema
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Among the films jostling for attention at next month's Academy Awards is one that most Irish cinemagoers will never have heard of. Mudbound, a moving and accomplished drama set in 1940s Mississippi, has been nominated for four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay - and, in my opinion, it should have got a Best Picture nomination, too as it's a cut above some of the films that did.

Yet it will never be seen at your local multiplex because it was backed by Netflix and released on their streaming service rather than in cinemas. The all-conquering entertainment company has been at this for some time, backing the production of high-quality feature films that cut out the middle man of theatrical distribution in favour of intimate screenings on customers' computers and televisions. Is that a bad thing? I think so, but not everyone would agree.

Mudbound, in any case, is high-quality film-making. Directed by Dee Rees, and based on a bestselling novel by Hillary Jordan, it tells the story of the vexed relationship between a white farming family and their impoverished African-American neighbours. Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan play Henry and Laura McAllan, a young couple with two children who move to a remote rural Mississippi backwater to run their own small farm.

Though slavery was supposedly abolished 80-odd years before, not a lot has changed in the old South. The old presumptions of white superiority are alive and well, and Henry keeps bullying his black neighbour Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) into dropping everything to help him. The Ku Klux Klan prowl by night, and black folk live in fear of violence and reprisal, but when Hap's son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry's younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) return from World War II, they form an interracial friendship which threatens the local status quo.

Mary J Blige is superb as Ronsel's mother, and well deserves her Oscar nomination, but the performances all around are very strong and Mudbound is among the best films I've seen over the past year. But it's a bit of a shock to see something this good getting released exclusively on television. So what are Netflix up to, and should moviegoers be concerned?

Christopher Nolan certainly thinks so. The English director, whose epic film Dunkirk is up for eight Academy Awards and was shown in glorious 70mm format in cinemas across the globe last year, reckons that Netflix "has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films.

They have, he said recently, "this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical representation. So they're not even getting in the game, and I think they're missing a huge opportunity".

Nolan is referring to the fact that even when Netflix have given their films a small theatrical run, they do it simultaneously with the streaming release, thereby guaranteeing poor box office.

"I think the investment Netflix is putting into interesting film-makers and interesting projects would be more admirable if it weren't being used as some kind of bizarre leverage against shutting down theatres," he concluded. "It's so pointless - I don't get it." Their approach, he firmly believes, "diminishes movies".

Other streaming corporations who've moved into film production have adopted less fundamentalist lines. Amazon Studios, which is becoming increasingly active in movie production, bought Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea at the Sundance Festival in 2016, and made sure it got a proper cinema release followed by a respectful pause before they streamed it. Other quality Amazon-backed projects like Elvis & Nixon and Paterson were treated with similar reverence.

Netflix, though, has no time for such niceties, and is ploughing on aggressively with their straight-to-stream approach. Cary Fukunaga's critically acclaimed 2015 film Beasts of No Nation began the trend: distributed by Netflix, it was given only a limited cinema release in the US and streamed online simultaneously.

Last year, Netflix outraged cinema purists at Cannes by showcasing two highly regarded films, Noah Baumbach's comic drama The Meyerowitz Stories, and Bong Joon-ho dark fantasy Okja. Both were selected to compete for the Palme d'Or, but neither got a proper theatrical release, and the Netflix logo was loudly booed by the reliably partisan Cannes crowds any time it appeared.

Indeed, it could be argued that there's a residual resentment of Netflix's antics within the Academy, because Okja was an exceptionally bold and imaginative piece of storytelling that might not have been overlooked at this year's Oscars if had been given a cinematic run anywhere outside its native South Korea.

But Netflix isn't going away. Before Christmas they released a Will Smith sci-fi blockbuster called Bright, which cost $90m to make but was streamed exclusively, becoming one of their biggest hits to date, according to them that is - the company is notoriously vague about viewing figures.

Next year, they will be teaming up with Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro to make a highly anticipated gangster picture, The Irishman: how they will approach that release remains to be seen.

While one could argue that Netflix might get a better return for their money if they gave films like Okja or Bright or The Meyerowitz Stories a proper release, they don't seem to care. Their focus is exclusively on broadening their subscription base by giving customers a better package than the competition. To date, they've done this very successfully by making high-quality TV shows like Narcos, Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, Mindhunter and House of Cards, but movies have become a growing focus over the last two years.

Why are they bothering, you might ask, when they could just buy in loads of existing films to bolster their catalogue. It's not that simple. Netflix's roster of movies is, in these parts at any rate, the weakest aspect of their package: acquiring movie rights has never been easy and, meanwhile, a giant rival is stirring in Hollywood. Disney, which owns Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and a whole lot more, will launch its own streaming service next year, and presumably from now on will be keeping all its movies to itself.

So if Netflix wants to keep hold of its 110 million subscribers worldwide and maybe add to them, it will need a healthy stockpile of new and original products. And when it comes to movies, they've clearly decided that the only way to achieve that is to start making them themselves.

Netflix executives and the film directors who collaborate with them may argue that it doesn't matter who makes movies or how they're released, as long as they're good. Well, I happen to think that we watch films in a completely different way in a cinema, more intently and completely, that cinemagoing is a communal experience, and that a giant screen in a darkened room is the ideal environment in which to enjoy them, without the competing distractions of mobile phones.

But if, in a decade or so, half of the Best Picture Oscar nominations involve films that were streamed straight into your living room, the cinema's status as an international cultural institution may be in trouble.

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