The Obligatory “Is Netflix Killing Movies?” Piece

Short answer: no.  Long answer: no, except also kind of…

Ah, yes, this whole discourse subject.  In late 2015, after having spent two-and-a-half years dipping its toes into the Original Content game via TV shows, stand-up specials, and documentaries (I actually remember it being a big deal when the company picked up the rights to The Square in late 2013), Netflix finally got into the business of making their own movies.  From those humble beginnings with Cary Fukanaga’s “eh” Beasts of No Nation and Happy Madison’s expectedly awful The Ridiculous 6, the online streaming giant’s slate has only gotten more prolific – they have released 47 original movies to their streaming service this year, and that’s excluding co-productions and films they only distributed – and wider in its scope.  Now even including Spanish black-comedies and Portuguese westerns, not to mention the kinds of dramas that, were there not an inherent scepticism towards and resulting bias against streaming services at the moment, would normally be prime Awards Season contenders.

Netflix wants to make real inroads into being a respected name in the field, and with that comes the expected snobbery-laden backlash.  You’ll likely have heard the stories about boos raining down upon Okja for having the nerve to open with the Netflix logo at Cannes this year, whilst you basically couldn’t move in the Film Criticism sphere in 2017 without stumbling over forteen new articles all asking the question I derisively put in the headline to this very piece.  It’s a tired, arbitrary, and, let’s be honest, dead topic of conversation.  And yet…  It’s not one devoid of interest and nuance, all things considered.  I have been thinking about the position that Netflix is in a lot as of late, given that this is the first year to feature Netflix Original Movies on both of my End of Year lists (instead of just one).  So, because I wanted to do a Year-End article that’s not in the format of a list and says something about the wider scope of the industry, and because the alternative (“Is Twin Peaks a FILM or a TV SHOW FUCKING SHOOT ME”) is so utterly asinine to me, and because I am all about being several months late to things – but mainly because I didn’t find the time to rewatch Wonder Woman in order to discuss No Man’s Land, like I wanted to – let’s talk about this well-trodden ground.

Let’s begin by definitively answering that big question: “Is Netflix killing movies?”  And the firm, definitive, total, and absolute answer to this question that means we never need trot out one of these articles again no matter how many clicks they get is: no.  No, they’re not.  Of course, they’re fucking not.  Unless they’ve constructed a time machine, travelled hundreds of years into the past, destroyed Thomas Edison’s schematics for the Kinetoscope, murdered the Lumiére Brothers, and left an army of sleeper agents in all instances of recorded history, past and future, with the sole purpose of preventing the creation of both the technology required to make movies, but also the entire concept of telling stories through the medium of moving pictures displayed to a mass audience, then Netflix cannot kill movies.  Don’t be so fucking melodramatic.

But, ok, I’m being faceatious.  I know that when people ask that question, they are not referring to the death of the medium, but rather the idea of “movies” and of “cinema” and all that jazz.  That movies are this special experience, best appreciated in a purpose-built setting, akin to a night out or a date, and that watching it at home inherently cheapens the experience.  And whilst I myself do believe in the experience of the cinema, I’ve never been able to join that kind of militant veneration about the idea of “cinema,” mainly because, yeah, the cinema can suck sometimes.  I mean, let’s be honest, if anything has been killing the idea of “cinema” these past few years, it’s been the cinemas themselves.

Yeah, other people can be pains in the arse sometimes, but that’s only one flaw in the whole idea.  Extortionate concession prices and rising ticket costs at a time where more people are being hit by a shrinking economy are especially to blame – at that failed Greatest Showman screening attempt I mentioned yesterday, it would have cost me £9.79 for one ticket.  If it weren’t for loyalty schemes like Cineworld Unlimited, I wouldn’t be able to afford going to the cinema more than twice a month, let alone once a week to see multiple films in a day.  For most people nowadays, the cinema is a luxury they can only afford every so often, which is why they’ll gravitate largely to the biggest and most sure-fire bets when they do turn up, so cinemas end up taking less chances in the slates they do show, punishing Film Nerds who live in remote shitholes without any real independent cinemas.  The studios, for their part, are only exacerbating matters with just how draconian their screening and share demands are.  Disney made headlines for all the wrong reasons when news of their Last Jedi details leaked out, but even as objectively unreasonable as those demands were, what’s most disturbing is the fact that it’s only slightly worse for The Last Jedi than it has been for other big-ticket films.

This forces cinemas to up their prices so they can stay in operation, which in turn makes going to the cinema more prohibitively expensive, which means that less people go consistently, which means that box offices overall take a hit, which means that everybody complains about reasons that have nothing to do with the problem at hand, and the cycle repeats over and over again.  Today’s pariah is Netflix and streaming services, but I remember when the thing that was going to KILL THE MOVIES was the booming video game industry, and before that it was going to be affordable wide-screen TVs and surround sound systems, and before that Home Media, and before that TV, and then you can also throw in conditional excuses that others like to point to such as boxing matches or football clashes or just sports in general.  None of these have killed the idea of “movies” or “cinema,” and none of them ever will, because movies and cinema are doing a fine enough job of killing themselves – also capitalism is to blame, but you likely figured that out already.

Cinema then resorts to very expensive gimmicks that actively detract from the simple purity of movie-watching – there is now this thing called 4DX, that turns the experience of watching a film into an almost literal rollercoaster, and I cannot for the life of me conceive of the person who sincerely thought this was a good idea.  Whilst studios themselves worsen the situation by trying to make EVERYTHING a blockbuster, or a sequel, or a reboot, or part of a universe of movies that you need to have seen all of in order to fully understand the latest, since the best-performing films of the year for a good while have largely been sequels to established franchises.  I can understand the short-sighted reasoning behind this, but it instead leads to the flipside where if EVERYTHING is a blockbuster, NOTHING is a blockbuster, and a lot of films start to feel samey and you blow over $200 million on a remake of The Mummy designed to launch a cinematic universe of Universal Monsters characters that NOBODY WANTED.

So, yeah, if anyone’s killing “movies” and “cinema,” then it’s the very people whinging about such things – admittedly, this argument relies solely upon financial aspects, since I am on-record as saying that this was a phenomenal year for the movies creatively, but this whole article is a post-post-ironic thing as is, so hush.  Netflix’s slate may still be voluntarily giving money to Happy Madison, but I don’t see anybody else having the stones to fund a film as singular and manic as Bong Joon-ho’s Okja.  Paramount ditched the North American distribution rights to The Little Prince without warning in early-2016, a week before it was due for release, leading to Netflix swooping in and making the delightful save.  This year they’ve funded films by Noah Baumbach, Angelina Jolie, Mike Flanagan, Charlie McDowell, Joe Swanberg, James C. Strouse, Eli Craig…  They even distributed Dee Rees’ adaptation of Mudbound, which normally would be exactly the kind of thing that Fox Searchlight or someone similar would have made the centrepiece of their Oscar chances!  All this without even mentioning their continuing commitment to documentary features in an era where such films never get a wide distribution.

Whilst none of these are films that exactly break the bank in terms of budget, they do showcase a desire to fund interesting, exciting, and up-and-coming filmmakers with their own unique voices; it’s not too different from what A24 have been spending their brief existence doing.  Plus, outside of that, Netflix have focussed their efforts on bringing back the Mid-Budget Movie, the low-key and usually forgettable films that are neither the big must-see tentpoles, but also never quite good enough to earn real prestige (some of those filmmakers up-top fall into this category).  You can debate the merits of these films as works of art all you want, but they are vital for the ecosystem of the American film industry, allowing indie darlings or journeyman filmmakers to hone their craft and expand their talents with budgets and scale that are larger than that of something truly independent but also not overwhelming, and it’s been a travesty to watch studios largely kill them off because they aren’t guaranteed opening weekend projections of $60 mil+.  I mean, when was the last time you saw a major studio make a film like Diedra & Laney Rob a Train?  Before anybody points to Lionsgate and Wonder, you’ve inadvertently proven my point by doing so due to Wonder’s status as an anomaly.

In conclusion, then, Netflix aren’t killing movies.  In fact, if anything, they’re doing far more to try and save them than the studios and cinemas themselves are.  And even if the old ways die, then is that necessarily a bad thing?  Just because the way we get our movies is changing, that doesn’t mean that they’re inherently becoming less valuable as art or that people are going to stop making them altogether even when there’s no money in it.  Painters still paint, musicians still music, novelists still novel, so filmmakers aren’t going to suddenly stop filming just because the money in it is dwindling.  That’s the reason why art will be around forever.  No matter what, some people will just be compelled to create, to express themselves artistically, and a streaming service’s move into a space it hadn’t previously occupied is not going to snuff out that creative drive in every single film-based artist the world over.  Art has value regardless of how it is experienced and, if anything, the democratisation of that art, breaking down artificial and often classist barriers between that art and the potential audience of said, is better for art as a whole.  So, no, Netflix aren’t killing movies.

…although there is this one thing that’s been bugging me.

Way back in that opening paragraph, I mentioned that Netflix have produced and released 47 original movies over the previous twelve months.  That is a number I discovered from counting up the valid entries on Netflix’s Wikipedia page, and does not include documentaries or those films that received exclusive foreign distribution by them but they otherwise had no stake in the creation of – in the UK, this year, these included 6 Days (which received the same treatment as The Little Prince), The Circle, The Bad Batch, and What Happened to Monday? among others.  Many of those titles I had never even heard of prior to looking through for article purposes; not just ones like iBoy or Coin Heist, but even the critically-acclaimed Angelina Jolie film that came out in mid-September, on the same day as the similarly undermarketed sleeper-hit series American Vandal.  I didn’t know that Eli Craig had made a new film, let alone what it was about or that Netflix had produced it, until Little Evil randomly appeared in the Netflix Originals subheading two months after it had first dropped.

Netflix makes a lot of content, and they’re still primarily thought of in the Original Content game for their television shows more than anything else, so it’s understandable that they’d have to prioritise what they do and don’t give marketing pushes to.  But in a lot of instances, the impression I get is one of downright negligence or, worse, a belief that all of this content is just that: content.  Nebulous, amorphous, anonymous content.  Not something worthy of touting the importance of or carrying any significant weight, but just more gristle for the mill, something you watch to occupy an hour or two and then promptly forget about.  To go back to Mudbound: if Fox Searchlight had distributed that movie, I would have been hearing about it for months, it would have played all of the festivals, I would have been inundated by news and reviews extolling its greatness, it would have been pushed hard with “For Your Consideration” ads as far as the eye could see…  With Netflix, it played a few festivals, maybe two critics I know briefly sang its praises, and then I found out it had been released on the service a full fortnight after it was first added.  That’s it.

Look, to be fair, all Netflix is doing with their service nowadays is reflecting the way that a large majority of its users perceive films as a whole.  You have access to a wide selection of films so, whenever you’re bored or have time to kill or whatever, you just scroll mindlessly through until you find something that catches your eye and throw it on.  Rarer are the people who sit down with the intention of watching something specific, which is why the Watchlist is only occasionally the first thing you see when you start up the app, buried underneath 700-odd algorithm-created suggestions tailored to the stuff you’ve already seen.  It’s the same thinking that makes finding genuinely new music on Spotify a crapshoot, because everything is now moving towards algorithms that provide an unspecified-curated experience designed to comfort the user rather than challenge or genuinely excite them.  It turns everything into just content.  More and more content, inherently training the user into downplaying any emotional response or connection it may cause and minimising its value.  Next film starts in 20 seconds.

That’s what I find most worrying about Netflix.  Well, not so much “worrying” as more “frustrating.”  I recognise that the stock that I put into movies is more than a lot of regular people do, even some of my fellow former-Film Studies friends do the “scrolling randomly through Netflix” thing whilst also still being passionate about movies, and I am especially guilty of filling up my Watchlist and then never getting around to 95% of it.  But I can’t help wishing Netflix would try a little harder with making its content feel like it has value.  And it’s not even limited to their Original Productions!  If I want to find out what’s recently been added to or is soon departing Netflix, then the easiest way is to visit an entirely different and unaffiliated website that tells me, each day, what’s been added or removed.  Trying to find out what’s been added on Netflix otherwise is a battle with two different, contradictory and algorithmically-buggered subcategories often buried deep within – “Recently Added” which is almost always out of date and “New Releases” which is often meaningless – whilst the only way you find out something is leaving on the service is that a little “expires on [x]” appears in the bottom left corner of a film when you manually click on it.  Maybe you’ll get lucky and find that fact out two weeks before removal instead of two days, or even find out at all since no notification is given when a film does leave.

Then Bright happened.  We’ll get into Bright on my Bottom 10 Films list later on the week, on which it ranks very high, but Bright is Netflix’s first attempt at an Original Blockbuster and the textbook definition of an Alt-Tab movie.  Something you leave running in the background whilst blindly scrolling through other stuff, switching back to briefly every time you hear an explosion or a Will Smith one-liner that sounds badass only if you’re paying absolutely zero attention to the words coming out of his mouth, then Alt-Tabbing back to whatever it was you were doing beforehand.  What’s most disconcerting about this, and is something that I share with David Ehrlich when he called Bright the worst film of 2017, is that it indicates a conscious desire to create films designed to be actual background noise, to further devalue the artistry of the medium by appealing directly to the basest and most low-effort parts of us.  To consciously train us to see less and less value in Film yet still fork over the money (or however Netflix’s mad business model turns a profit) for something to back Skype calls to.

And it’s disconcerting to me specifically because, even with 2017’s phenomenal year creatively, it’s not that far removed from how a large majority of blockbusters operate now.  Michael Bay’s Transformers has earned over $4 billion lifetime doing a slightly-lesser version of what Bright does, and whilst The Last Knight going full-Bright (before Bright was even a thing) caused a franchise-low in box office gross, I fear that Knight’s mistake was asking people to pay money for the direct privilege of seeing it, whereas Bright is merely additional content that comes with everything else.  The worst blockbusters are slightly-less contemptuous versions of Bright, in the same way that Netflix isn’t killing the idea of “movies” so much as it is amplifying baser human instincts under the guise of “usability” (which is especially hilarious for anybody that has actually tried to navigate Netflix’s user interface).  This, of course, is also all without going into an additional 750 words about the gradual phasing-out of movies released pre-late-2000s, but we should really wrap this up.

I still don’t think Netflix is killing movies, or any such bollocks like that.  But I do fear that their prioritisation of raw content numbers over taking pride in what that content is risks devaluing their work and the work of others.  It is, admittedly, nothing far removed from how most studios see their line-up of films anyway, but just because Netflix wants to play with the big boys, doesn’t mean that they should also adopt the big boys’ worst habits.

Tomorrow: it’s the first half of The 3rd Annual Callum Petch Awards.

Callie Petch is infinitely content.

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