Netflix isn’t a threat to cinema, it’s simply providing healthy competition
Drowning out the usual palaver—prizes were handed out, deals were made, hideous posters for upcoming movies were unveiled —the biggest story out of Cannes this year was the Netflix controversy. The two movies that Ted Sarandos brought to the Croisette—Bong Joon-ho’s monster movie-cum-capitalist satire Okja and Noah Baumbach’s familial comedy-drama The Meyerowitz Stories—suffered a cool reception before they even played. Audience members booed when the Netflix logo appeared in the films’ opening credits, while prior to their screening 2017 jury president Pedro Almodovar hinted that he wouldn’t even be considering handing out awards to any Netflix productions.
For Almodovar, echoing the sentiments of the French film industry, platforms such as Netflix, while “enriching,” “should not take the place of existing forms like movie theaters.” The implication by the Cannes faithful, above all, has been that Netflix is a threat not just to the existing business model of cinema, but to the purity of the medium itself. In the future, new rules might bar any Netflix movies from appearing at Cannes again. The festival reiterated a commitment to a “traditional mode of exhibition of cinema,” as Netflix went on to play there for the first and potentially last time.
Change is always jarring, and of course film-lovers will appreciate what Almodovar has called “the capacity of hypnosis of the large screen.” But cinema has not just been about the theater experience for some time, distributors have been experimenting with all kinds of different release strategies for years, and Netflix reaching almost 100 million subscribers hasn’t stopped people from going to the theater altogether (though attendance is down in the US, it’s up in Europe). No matter what rules Cannes enforces, change has come, but contrary to how Almodovar and co. see it, home streaming is coming to co-exist with theatergoing—people pay for access to Netflix, as they continue to pay for entry into the cinema.
The idea of film as an art form under dire threat from streaming services seems fanciful. Television, home video and the internet did not kill off people’s affection for cinema. Theater attendance may drop with increased home access to new movies, but regardless, a movie is a movie whether we see it for the first time in a theater or on TV, and to subscribe to the anti-streaming snobbishness is to ignore what a service like Netflix can bring to the table for cinema. The best movies on Netflix lists lining the internet are proof of its effectiveness.
As well as backing those mediums—and low-budget projects that Hollywood has been somewhat taking for granted of late, Netflix is making its own blockbusters, but the platform’s idea of popular cinema is distinctly more offbeat than that which you’ll find in theaters. Whereas a screen blockbuster is nine times out of ten a prequel, sequel, sidequel or reboot of a film you’ve already seen, a Netflix blockbuster looks like Okja, or Bright, a $90 million gritty cop thriller set in an LA where humans and mythical creatures live side-by-side. General audiences have yet to get a look at these (though critics have already seen Okja, and largely approve), but one thing is clear sight unseen: where film studios increasingly downplay risk by turning out movies based on already familiar material, Netflix is prepared to gamble by sinking sizeable sums of money into original, weirder properties.
One thing the likes of Almodovar should be able to recognize is that Netflix, for all it represents cinematic heresy to the purists, is at least seeking to offer a range of movies that the studios aren’t. Oddball blacklist films like Bubbles, a stop-motion animation from Taika Waititi about the life of Michael Jackson’s pet monkey, have found a home there. Long-gestating passion projects are finally getting made: there’s The Irishman, a film Martin Scorsese has been trying to get off the ground for years and which now has a $100 million greenlight from Netflix; Mute, a Blade Runner-esque sci-fi that Moon director Duncan Jones couldn’t get financed until Netflix came along; and perhaps most excitingly of all, Orson Welles’ final, as-yet unfinished feature film, The Other Side of the Wind, which, thanks to a Netflix cash injection, will at last be completed and screened after spending more than 40 years on the shelf.
Netflix is getting behind the kind of medium-budget films that the Hollywood system, through its obsession with ever more bloated franchise movies, has lately been neglecting. On Friday came a preview of the direction the service is heading in, as Netflix released David Michod’s War Machine, a mature, low-action, $60 million black comedy-drama about the American war in Afghanistan starring Brad Pitt. The film’s a (beautifully composed) mixed bag, but still beats much of what’s showing on the big screen right now. War Machine is a film which Michod, the man behind the acclaimed Animal Kingdom and The Rover, says he simply couldn’t have gotten made within the traditional studio system.
Michod isn’t the only contemporary auteur who’s struggled down the studio route but secured deals with Netflix. Andrew Dominik will finally realise the Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde here, while J.C. Chandor may break his bad luck streak and at last make embattled drug war drama Triple Frontier. As for the original Netflix features lower down the price range, like Tramps and I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore, the fact of the matter is that Netflix is not only replacing the indie subsidiaries like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures that studios have been closing down—the streaming service bypasses cinemas and immediately brings to home release the kinds of small movies that barely see the inside of a theater anyway. Cineastes will take Almodovar’s and the wider Cannes community’s point—film was invented for a cinema screen, and there’s yet to be a mode of viewing that beats it—but the truth is, without Netflix, these films wouldn’t even exist. A disadvantage is that we must watch these movies at home; the upside is we get to watch them at all.
Netflix isn’t going to be responsible for the death of the traditional theatergoing experience. It’s simply another alternative, one that provides healthy, and perhaps necessary, competition. Netflix is backing movies that the industry would otherwise have been cautious to bankroll (can you imagine any of the major studios throwing millions of dollars at a Ridley Scott-produced J.G. Ballard sci-fi?). If staying home is what it takes to see the new Scorsese or an at-last-completed Welles, so be it. The cinema will still be there for whatever it is the studios continue to make.