During a recent interview with Indie Wire, champion of traditional cinema and auteur of our age Christopher Nolan attacked streaming giant Netflix and its approach towards the traditional theatrical distribution of films. Netflix is meeting opposition from the film establishment, shown by the negative reaction and booing that flagship film Okja received at Cannes. Nolan’s words could be dismissed as part of this knee-jerk reaction from the cinematic old guard loathsome towards change.
In reality, Nolan is right to call Netflix’s strategy to disrupt traditional cinema ‘absurd’. Nolan may not realise it in his interview, but he touches upon some deeper issues with both Netflix and the film industry today.
Fighting a content war
In Nolan’s own words, Netflix’s extensive investment in original content, along with liberal control afforded to writers and directors;’would be more admirable if it weren’t being used as some kind of bizarre leverage against shutting down theaters’. Netflix, successful in revolutionising television, perceives cinema as an extension of that industry, and the company says as much in its quarterly shareholder letter this July . Cinema and television are similar but distinct visual arts that need different approaches to conquer. Netflix won over television so quickly because an episode of an original series is far shorter than a feature length film. People are more willing to gamble twenty to fifty minutes on a show recommended by a friend than sit down and dedicate up to two hours to an unknown film which has few reviews from critics or approvals on Netflix.
An early rise has become mandatory for my summer job. In the mornings before I tackle the commute I watch the business reports while sipping coffee and pretending to be a grownup. Last week CNBC Europe’s Squawk Box had a heated discussion about booming tech shares. One of the presenters quipped that both Amazon and Netflix are locked in a content bidding war. I nodded along with the other hosts in approval.
Threatened by Amazon, Netflix has turned to cinema to retain existing subscribers and grab new ones from abroad. It is not suprising that after expanding into South East Asia last year, Netflix heavily invested into Okja, a Korean- American film directed by Bong Joon- ho, a South Korean directot with a strong appeal in the West and in the South East.
Unlike Amazon, Netflix sees cinema as a territory to be conquered for spoils, rather than an ally. Cinema and Netflix could certainly prosper together. For far too long cinema has been constrained by the ball and chain of the blockbuster and its inevitable franchise, leading to a torrid cycle of hollow superhero sagas, action flicks and CGI puppet shows of monsters and robots. Netflix is an outsider to the film industry, its independence and cash could have freed up film from some of the commercial demands placed upon it. Amazon Studios, as Nolan points out in his interview has taken a more tactful course, debuting films in cinemas before releasing them to its Amazon Prime subscribers 90 days later. Through this, Amazon Studios loses nothing and gains everything, it keeps cinema and critics happy, while generating revenue from film viewers and subscribers.
Where is Buster’s Mal Heart?
Over the last year there have been more films that I have wanted to see than films I have seen, not due to bad luck or poor time management, but because many of the films I anticipated never appeared. From the Lost City of Z to Song to Song and Buster’s Mal Heart, there have been a slew of films which I have highly anticipated, only for them to have minimal runs at local cinemas or no screenings at all.
Cinema is art and art always needs to be championed. Making cinema or any other form of art more accessible or available does not equate to a larger audience for that art, after all people need to know about a museum before they will ever visit. Netflix has assumed that once it makes its original films available, subscribers will flock to them but the opposite reaction is more probable. Okja was lavished with media attention and an advertising campaign, but so far I have found the smaller independent films created by Netflix to be far more enjoyable. Okja often felt like the director was trying to spend the leftovers of his enormous budget. Whole scenes in Okja were unnecessary and some of the major actors in the film, especially Giancarlo Esposito of Gustavo Fring fame, had minimal roles which would not have been missed. Opposite to Okja have been Win It All and Shimmer Lake, small independent films with a few substantial stars which shine with fantastic plots and performances. Both of these films have been starved of attention from critics and Netflix alike, but overshadow Okja with their ingenuity and realism.
The current situation with on-demand screening of films is exactly the same as how Nolan depicts the horror in the 1990’s of your film winding up with a direct to video release. Deprived of the fanfare of a theatrical release, a film would be at the mercy of luck to find an audience strong enough to champion that film until it became a success. Direct to video and on-demand release have the veneer of choice and accessibility, but viewers will not choose a film which they have heard nothing about, especially as a non theatrical release remains a sign of poor quality.
The strongest example of on-demand screening’s shortfalls are independent films like Buster’s Mal Heart. Shining with originality and starring Raimi Malek, Buster’s Mal Heart seemed filled with the soul wrenching eeriness of a Cormac McCarthy novel. I had been anticipating the film for months until I recently checked for screenings and found none. Buster’s Mal Heart received a brief, flickering presence on U.K. cinema screens before disappearing onto the internet. I am hoping to watch the film through You Tube Movies this week and a review will be linked here. While the internet seems to provide salvation to the overlooked and underappreciated films out there, I am someone who loves cinema and will seek out films that interest me. I am an exception amid the general audience. Unless a film is placed on the big screen either at the local art house cinema or multiplex, most people will not look for them. Even my local art house cinema in Manchester has reduced the availability of independent films in favour of commercial blockbusters. Song to Song, a Terence Malick film, only received a week slot before being removed. I do not know why cinemas both big and small, seem to be showing fewer films for less time. Part of me believes its a rationalisation that if the audience misses one film, they can catch it online.
Art needs to be championed, it needs to be given attention and granted the venue where it can best appreciated. Cinemas are and will continue to be the exhibition halls of film. While online streaming has a place in film, it would rob the art of its vibrancy if it supplanted cinemas outright.
By Saul Shimmin