Quite a lot of virtual ink has been spilled on the IS6621 blog about Netflix, and for good reason – the company has fundamentally changed how we consume movies and television. But an interesting dynamic of the Netflix equation has recently come to the forefront, one that pits the old guard of cinema up against the new age: are Netflix original films worthy of the same treatment as traditional theatrical releases? It’s a question that has reached some of the titans of the industry, including Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, and Martin Scorsese, and it’s apparent that not all of these influencers are on Netflix’s side. Are we experiencing a “cold war” between proponents of digital vs. theatrical distribution? Are Netflix originals glorified TV movies, as critics would accuse, or are they the real deal?
The event that set off this recent debate was the recent announcement that Netflix original films would not be competition eligible at France’s Cannes Film Festival, one of the most important and prestigious film festivals in the world. The past year, two Netflix originals, the whimsical “Okja” and family drama “Meyerowitz Stories”, were entered into the competition to compete for the vaunted “Palme d’Or” prize, a decision that received scrutiny from much of the film press.
At the center of the conflict is a French law that states that films must have a 36 month long gap between their theatrical release and availability on streaming services. For Netflix, which either releases films simultaneously in streaming and a limited theatrical release, or abandons a theatrical release entirely in favor of immediate streaming, this was bad news. But they stuck to their guns, and the debate that followed has resulted in a Cannes Film Festival without a Netflix presence. It seems strange that one of the most influential producers in the industry would be flat-out excluded from Cannes, but it speaks to just how passionate both sides are about this debate.
Genuine cinema legends have voiced strong opinions about Netflix and their distribution methods. Steven Spielberg, probably the most famous American director alive, said that Netflix originals that are not given a wide release should not be up for Oscar consideration, and should be technically considered as “TV movies”; Emmys are fine, he says, but no Oscars. They simply do not meet his criteria for a movie. Christopher Nolan, director of Dunkirk, the Batman trilogy, and other hits recently compared Netflix unfavorably with Amazon Studios, a competitor that has produced such award winners as “Manchester by the Sea” and “The Big Sick”. Amazon similarly streams its original content but not before a short run in theaters, something Nolan sees as a necessary requirement for a film to meets its true cinematic potential. Nolan later apologized for comments that he called “undiplomatic in the way [he] expressed it”, but his original assertion that Netflix tactics were a “mindless policy” that hurt the audience experience has still got to sting the digital giant.
Maybe the most interesting perspective comes from Martin Scorsese, one of the longest operating titans of American film. The theater experience remains absolutely crucial for Scorsese: he states that “the ideal would be to see cinema in its proper context”, meaning theaters as opposed to streaming or small-screen home viewing. And yet he shows an open mind, recently reaching a deal with Netflix to produce and distribute his mob film “The Irishman”, set to release next year. It is set to be Netflix’s most expensive film yet, with a budget running over $125 million and a cast of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, a bonafide mob movie Mount Rushmore. There are rumors that the film will have a limited theatrical release, but this is relatively rare for a Netflix original. To see such a stalwart side with Netflix, even when Scorsese’s public posturing suggests a preference for the traditional theater experience, reveals the kind of power that Netflix commands. It is possible that Netflix is the only studio out there that was willing to fund the project, or at the least fund without exerting much creative control. Netflix grants new opportunities for filmmakers, even if some vitriol is tossed its way for its distribution methods. The fact that this opportunity comes from a streaming giant, not a traditional studio, is as good a sign of the changing times as any, and it sure makes Cannes look left in the past.
For a different pro-Netflix perspective, take Director Jeremy Saulnier, the mind behind the low budget but critically successful action-suspense films “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room”. Netflix is producing his new film “Hold the Dark”, and Saulnier is appreciative for the creative freedom that a Netflix partnership grants him, or as he colorfully puts it, “telling narrative stories with other peoples’ money”. Netflix has been conscious about maintaining its reputation as a hub for creativity and free thinking, free of the typical Hollywood constraints. Doesn’t this kind of independent, hands-off approach speak to Netflix’s genuine commitment to the audience experience? Stories like this make it hard to understand the Cannes conundrum.
But to be fair to Netflix’s detractors, not all of their original programming recently has screamed quality. “The Cloverfield Paradox” was a viral marketing hit at the Super Bowl, announced during the game and released immediately after, but the movie behind the media craze was a disaster, currently sitting in the teens on Rotten Tomatoes. An interview with the original distributor basically states that they sold it when they realized it was crap, and Netflix was there to take it off their hands at a reasonable price. Other new releases with similarly cool receptions include the sci-fi noir “Mute” (15%) and the Will Smith fantasy action film “Bright” (26%). It doesn’t bode well for the industry reputation of the streaming approach if Netflix prizes quantity over quality, and it has appeared that way recently. There are successes mixed in, like the Oscar nominated “Mudbound”, but Netflix should probably be more selective if it wants to have it both ways: pleasing audiences with a wide selection, while at the same time preserving its reputation as a creator of quality content for filmmakers big and small. In a couple decades, its entirely possible that theatrical releases are the last thing on anybody’s mind, but Netflix has to tread carefully and skillfully into this future.