Netflix, from 2007, after introducing its digital streaming video services, has got huge response from people. Critiquing its services and impacts, Sahadat Hossain Likhon writes
THE force is strong with Netflix and for better or worse, there is no denying that Netflix has brought about the new age for cinema and the entertainment business altogether. At one hand, there is the community that is trying to hold onto the traditional practices surrounding the film culture with all its might and on the other hand, we have people, viewers and filmmakers alike, who are rejoicing this new age of streaming service pioneered by Netflix. For what it is worth, even the biggest names of Hollywood cannot ignore its existence and therefore, Netflix attracted the superstars of the arena to collaborate with such as Sandra Bullock, Emma Stone, Zoe Saldana, Jake Gyllenhal, Ben Affleck, Oscar Issac, Kurt Russell, Idris Elba, Chris Pine and many other acclaimed talents including legendary directors such as Alfonso Cuaron, Martin Scorsese and David Fincher.
Christopher Nolan, undoubtedly the most sought after director of the current generation, has overtly criticised the existence of Netflix who sees it rather as a threat. He says, ‘I think, the investment that Netflix is putting into interesting filmmakers and interesting projects, would be more admirable if it were not being used as some kind of bizarre leverage against theatres. It is so pointless. I do not get it’. In response, Hollywood’s one of the most prominent female film directors who received an Oscar nomination for her Netflix documentary ‘13th’, Ava Duvernay said, ‘But, what if there is no movie theatre in your neighbourhood?’ Even if there is a theatre nearby, the reality is that only a handful of theatres in big cities from the biggest markets in USA, UK or France would allow unconventional, niche, indie art house movies to be shown. Another one of the few biggest names in Hollywood, Steven Spielberg, turns out to be the most outspoken oppositions of streaming service productions. The way he sees it, TV movies including Netflix Originals, should not be allowed to compete for film festivals such as Oscars or Cannes and those films can only qualify for TV awards such as Emmy. From the viewpoint of some of the filmmakers who agree with Nolan and Spielberg, TV productions should not thrive side by side with movies made for the theatres because a TV movie is made keeping the screen size of TV. Moreover, a great amount of extra effort goes behind making movies for big screens and much more so for the IMAX or 3D format.
In 2017, a huge controversy took place during the Cannes Film Festival held in France. ‘Okja’ and ‘The Meyerowitz Stories’ were the two movies produced by Netflix that got the coveted opportunity to be premiered in this prestigious festival. Both of them were warmly appreciated with standing ovation after movies ended, but also received boos from a section of the crowd as soon as they were screened. The reason behind such hateful reception was that according to one of the film laws in France, no movie can air on a streaming service or a TV channel until three years had passed since the release of a movie. A movie airing on TV so early is seen directly detrimental to the French film industry. Apparently, the government of France subsidises the movie tickets so that the income out of them can be invested in enriching their distinguished film industry. This law has eventually led to Netflix movies being banned from the festivals.
It is important to note that studios, from a strictly commercial standpoint, excessively shy away from risks and it was highly likely that a movie having a very eccentric storyline as ‘Okja’ would never have found its way to American Audience through theatres. Shedding his insight into this matter, the chief content officer of Netflix, Ted Sarandos said, ‘No studio would take that risk on a Korean director on a film that barely has any English language in it’. About half of the movie has to be watched with subtitles on. He further emphasised on the creative freedom that Netflix provides to its filmmakers saying, ‘Okja is a beautiful movie when you see it, but if you had to bet your career on filling movie theatres on opening weekend with that film, you would be losing sleep’.
The culture of cinema has been shaped by a lot factors over a long period of time and as it stands, only reboots, remakes, sequels of established franchises, the Disney label and only the caped superheroes can convince the people to rush into theatres. It took a living legend like Martin Scorsese ten years to make his religious epic film called ‘Silence’ (2016) due to the lack of producers since there is not much room for originality in today’s market and the movie producers are not willing enough to risk their millions of dollars on someone’s creative endeavour to bring originality. Understandably so, legendary filmmakers such as Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese expressed their frustration saying that cinema is dead.
In such kind of a situation, Netflix arrives also with a breath of fresh air. In recent times, Netflix has produced big budget movies such as Outlaw King, Mowgli, Okja, War Machine, Bright and some others and it will continue to do so in the near future too. These movies had very little possibilities to pull off a big box office return if they had a traditional theatrical release due to the unconventional nature of these contents. The fact that Netflix is a multi-billion dollar company and has a very different business model that allows it makes such movies happen. Netflix releases do not overly depend on reviews because their movies are released on the same date worldwide unlike traditional theatrical releases. A movie is likely to be pulled out of the theatres if it has a smaller market or performs poorly on the opening weekend. The same rule does not apply for Netflix however and instead the movie will always be available in the streaming service like any other movie. The monthly subscription fees and some other sponsorship deals are the sources of the production money behind these movies. Such a business model also relieves huge pressure off the filmmakers, inspires more creativity and green lights more original content. Director Martin Scorsese has finally managed a producer in the form of Netflix for his most ambitious and expensive mob movie titled ‘The Irishman’ that will star Robert de Niro and Al Pacino. For the unique opportunities that Netflix is able to offer, Alfonso Cuaron, Oscar winning director for ‘Gravity’, also chose Netflix over theatres for the release of his Oscar nominated movie ‘Roma’. He made his decision clear by saying that the movie is best suited for the big screen in theatres for all its technical achievements but making it available on Netflix for distribution means that the movie will be available to its millions of subscribers in 190 countries and there is no way theatrical release or numerous awards would possibly achieve that.
In current competitive state of the industry, Netflix gets the upper hand also because of its cost efficiency. The cost for a single movie ticket almost equals to the monthly subscription fee of Netflix which allows its customers the access to hundreds and thousands of the contents. On top of that, the prices for the movie tickets are always on the increase unjustifiably. Moreover, the ticket of a 3D film is almost double the price of a 2D film. Needless to mention that the double payment feels so unsatisfying because only a handful of movies have been properly made for the 3D format since ‘Avatar’ (2009) and therefore, the 3D glasses only contribute to ruining the visual experience by filtering a wide spectrum of colours into something half-bright and half-baked.
Nevertheless, the feeling of going out with your friends and family on Fridays and relishing a well-crafted movie to its fullest potential with a cheering crowd is only possible when it is on the big screen. On the other hand, the presence of Netflix in the current situation of cinema ensures original contents and a pool of creative talents coming from around the world. It seems that only the co-existence of these two options can secure a win-win situation for both the filmmakers and the audience of course.
Sahadat Hossain Likhon is a student of BRAC University
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