There’s nothing quite like a visit to the theater. From the delicious smell of freshly made popcorn and the exciting posters of films that line the foyer, to the heavy door and darkness beyond as you enter the screen.
You take your seat, holster your drink in the cup holder, and settle down to the trailers before the main event. The screen is huge, the sound quality is superb, and the experience is totally immersive. This is how films are meant to be seen. This is how the director and the cinematographer envisioned you watching their film. This is how it has been done for nearly a hundred years.
Yet times are changing rapidly for the movie industry. The days where you had to wait for a couple of years to see a film on TV are long gone. These days, the likes of Sky Movies will start showing new films on the small screen before they’ve even stopped showing on the big one.
What’s more, some major films are not even making it on to the big screen at all, save for the minimum release required for awards qualification.
So, are the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime the future of film? And if they are, should we be worried for the very existence of the multiplex cinemas and local arthouse screens that we have come to know and love? More importantly, how will these seismic changes in the industry affect the films that are made.
The Rise and Rise of Netflix
Netflix began life in 1997 as a DVD distribution company, posting out physical copies of other company’s films to its members, much like an online video store. These days, it is hard to conceive of waiting a couple of days for a film to arrive, instead of just selecting it to watch immediately, yet the business model was a huge success. The company was started with just $2.5m and today is worth $116bn.
Ten years after its launch, Netflix began to offer members the opportunity to watch films instantly on their PC, with devices like the Xbox 360 and TV set-top boxes following soon after. By 2010, Netflix was also available on the iPhone and iPad, making movies portable.
Today, the service is only available as an online streaming site, with the physical DVD disc consigned to history.
Once Netflix established itself as a streaming service, it began to make its own TV shows and movies. This led to remarkable success, as it became the first streaming service to be Emmy nominated. Netflix picked up no less than 31 Primetime Emmy nominations in 2013, for ground-breaking shows such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.
From here, the step into making its own movies was a clear and obvious one for Netflix. It effectively owned the whole process, from production, through to distribution and final viewing, giving it complete commercial and creative control. Netflix was perfectly set to change the world of filmmaking as we know it, but would it be accepted by the mainstream?
Netflix at the Oscars
Netflix was first recognized by the Academy Awards in 2014, when it received a nomination for best documentary for The Square. It was also this category that saw Netflix pick up its first Oscar in 2018 for Icarus.
To date, Netflix has received fifty-four nominations and collected eight awards, most notably for Alfonso Cuaron as best director in 2019, and Laura Dern for best supporting actress in Marriage Story in 2020.
Several Netflix films have received multiple nominations, including Roma in 2019 and The Irishman in 2020, both of which were nominated for ten awards. However, it is worth noting that Roma only received three Oscars and The Irishman left empty handed, illustrating that perhaps Netflix films have yet to be fully accepted by the establishment.
Does the Film Industry Have an Issue With Netflix?
Many traditional filmmakers have spoken out against Netflix. For example, Steven Spielberg criticized the streaming model as undermining the communal cinema experience.
Several of the larger film festivals have also taken issue with Netflix, resulting in clashes at Cannes, where Netflix pulled out in 2018, and the Toronto International Film Festival, where Netflix films are relegated to smaller screens and lesser venues.
At the same time, several filmmakers have spoken out in support of the system. For example, Martin Scorsese claimed that none of the major studios were interested in making The Irishman, despite his involvement and that of huge stars such as Robert DeNiro. Without Netflix, he says, the multi-Oscar-nominated movie would never have been made.
Is Netflix a Good or a Bad Thing?
More and more of what we do happens online these days, so why shouldn’t cinema go the same way? Sites like Oddschecker point you at online bookmakers, you can play bingo online, and you can do your grocery shopping online, so why not watch the latest movie releases online too? Perhaps we simply don’t need physical bookmakers, bingo halls, supermarkets or cinemas anymore.
What’s more, with the big studios becoming ever more conservative with their budgets, and risk averse about which projects the green light, alternative producers such as Netflix could become the only way to get an independent or unusual film made. Without them, we could end up with a very bland diet of superhero movies, franchise films, remakes and reboots, with no-one prepared to take a risk on anything different.
It is unlikely, in the current Hollywood climate, that an independent filmmaker such as Noah Baumbach, would have ever got finance for a film like Marriage Story, let alone sufficient budget for a cast that included Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, and the Oscar-winning Laura Dern.
Other examples include the Sandra Bullock blindfold-horror, Birdbox, and the strange Maggie Gyllenhaal thriller, The Kindergarten Teacher. Without Netflix backing, they may never have seen a screen at all, large or small.
If you look at box office figures, streaming appears to have had little impact on cinema attendance. 1.385bn Americans bought tickets in 1997, the year Netflix was launched, and 1.247 billion bought tickets last year. Furthermore, over a billion cinema tickets have already been purchased in the US in 2020, proving that the cinema experience is as popular as ever.
Even streaming’s most vociferous critics appear to be coming around, with Steven Spielberg signing up alongside Scorsese to produce Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic next year. One thing is for sure, with 167 million paying subscribers around the world, generating a huge stash of cash to fund its movie projects, whether you love it or hate it, Netflix is here to stay.