Netflix battles the fetish of theatrical release

An answer prompted by a Dalya Alberge article in The Guardian: Streaming could kill UK independent film industry, experts say

I don’t want to debate the possible destruction of the independent film industry in this country. I agree the lack of many things will force creators to follow the money, and head to the States. What jumped out at me was something Andy Paterson said. The destruction of the independent film sector would deprive “cinema audiences” of original films.

I disagree that Netflix will make it harder for independent producers to make their movies. What they are doing is bypassing the theatrical release of movies. Mr Paterson’s comment exposes an obsession with theatrical release that I think we need to get past. And for some people that’s a problem. For them it’s the last way to defined a film as a film. If we’re not careful, we’re in danger of fetishising theatrical release, to the detriment of the bigger picture, making movies.

These days the majority of films aren’t actually films, in the traditional sense of the word. Less than a handful of titles are actually shot on celluloid. Most are shot digitally. And when they do get a theatrical release, they’re delivered to theatres, and projected digitally. All of the analogue processes that went into the making a film are gone, replaced by its digital equivalent. The only part left of films analogue past is a release into theatres.

Steven Spielberg was recently at the forefront of a campaign to have The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences change their rules. The campaign wanted movies made for streaming services excluded from the Oscars. He argued they should be considered television movies and submitted to the Emmy Awards. The US Department of Justice warned The Academy, they could be breaking antitrust laws, if they exclude Netflix movies from their awards. I’m afraid Mr Spielberg is clinging to an anachronism. We have to accept that theatrical release does not a film make.

The Netflix model is not perfect, but it filled a gap created by the studios. Hollywood abandoned independent films, and went all-in on bigger budget, franchise, or superhero extravaganzas. Netflix simply filled that hole in the market.

Later this year Disney will launch its own streaming service. It will not only offer Disney’s entire back catalogue, but also the catalogues of Marvel, Star Wars, Fox, and National Geographic. That’s a huge premium catalogue to compete against. Disney will also, at some point, pull all of their content from Netflix. Netflix have responded by increasing production, and sourcing original content from around the world. That has to be good for independent producers. Our stories will get told, our films made, but only if we stop obsessing over theatrical release, and embrace Netflix.

Side note: Flicking though the UK catalogue of Netflix reveals a diverse selection of movies and television series from around the world. Much more diverse than that of Prime Video. That has to be good for independent producers?

For me the antagonism towards Netflix asks a bigger question. What defines a movie? It’s the same question books faced more than a decade ago. Does a book stop being a novel if it’s read on a Kindle? I would say no. How you read the novel is irrelevant. Hard copy or not, that’s just the delivery format. Some people have chosen to fetishise the novel in its analogue form. As if a book suddenly stops being a novel, when it’s read on something other than ink on paper. Films are being crammed into the same headspace. I would argue a movie doesn’t suddenly stop being a film because it’s streamed to a home theatre system.

Our idea of film is like the rest of our language, always evolving. These days I’d define a movie as a self-contained story. A plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end. How I watch it is less important. I’m not trying to deny the theatrical experience. There is something magical about sitting in a theatre. But it’s not the only way to watch a movie. In the end it really is about telling a story. If it engages you, who cares how you watch it.


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