Netflix Isn't Killing Movies, Hollywood Studios and Theaters Are
The controversy at Cannes, and boos for streaming services, misses the point.
There is nothing like seeing a good movie in a movie theater. The big screen, dark room, and experiencing something profound with a group of strangers — it’s the ideal cinematic experience, a tradition handed down from generation to generation. If only there were more good movies in theaters.
Unfortunately, the movie theater-going experience feels increasingly like a vintage thrill from a bygone era. There are a number of complicated factors to blame, but contrary to the accusations thrown by jeering film critics, booing audiences, and jury members at the Cannes Film Festival this week, Netflix is not the main culprit. Movie studios and theater chains are dealing in self-sabotage, going all in on iffy jackpots while their chips slowly dwindle.
Cannes announced this week that starting next year, it would no longer consider Netflix movies for competition. The ruling is ostensibly due to the fact that Netflix movies are available on the streaming service at the same time as they hit theaters; French law requires a three-year window between the two to help finance local art. But audiences there weren’t booing over tax issues; it’s a matter of elitism. Netflix has two movies at Cannes this year, and audience members booed at the premiere of Okja, the new film from South Korean master Bong Joon-ho. It wasn’t the film’s quality — it got glowing reviews — but merely the fact that it’ll be available on Netflix right away.
Cannes is a world of cinema purists, and jury president Pedro Almodóvar, a master filmmaker himself, has said that Netflix must play second fiddle to the century-old traditions of the film world. “I personally don’t perceive the Palme d’Or [should be] given to a film that is then not seen on the big screen,” Almodóvar said earlier this week. “All this doesn’t mean that I am not open or celebrate new technologies and opportunities, but [as long as] I’m alive I’ll be fighting for the capacity of hypnosis of the large screen for the viewer.”
What’s missing from Almodóvar’s statements, and the jeers of film critics who agree with him, is any sort of broader context. Cannes is the home of the elite, but we no longer live in a world in which most filmmakers are free to pursue their visions, backed by fawning movie studios. In fact, despite the explosion of outlets and interest, it’s harder than ever to get a studio to back an original movie out of the gate. More and more, only when a movie is independently financed and finished do studio execs consider distributing it, and often, that’s just to get their names on Oscar contenders.
Instead, studios have become obsessed with massive franchises that can produce sequel after sequel, ancillary products like toys and theme parks, and can be sold to the massive overseas audience without much translation; this is why the Minions are really the future of studio entertainment.
But a funny thing started happening last year: Big franchises started to bomb. Star Wars and Marvel still mint money, but Warner Bros.’ DC Comics movies underperformed, as did the Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Another King Arthur reboot just bombed, and the latest incarnation of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, is tracking for a weak $40 million opening. Right now, this new Minion character is carrying the flag for complex characters in coming wide release attractions.
It also doesn’t help that ticket prices continue to climb. Two tickets to see a blockbuster release in a New York City theater cost about $40, and no seat — even when accompanied with custom dinner menus and a full La-Z-Boy recliner — is worth that markup when nothing is more comfortable than being at home. There are no intrusive waiters leaning into your view at home, a far more annoying inconvenience than someone looking discreetly at a cell phone for a moment or two.
As audience numbers make clear, people care more about the show on screen than the exhibition format or location; when given a choice between seeing a good movie at home or sitting in a dark room to watch a bloated corporate product, the former usually prevails.
And here’s where the disconnect comes between critics and general audiences. Critics get to see most movies for free, and if they miss the press screenings, they usually live in cities where all new movies are out in theaters. The specialty indie-theater scenes in New York, L.A., and Austin, along with a few other cities, are thriving, making it feasible to see any notable new foreign release on the big screen. But for the most part, indie theaters across the country are shutting down, victims of digital conversion costs and ticket prices as much as the competition in people’s living rooms.
So Netflix, for $12 a month, or Amazon, at $99 a year, offer the only opportunities for most people to see a large selection of great movies from notable filmmakers on a regular basis. Amazon in particular has put real money behind indie filmmakers left behind by the studio system; the conglomerate’s film division is run by ‘90s indie trailblazer Ted Hope. Netflix, meanwhile, received high marks from Bong, who praised the company for giving him total freedom with Okja. And guess who is financing Martin Scorsese’s long awaited movie The Irishman? It’s not his longtime partners Warner Bros. or Paramount.
There are downsides, to be sure. It’s hard to trust that Amazon, the big box behemoth that has swallowed several industries whole, is solely focused on fostering the arts. Its movies and TV shows are, at least in part, a lure to attract more Prime subscribers. And Netflix, which often focuses on more broad entertainment (see: Adam Sandler’s continued output), hoards data like a lonely senior citizen in a studio apartment, keeping viewing stats from even the filmmakers who make the service’s content. There have also been rumors that Netflix buries its best movies on its menus, and without knowing how the algorithm works, we will never know whether that’s just paranoia.
But Hollywood has always been imperfect, and save for a few glory years in the ‘70s and ‘90s, it has always focused on making the biggest, broadest, most profitable movies. For a while, before true international expansion and corporate takeover of family-owned studios, art could coexist with commerce. But those days are over, and streaming services have stepped into the void created by the madness for franchises. And for the great little indies that don’t get studio or streaming pickup, well, people are watching those on VOD, and you can’t blame Netflix or Amazon for that.
So people can boo streaming platforms’ movies at Cannes all they want, but there should be no illusion that they are actually serving the best interests of film. There’s still nothing like seeing a great movie on the big screen, but until more of them start being projected on those screens nationwide, the second best thing, watching a movie at home, will have to do.