Is Netflix the death of cinema?
It’s a question that’s been at the forefront of pretty much every discussion of film for the past few years. Because Netflix single-handedly spearheaded a revolution in how audiences receive and are able to experience their media. What may have begun as a simple video rental service quickly evolved into much more, becoming a studio in its own right, which was no longer merely a vendor for the products of others but rather an active creator of said products.
Despite having done this for several years and seeing immense success with their various television-related projects, it doesn’t seem like anybody took their films as serious contenders until very recently. 2018 to be exact. Because that’s the year that Netflix nearly stole the Oscars right out from under the other studios’ noses.
While Peter Farrelly’s Green Book may have inexplicably ultimately won Best Picture, the real success story of the night was the Netflix-released Roma. Alfonso Cuarón’s film was nominated for an unprecedented ten Academy Awards and went home with three of them, including Best Director.
The ramifications of this are impossible to overstate. It cemented Netflix’s reputation as not just some fad, not just some straight-to-the-bargain-bin retailer, but a genuine artistic outlet that was not only financially capable of funding such high-caliber projects but was also daring and willing enough to invest full authority in auteur-driven filmmaking. In the past year, Netflix’s legacy as a film studio has only grown more interesting and with a 2020 schedule full of positively gargantuan filmmakers, it’s poised to only grow infinitely more so.
Which brings us to the real question; finances and credibility aside, is Netflix a viable artistic choice as a method of release? If its primary competition is the theatrical movie-going experience, is Netflix capable of delivering something the theatrical experience is not? I would argue it is.
Infamously, the day after the 2018 Academy Awards, Steven Spielberg pleaded his case to the Academy and begged them to reconsider their stance on streaming-released films. Apparently outraged at the idea, Spielberg felt the need to speak out. And it’s completely understandable why he did. Spielberg is a master of the craft who has spent his entire career crafting big-budget, large-scale blockbusters, hand-tailored to be seen, first and foremost, on the biggest screen possible. He’s the man who invented the summer blockbuster, he doesn’t want you to watch Ready Player One on your iPhone, he wants you to see it in IMAX and experience the layers of audio and visual spectacle he spent months fine-tuning for you.
But not everyone makes films like Steven Spielberg. In fact, what’s become most fascinating about Netflix in the last few years is the way that filmmakers have taken it upon themselves to weaponize the inherent traits or perceived flaws of the medium and used them to their own advantage.
Take Cuarón’s Roma. It is a deeply personal, autobiographical work of visual poetry, arguably the filmmakers most distinctly affecting film to-date, no small feat from the storyteller who delivered Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, and Y Tu Mamá También. And to see it in a theater is undoubtedly a majestic testament to Cuarón’s own lusciously meticulous cinematography. But there’s something about experiencing such a personal film in your own home, surrounded by your loved ones and your belongings, that lends it an almost indescribably invasive power.
Similarly, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story also expertly mines this same would-be dissonance. In taking the mournful and ultimately celebratory tale of love lost and injecting it into the living rooms and bedrooms of audiences across the globe, it became all the more affecting. It’s a film specifically constructed to revel in the rawness of pure emotion, with Driver and Johansson both turning in stunningly unrefined and guttural performances.
The theatrical experience is communal. The Netflix experience is one of isolation. Films like Roma and Marriage Story exploit this to their own gain, artistically and authentically delivering film-going experiences that are not often easily duplicated in a theater.
This is not to say Netflix has it all figured out; far from it. Take their other big, Best Picture-nominated film of 2019, The Irishman, for instance. Scorsese’s reflective, operatic, decade-spanning epic is an absolute masterpiece, one of the very best films of the decade in this writer’s opinion. But it is not made for Netflix.
It is made for the theater. It is a three-and-a-half-hour film that demands to be met on its own terms, in the unique lapse of time and space that is the theater. Whereas on Netflix, viewers can and do force the film to meet them on their terms, an infinitely different experience which actively detracts from the cumulative, unspeakable power of experiencing Scorsese’s film. It’s introspective but gargantuan in scale and scope, and so while Netflix may have been the only studio in town brave enough to finance it and let Scorsese work, it’s an avenue of release which hampers the film’s impact. Scorsese himself continues to say as much, even after the film’s release and subsequent success, wishing that the film could have gotten a longer theatrical run, pleading for audiences to meet the film on its terms, and getting absolutely horrified at the thought of someone watching it on their Apple Watch.
Similarly, their other big 2018 release, the long-gestating final film of cinematic legend Orson Welles, The Other Side of the Wind, felt positively lost among the shuffle. Obviously, Welles did not make the film with the intention of it being experienced through the lens of Netflix. And so the result is a decidedly round-shaped peg being forced into a square-shaped hole; a visually encapsulating and riveting final cinematic masterwork from the craft’s ultimate master that is screaming to be seen on the big screen. A purposefully communal experience, one designed to specifically exploit the theatrical system of release to its own gain, was instead forced into an isolated resignation, which stripped a great deal of its power away.
Netflix and streaming-at-large is a medium still very much in flux. It’s new and terrifying and the ramifications of it will be felt throughout the filmmaking industry for years to come. But I think much like cable television sets or movie theaters before it, it has distinct properties which can be artfully taken advantage of. I would argue that the recently released David Lynch short film, What Did Jack Do? just might be the medium at its very best. It brings Lynch’s signature invasive style of work directly into your own home. The rigidly minimalist film could and would very easily be lost on the theatrical movie-going public, but on Netflix, it becomes something far greater than the sum of its parts. An exceedingly personal meditation, one which ultimately probes the viewer’s mind just as actively as it probes Lynch’s.
The next year will see several high-profile releases, arguably some of the most anticipated films of the year, being released by and through Netflix. Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, and even the long-awaited and highly-anticipated return from director David Fincher, Mank, are all set for release this year. But perhaps most interestingly of all, it was just announced that Bradley Cooper’s directorial follow-up to A Star Is Born, an as-of-yet-untitled Leonard Bernstein biopic has made the jump from Paramount to Netflix, with producers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg attached.
So maybe Spielberg has seen the good Netflix can do, that it isn’t all bad. That it doesn’t have to be an ‘us vs. them’ mentality when it comes to the theatrical movie-going experience and Netflix’s coexistence. That maybe each avenue of release offers different positives and negatives, but it ultimately evolves the art of filmmaking in ways we weren’t necessarily expecting but may have benefits that can be reaped just the same. It took me a while but I came around to it, and Spielberg is an infinitely smarter man than I.