Depending on what you read and how you browse, Netflix is either destroying our culture or defining its priorities. The platform is a paradigm for impulsive viewing habits and making do with what’s at your immediate disposal. It’s a brand that’s seriously rattled the film industry, since Netflix contradicts the idea of paying to see something on the big screen.
However, we’ve passed the point where Netflix is merely a challenge to the way we understand movies and television. Even if the company inexplicably went bankrupt tomorrow, or its servers got hacked, or Apple bought it out, it no longer matters because another digital giant would take its place. The future has arrived, and for the moment, Netflix owns it.
Each week provides a new example of Netflix’s ubiquity. Standup comedians from Chris Rock to Louis C.K. have signed up to do specials with the service. Dormant properties from “Full House” to “Samurai Jack” have found new lives. Martin Scorsese’s long-in-the-works drama “The Irishman” will be produced by Netflix — just days before the 2017 winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize surfaces on the platform. “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore,” a cartoonish crime romp from first-time director Macon Blair, premiered at the festival just a month ago. Forget about the months of anticipation after a Sundance victory. Netflix produced the movie and will make it available to the widest audience with the ease of a voice command to your Amazon Fire stick.
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Both a veteran like Scorsese and a newcomer like Blair benefit from Netflix’s access to millions around the world. Scorsese demands big budgets and expansive running times that make studios quiver with uncertainty; Netflix allows for more flexibility and has the cash to back it up, while guaranteeing a robust audience.
Blair’s movie is a zany comedy that could easily lose the momentum created by its festival accolades if released months down the line, like so many other Sundance hits. He gets to ride the festival buzz right into the living room, and this movie fits the approach just right: It’s a sprightly form of escapism for bored Netflix browsers. The core of its entertainment value hardly demands a big screen, and few people would flock to see it that way.
And what of “The Irishman,” from one of the most widely adored filmmakers of all time? Those who crave their Scorsese fix on the big screen will find it there. (If Netflix wants to placate their industry brethren at film festivals and the Academy, they’d be wise to play up that angle early and often.) Others won’t bother; only now, the latest Scorsese won’t be lost to them.
Our moviegoing culture has entered a new stage in which theaters play a very different role. They remain an essential platform for big-screen experiences, whether it’s the opportunity to luxuriate in the bold color schemes of “Moonlight,” absorb the cosmic wonders of the latest Terrence Malick odyssey, or marvel at the latest Avengers feat. But we can no longer assume these experiences will continue to define the paradigm for how we relate to movies. There has to be an acknowledgement that, even as theaters survive, they no longer dictate the medium’s identity. We need to embrace the Netflix reality that governs the moves today, and it requires accepting that the big screen is optional.
It has been widely suggested that going to the movies will one day become a rarified experience, akin to the opera or a Broadway play. The truth is that most people got to that point a long time ago. In 2016, U.S. theaters sold around 1.3 billion tickets. We don’t know the specific figures for Netflix, but it’s safe to assume that millions more called up movies on demand. Given this certainty, people who care about cinema need to consider how and when to complain about the Netflix model, because it’s only going to increase its influence from here on out.
As a means of discovering movies, Netflix is inherently limited — but those limitations are everywhere. Many of the year’s best movies never enter wide circulation. That’s why film festivals remain vital focal points for uncovering hidden gems and boundary-pushing creativity that would never succeed in the marketplace.
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Two of the best movies I saw at festivals last year, the essayistic “Rat Film” and surreal “The Ornithologist,” will not find mass audiences. But anyone intrigued by an experimental riff on gentrification that analogizes the problem to rodent infestations will track down “Rat Film;” those excited by a Lynchian look at one man’s crisis of faith as he slowly loses his mind will delight in “The Ornithologist.” They deserve to be experienced in the confines of a dark room that magnifies their unique powers — and they will, thanks to the specialty distributors uniquely positioned to target their audiences with release plans for this year.
These movies are the new punk rock. They don’t belong in stadiums. They get crammed into micro-cinemas and daring arthouses battling to get attention, driven by convictions that go beyond the metrics of a bottom line. Of course, you can listen to the opera at home and get the basics, but nothing can match the sensory experience of being in the room. So it goes with cinema: Certain movies demand an active audience to find them, and in many cases, process them in a large format that does justice to the vision. That screen will always exist. For everything else, there’s Netflix.