Please allow a moment of silence for “Tramps,” Adam Leon’s warm and winsome follow-up to SXSW 2013 winner “Gimme the Loot.” Anchored by a ridiculously charismatic performance from actress Grace Van Patten, Leon’s sweltering, casually modern riff on classic Hollywood comedies like “It Happened One Night” tells the story of two kids who fall in love during a wild goose chase around the outer edges of New York City. It’s delightful stuff, diverting by design but told with the confidence of someone who can endow even the lightest fare with a real sense of weight. It was hardly the most significant thing I saw at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but watching it on a hot summer day with the lights off and the AC on full blast was one of the most purely enjoyable experiences I had there.
Of course, you’re going to have to take my word for it, because — soon after its premiere — “Tramps” suffered a fate bound to bury its potential: It was bought by Netflix. On Friday, this lovely little movie that I watched on a giant screen, a scrappy gem that required my full attention and rewarded every ounce of it, will quietly be uploaded to a computer server and added to an ever-expanding menu of content in the cloud. I saw it in a theater; you’ll see it buried somewhere between “Iron Fist” and “Sandy Wexler.”
Leon, naturally, had a very different reaction to the news that Netflix had purchased the rights to his second feature. A fascinating recent piece in the New York Times piece revisits the very moment that he was informed of the deal, which was inked without his participation (it’s not unusual or sinister for a director to be distanced from such negotiations). “I was literally crying in the hotel room,” Leon is quoted saying. “I was given so much opportunity by the people I worked with, and now it was going to work for them, and for all the people who invested in it.” “Gimme the Loot” grossed $104,000; “Tramps” was reportedly sold for $2 million.
It’s almost impossible to blame Leon for his relief, for the joy he felt upon learning that everyone who supported him would be made whole. The vast majority of filmmakers simply can’t afford to fight the power, they’re not in a position to resist. Even a name-brand iconoclast like James Gray, whose latest film is a well-appointed 35mm epic co-starring Robert Pattinson, is still struggling to pay his bills. It’s old news: The middle of the movie industry has fallen out, and everyone needs to jump to one side or the other if they don’t want to get swallowed into the void.
Leon, who surely learned some lessons from the process of shepherding “Gimme the Loot” into the world, is just trying to stay on his feet. “I did not want ‘Tramps’ to be subject to a ‘Let’s put it in a random theater for a week to placate the filmmaker’ approach,” he said. “I want Netflix to do what Netflix does, which is to put a film out there in a way that will help you find its audience.”
Alas, that is not what Netflix does.
Netflix doesn’t help movies find an audience any more than it helps audiences find a movie (not that filmmakers ever have any idea how many people are watching their work on Netflix — the company refuses to share data with its content suppliers, meaning that Leon will have to trawl social media to glean even a vague idea of whether or not “Tramps” is being seen). The streaming service is a volatile sea of content that likes to measure itself in terms of dimension rather than depth; pull up the homepage, and the first thing you’ll see is text boasting about the sheer number of new shows that have been added to the site in the past week. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet that stretches further than the eye can see, and most people are likely to lose their appetite before they discover the good stuff.
In fact, Netflix recently took steps to make it even more difficult for customers to find what they crave or stumble upon new delights, as the company made the myopic decision to replace its somewhat worthless star ratings with a completely worthless “thumbs up / thumbs down” approach. Good luck finding your way around that buffet when all of the food is divided into “good” and “rotten.”
I don’t know if Netflix has the power to kill the movies, but the last few months have made one thing incredibly clear: Netflix certainly has the power to kill their movies, and it’s doing that with extreme prejudice. It’s not a distributor; it’s a graveyard with unlimited viewing hours. Netflix doesn’t release movies, it inters them.
And the problem is getting worse, because the movies that Netflix is buying — and funding — are getting better. When the company first got into the original features game with Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” the tepid response wasn’t much of a concern; the roll-out was a mess, and most theaters refused to play a movie that was premiering day-and-date with a streaming service, but the assumption was that Netflix would learn from their mistakes and better serve their filmmakers.
Cut to: Sundance 2017, when Netflix rolled up to the festival with several of the program’s most exciting titles already in its back pocket. One such title was Macon Blair’s giddily good “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.,” which would go on to win the coveted Grand Jury Prize, joining the ranks of films like “Whiplash” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Not only did the victory lend the streaming giant some much-needed credibility in the indie universe, it also gave them the opportunity to champion Blair as a major talent, and build some momentum for his next collaboration with “Green Room” director Jeremy Saulnier (which the streaming giant will eventually release). Surely they would make the most of it, right? Of course not. Netflix quietly uploaded the movie onto their platform in the middle of the night like it was a new episode of “Fuller House.”
Now, with new films from Bong Joon-ho and even Martin Scorsese on the horizon, the problem isn’t that few people will see “Tramps” — the problem is that even the people who do see “Tramps” won’t really see “Tramps.”
Last Thursday, when it was announced that this year’s Cannes lineup would be the first to include films that were funded or owned by Netflix, The Federation of French Cinemas saw rouge. Frustrated at how brazenly Netflix continues to violate national regulations (which mandate that SVOD services must wait 36 months after a film’s theatrical premiere before they can stream it for themselves), the FNCF took a swipe at Cannes’ credibility, suggesting that an online-only release would “Call into question [a movie’s] nature as a cinematographic work.” It’s hard to imagine a more grievous charge that could be leveled against the world’s most prestigious film festival.
If a movie premieres on Netflix, is it still even a movie? In an age where the word “film” is often a misnomer and content is classified less by the intent of its production than by the means of its distribution, it could be said that movies — at least for the time being — are simply things that play in movie theaters. It may seem like a matter of semantics, but I think we’re talking about qualitatively different experiences. When Netflix buys a movie, it guarantees that the vast majority of people will never get to see it in its full glory. It’s the equivalent of a museum buying a work of art, locking it in a vault, and making photocopies so widely available that people lose sight of the fact that they’re missing out on the real thing.
When you watch something on Netflix, are you watching a movie, or are you having a movie-like experience? Netflix is aware of this conundrum, and it has made some half-hearted strides to address the issue, even if its motivation is as unclear as its viewing numbers. Last year, the service signed a 10-picture, day-and-date deal with iPic, an 120-screen luxury theater chain that has positioned itself as something of an Alamo Drafthouse for wealthy people who don’t give a shit about movies. Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos told the Wall Street Journal that the deal was an effort to prove that its original features are “not TV movies.”
It’s easy to appreciate what he means by that, but the quality of the films is becoming less and less of an issue. The problem isn’t that Netflix Originals are TV movies, the problem is that — more often than not — they’re laptop movies, or iPhone movies, or watch-out-of-one-eye-while-checking-Twitter movies. And while that may be the ultimate fate of all video content in this day and age, Netflix Originals never get the chance to be anything more.
Netflix shouldn’t be worried that it’s releasing TV movies. The platform should be worried that they’re not releasing movies at all. Business is business and time marches on, but until Netflix decides that it genuinely cares about its content, audiences will never truly find their films. In the meantime, it will continue to be a little heartbreaking every time Netflix buys a movie and turns it into something else.