Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
Last week featured two new skirmishes in the forever war between Netflix and the film industry’s old guard, as Cannes declared that Netflix movies would be prohibited from screening in Competition, and Steven Spielberg gave an interview in which he effectively said that Netflix features are TV movies (he was speaking in the context of Oscar consideration, but it’s easy to extrapolate a broader argument from his comments).
And so we ask: Generally speaking, should Netflix movies be considered in the same category as theatrical releases? What makes a movie a movie, and not a different breed of content? (Is it the running time, the distribution, something else, nothing?). Do you see value in how Cannes and Spielberg are fighting to preserve the integrity of the theatrical experience, or should they get with the times?
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
A movie is an idea: it’s whatever could play in a theatre; whether it ever plays there or not is a matter of happenstance. When Steven Spielberg defends theatrical distribution, he’s defending his realm–of the powerful, the wealthy, the established–against upstarts whose movies may be much better but don’t get studio financing or distribution. He has a movie theatre in his house. As for Cannes, it’s a part of the French film industry, and French law protects theatres by specifying the time separating theatrical distribution from on-line, home video, or television release, so it’s understandable that the festival considers its mandate to be, first of all, servicing movie theatres; what that decision has to do with the mandate of showing the best movies available is another story. In any case, Cannes is only eliminating on-line movies from the in-competition slate, and the few good movies shown in competition rarely win awards anyway.
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Jude Dry (@JDry), IndieWire
On one hand, I don’t trust that Netflix viewers even watch that many movies. Of course, Netflix notoriously does not release its numbers, so it’s impossible to say. Outside of the film world bubble, I think Netflix’s primary identity is still as a host of bingeable TV shows. If Netflix movies were better, maybe it would be taken more seriously as a film platform. The fact remains that the film programming just isn’t very good. Netflix tends to buy middle of the road festival fare, prizing recognizable actors over the quality or daring of the filmmaking. (With a few outstanding “Annihilation”-level exceptions). A Netflix purchase can still do a lot for emerging to mid-level filmmakers who can’t afford to be picky about distribution, but anyone looking for prestige, awards attention, and press still needs a theatrical release. There’s a certain middle of the road association that goes along with Netflix that won’t go away anytime soon.
On the other hand, for the scrappy filmmakers making things on shoestring budgets, eyeballs are eyeballs. Plenty of indie filmmakers could care less about a theatrical run, and many have cut their teeth releasing shorts online, either through Vimeo or YouTube. They understand the old way is crumbling, and that it all ends up in the same place eventually.
For known filmmakers, doing a movie with Netflix will always cause some raised eyebrows. Why couldn’t they get funding, or better distribution? Even though the answer, in a world of ever-shrinking movie profits, is quite obvious.
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Film School Rejects, Nonfics
Movies is movies, I say. Anything of feature length of any genre or distribution model should be acceptable for consideration for movie awards. Perhaps the real issue is not with the Oscars but with the Emmys. Maybe they need to back off honoring films, even those aired with commercial breaks and especially documentaries. And awards that honor both movies and TV shouldn’t bother with distinguishing between theatrical and TV movie either. Either something is standalone or episodic storytelling. But it really doesn’t matter to me. Awards should be just be like gift horses and given as they’re wished to be given and received without looking them in the mouth.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today
What makes a movie a movie is a series of still frames that flow the one from the other, blurring together using the principles of “persistence of vision” to create the illusion of continuous motion, the whole assembled in a sequence that adheres to the inspiration of the writer, director, editor and all others involved in the creative process. Whether such a completed work of art is then watched by the viewer on an iPhone, on a widescreen television, in a small art-house theater or massive IMAX cinema, is completely immaterial to whether or not it is a “movie.” This is one of those non-issue debates that happen everytime a traditional way of doing things is threatened: “The automobile will never be able to replicate the experience of riding in a horse-drawn carriage!!!”
The progress of technology and new media formats, as with all human innovation, is inevitable. It is best to learn to adapt and incorporate, rather than resist, especially since, to new generations, this debate is, most likely, meaningless. I say this as someone who prefers to watch movies in theaters, yet I accede to the changing landscape. And I think Netlfix (and Amazon and Hulu, as well as HBO, Showtime, FX, AMC and many other cable and SVOD services) makes terrific content. Find another solution, Spielberg and the Cannes Film Festival, than to call an orange an apple. It’s still an orange, and I like it (but hey, I also like apples).
Matt Zoller Seitz (@MattZollerSeitz), RogerEbert.com
I have no idea how to distinguish “TV movies” from “Movies made for theaters that end up on TV” from “streaming options” or “content,” as this is all in flux Amazon gives its films a theatrical release, but this might not always be the case, and Netflix films get reviewed more widely than a lot of independent films, thanks mainly to the absolutely dominance of Netflix on people’s imaginative lives at the moment. There’s a lot of blurring happening, and at places where critics are still employed, I can foresee turf wars happening between television, which has replaced cinema at the center of cultural conversation, and the film section, which is feeling increasingly beleaguered and resentful of the way things are going, and has responded by declaring things like “Twin Peaks: The Return” to be cinema.
I don’t think the theatrical experience as we know it can ultimately be saved, as much I adore it and somewhat stridently advocate for it, chastising people who cannot put their phones away when they go to theater. Society is evolving beyond traditional moviegoing habits. This is due mainly to the way technology has rewired peoples’ brains and destroyed attention spans, and most importantly, conditioned everyone to expect that they can control the experience of watching something, and be able to give it their half-attention or one-quarter attention, or stop it and start it again if they have to do something else.
This is why people think a three hour movie is “too long” even though they can watch a full season of a Netflix show in a single weekend: they can’t imagine surrendering to a story for more than 22 or 45 minutes at a time without being able to stop it and go to the bathroom, answer email, or argue with somebody on Twitter. As Godfrey Cheshire presciently argued in his two-part “Death of Film/Decline of Cinema” essay almost twenty years ago, theatrical viewing will become, and increasingly has turned into, a fetishistic ritual undertaken by people who want to escape the new way of watching things.
That’s why the purest viewing experiences, with the best picture and sound quality and the most attentive audiences, tend to happen at cinema draft houses, which are basically restaurants that happen to show films, and that therefore have their own distractions; and repertory cinemas and museums, where the loving immersion in the feature film experience is enshrined as a nostalgic throwback to a bygone era.
Quinn Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages
Personally, I feel like it’s time to restructure awards season. In the past, we could identify new trends over several years while anticipating changes. Now, the entire film industry continues to rapidly evolve. So, what will constitute a “Best Picture” in 2019? Perhaps the answer lies in distribution. The Academy could keep “Best Picture” to please the old guard while incorporating distribution information for sub-categories. In other words, and like Spielberg noted during his interview, films that have limited theatrical runs wouldn’t be eligible for a new award that I just created: Best Picture – Theatrical.
Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Tracking Board
I’ve been railing against the Netflix system for quite a few years now, but clearly, Academy members feel that cinema and the theatrical experience should contribute to a movie being Oscar-worthy. The thing is that Netflix really doesn’t take any sort of risk with their movies by just putting them on the streaming service and not having to book theaters and market movies to get people to go see them as is the case with all other movies being released. They want to have it both ways and be a TV network and a movie studio, but if HBO makes a movie and airs it on HBO, then it’s considered a TV movie. Why shouldn’t Netflix movies be held to the same standard? I saw “Mudbound” in a theater on a screen twice, once at Sundance and once at the NY Film Festival, and the fact that Netflix put movie into a limited number of theaters for a limited amount of time made it impossible for most people including Oscar voters to see it on the screen. “Mudbound” should have received more nominations, including Best Picture, and the fact it didn’t proves that cinema is treated differently than what I call “minema” i.e. geared to be viewed on tablets and smartphones which is what Hulu, Netflix and Amazon are making.
Carlos Aguilar (Carlos _Film), Freelance
Netflix goes out of its way to undermine the importance of festivals and theatrical distribution. They don’t want to be part of the film ecosystem. They want to monopolize it. If Netflix picks up a film at a festival or if one of their films premieres at a major competition that is likely to be the last festival that film will ever play in. If the company believes the Academy Awards or festivals like Cannes are outdated and that their demands don’t match with their voracious idea of innovation then they should stop submitting their films for consideration. They want to have their cake and eat it too. They act as if they want to do away with theatrical all together and they seem to be indifferent to festivals, but yet they are eager to get the prestige of awards. Their model clearly doesn’t want to play ball with anyone else, so they shouldn’t care about being taken seriously by awards shows or renowned films events.
There is a place for both streaming and theatrical to coexist, and distributors like Amazon understand that, but Netflix doesn’t see that as a possibility. They only do theatrical runs to qualify for awards, not because they see that as an important distribution tool. Let’s stop talking about Netflix as the underdog saving the entertainment industry and really question their motivations. Anyone who dares say anything negative about the streaming giant is immediately attacked as a nostalgic who opposes impeding change, but there are plenty of examples showing that, while Netflix has managed to revolutionize episodic content, their practice when it comes to cinema are less than beneficial for anything they pick up or produce that is not anchored by stars. Among the films they purchased and then simply added to their site without promotion are: “The Chosen Ones,” “Layla M,” “Divines,” and the Oscar-nominated “On Body an Soul.”
Allegedly, because of the number of subscribers, being on Netflix puts the films in front of millions of viewers, but no one knows how many people are actually watching the projects that are not a priority for them. The current theatrical model makes it difficult for art house titles to make business, that’s clear, but being dumped on Netflix without a warning does very little for those films either. I’ve engaged in bitter arguments with equally bitter Netflix defenders who see theatrical as silly nostalgia and who can’t wait for streaming to become the sole way of watching films. But there are tangible examples of how, with the right marketing, even smaller productions can thrive at the box office, such as those from A24 or Neon.