Netflix Isn’t Killing Cinema

Growing up as a child, the Cannes Film Festival was a strange anomaly. For me the existence of a film festival was strange and out of place. Movies went to movie theatres so why would people go to a party that showed movies. The logic, for me, was circular and redundant. At the time, despite having the nascent desire of wanting to be a filmmaker, movies were an object of mystery, colossal figures playing out grand stories on a giant screen. They were as close to religion as I understood it at the time.

Film festivals are the place where commerce and art find that untidy alliance in the hopes of promoting and seeking out film from outside the system. Bringing awareness to creative works that would otherwise go unnoticed. From the strangest of avant-garde art films to complex, large scale films from Asia, they are vital to the continuation of the medium as a globalized industry.

Fast forward to 2017, new films from Bong Joon-Ho and Noah Baumbach premiered at Cannes. Both films gained massive buzz and praise from viewers and even talks of award and accolades in both films’ futures. Their distributor, however, was not asked back for next year, effectively banning them from the festival. Why? Because both films were made under the banner of online streaming service Netflix. In that moment, Cannes had exposed itself as out of touch.

Make no mistake, Cannes is still vital, but it has outed itself as a fundamentally on the wrong side of history in this argument. Why? Because it continues to assert the primacy of the theatre as the reason for a film’s existence. By banning Netflix, it has essentially taken a stand that the creative works put on screen by filmmakers through that service, who will include Martin Scorsese and David Ayer soon enough, are not “cinema.”

Cannes is a place that actively promotes viciously booing a film in public as if it were a good thing. This is a long standing practice of pure toxicity that engenders a continued notion that film is something a viewer owns and has the right to abuse in the name of “love.” We love to talk about cinema like a religious space. Darkened rooms, ritual observance and ecstatic encounters with the divine. But really, that reverence is lip service. Religion is not something you own, but a part of you that is reflected back to you. You sit in awe because it speaks to your inner self, stunning you to silence and quiet reverie. But that’s not where we are as filmgoers are we? We think that the space is now freehold to do what we want, abuse other patrons, mock the film, ignore it to look at our phones, even talk to each other instead of shutting up and watching the movie. We have taken something that used to be big and turned it open space where people can be as disrespectful to their own time and spent money as they are to others. And to have a film festival that actively promotes booing of a movie to then turn around and ban Netflix for not upholding their ideals of “what cinema is” is hypocrisy of the highest order.

Theatres aren’t dying because of Netflix. The film industry isn’t dying because of Netflix. Take a moment to regard such absurd claims. That a service that actively promotes creator driven work and gives them what is believed to be a totally free hand (though the ethics of not crediting said creatives on advertisement is its own argument and worthy of its own article) is killing cinema because it’s not on a big screen. That sounds absolutely idiotic. I mean what on Earth do you have to be smoking in order to judge the cultural value of one film over another based on the format you consume it in? Are we really going to have this argument? That a film from Noah Baumbach, one the kings of indie American cinema, is lesser because it is not consumed in a theatre? That Bong Joon-Ho, a man who fought for his cut of Snowpiercer to be released and as a result was punished by having a gutted theatrical release in North America, is a lesser filmmaker for having his film made in a system that supported him as an artist instead but isn’t on a big screen?

It cost me thirteen dollars Canadian to buy a movie ticket to Alien: Covenant last weekend. Nearly seven dollars to buy a medium coke, that I had to pour myself to sit in a theatre where seating is designed to cram as many people as possible into a single theatre. There is a VIP section of Canada’s National theatre chain, Cineplex, which roughly mimics the qualities of an Alamo Drafthouse. A single ticket is twenty-five dollars. Everything bought in Ontario comes with a thirteen percent harmonized sales tax on top of this. Movies are expensive. Theatres put their matinee prices on Tuesdays because it is analytically the day least people will go to the theatre. It conserves losses for them. Because everything is money now. Okay, that’s not fair. This is a business, but what I’m trying to say is that the pursuit of profit at any cost has affected quality of presentation. That the cinema that is revered is something that comes at a premium price.

Cinema, as a commercial industry, used to be the art form of the lower and middle classes. Before theatres it was the art form of carnivals and train stop attractions. When the first movie houses, the nickelodeons, were born, it was the refuge of immigrants, marginalized peoples and the lower class from the harsh realities of their existence. As we moved forward into the era of movie palaces to the end of vertical integration and to sound and beyond, studios built theatres that were experiences. Places beyond reality. The magical and the hyper real, blasting into the realm of outright fantasy, come alive. But it never lost sight of its working class roots either. Films were still affordable, even when epic films came with a play program and people arrived in their finest suits and dresses and firs. For much of film history from the post war era onward, It used to be the thing kids went to all the time because it was one of the few things you could afford with your allowance. It was a passtime to rival baseball in America. Now movies have become premium expenses, driven by unsure economic forces. A family makes a trip because going to the theatre is like going to a restaurant. The justification of cost only comes when in groups. Popcorn costs an arm and a leg and I nearly spent seven dollars, not including taxes, on a coke I had to pour myself. This expense has created fewer filmgoers with more conservative viewing tastes, because the expense drives people from taking risks and watching what is safe. But because of costs, profits are at a record high despite crashing ticket sales. The average moviegoer now watches only four films a year. Two are probably a Marvel and a Star Wars movie.

To top this off, the pursuit of profit above all else, has created a dire movie experience where films are often out of focus, dark, have sound issues or projected onto damaged screens nobody cares to replace because it would damage their profit margins. People are abusive to one another or plain disregarding of the film experience. If you are going to spend the entire movie on your phone, why spend the money. Just enjoy yourself in a park or something. Worst of all, Cineplex has a trivia phone game that plays for customer loyalty points before every film, encouraging people to keep their phones out longer and then only has a hasty “please put it away” message at the end. One of the games is a thing where you are presented with a series of choices and you get more points for thinking in the majority. If this isn’t a metaphor for everything wrong with theatres, I don’t know what is.

Meanwhile on the production side of things, where I make my trade, I can’t say it’s much better. Meanwhile, just after the Paul W.S. Anderson Resident Evil series ended, a seven-film reboot was announced. Meanwhile, Lucasfilm and Disney have declared that there will be a Star Wars movie for the rest of time. Meanwhile, we are getting a live action remake of every Disney animated film ever made. Meanwhile, an ill-advised King Arthur series debuted, the first of seven films in a franchise, and flopped harder than me jumping off a diving board at a public pool. Meanwhile, a multimillion-dollar film fund that is supposedly dedicated to the creation of original film announces the first feature in development is a remake of Christopher Nolan’s Memento.

Meanwhile, the director of Snowpiercer has a multinational, multi language film about a girl and her friend, a giant genetically engineered pig, have an adventure. This is an original film from an artist. A film that has garnered mass praise in the very festival that has derided and mocked its existence and banned its distributor, will be available to me on a service that costs twelve bucks a month. An original film, on an affordable service that most middle and working class people can get access to. That sounds like cinema to me.

The cinephilia that denies Okja is a toxic practice, especially when the industry is dying slowly in its reliance on derivative tentpole, franchise and shared universe films. It is inherently exclusionary, reliant on nostalgia and self absorption and the idea of oneself as the grand arbiter of cinema. I appreciate the theatre. I still believe it to be the best way to see a movie, but I will not stand when snobbery turns to exclusion and ableism for the sake of one’s sense of superiority. A disabled man who spent three years having to watch films exclusively on an iPad in bed is just as much a film lover, cineaste and a moviegoer as those of us who can go to the theatre. There is no line anymore. Not creatively, not experientially. When the theatres are a gamble in quality and a good experience is now a premium perk, we take value in a home movie collection, in a streaming service like Shudder, Filmstruck and Netflix, because it gives us access, and freedom to approach cinema on our own terms. A movie doesn’t lose value because the value is internal to yourself and your own ideals. To make a judgment on what movie has worth based on how you see it is so antithetical to the idea of loving movies and such a shallow way to consume media that I honestly have to question if you like movies at all and are not just using them as a complicated means of self aggrandizement. And if that is the case, then movies are dead because what’s the point of this whole crazy experiment if all you do is use movies to show how cultured and intelligent you are?

And the worst part is that the vast majority of these people are Gen-xers and millenials. They grew up on VHS. Most people I know who espouse the absolute primacy of the big screen saw Star Wars for the first time on home video and not the theatre. Repertory theatres do not have the same hold culturally as they did twenty-five years ago, and as a result vast swaths of us learn our film history through home media. And it the has the same impact for us on our dingy CRTs and VHSes as it does on the big screen or 4K. How you watch it might change elements of how you experience something but the core of the work remains the same. So why do we place so much value on the screen. Because it is religion. It is identity. And maybe it’s time we change our approach to our faith. Maybe the god of cinema has as much weight if devotion is practiced in the home and not just in the temple. Maybe the temple needs to earn its right to be worshipped back before we return. Maybe we need to hear new sermons and not just constant variations on old psalms. And maybe the zealots of the temple need to learn that they are not the sole practitioners of film love. Maybe a change is needed.

And if films like Bong Joon-ho’s and Baumbach’s new movies can burst forth from the minds of its creators and not find any resistance through Netflix, maybe the streaming service is actually doing something right? Have we considered that? That they’re providing a service theatrical releases have forgotten to do by giving us original films that easily accessible and affordable? But we disregard it because of what screen it’s on? That value is determined by scale and pomposity and the driving factor of film’s individual merits as a work of art?

I’m a filmmaker. I see the value in theatrical distribution. I see the effect of a mass audience. I also see the intimacy of a home viewing experience. I see the value of a controlled space, which most theatres do not provide anymore. These are merely differences in experience, not the defining aspect of it and it is wise to clarify that distinction. We get lost, further from the true nature of art, when we argue on whether it is better to view the art in a book or travel 5000 miles to the Louvre to see it in person. It’s because we’re no longer talking about the art, but ourselves as a consuming bodies and social animals fighting for social currency using appreciation and refinement of experience/class distinction as sticks to beat each other with. And in that way Art is destroyed, because it stops being about our inner meaning. It stops being about our inner selves and our nature as people and a species. It becomes a tool of the destructive tendencies of smug intellectualism and we lose art’s ecstatic truth that we are all one and different and equal in some ways. I choose not to follow that path.

I believe film can be more than that. That we don’t have to fight and judge and beat each other down with it. That we all come to the purity of cinema in our own ways. That Netflix isn’t killing cinema and that it is just as much cinema as any art film or big blockbuster. We can’t, we don’t have the right to say anything like that because “what is cinema” isn’t something definable. It’s an internal thing. A secret meaning you take to your grave. It’s quiet moments connecting between a father and son and mother and daughter. It’s friends gathering at night over drinks. It’s lovers in the dark holding each other and to spit on that purity by applying haughty judgments upon the form does nothing but debase and deprave the art form. It’s not worth it the darkness. It’s not worth the fighting and snootiness and implicit ableism and racism. We don’t need it so throw it all away! The faux intellectualism, the pseudo film analysis, the egotism, the classism. All gone. All you need to say is “I like movies” and just that and whole universe will open up. Because film doesn’t demand anything from you other than your attention and time. Because all film really does is give. Give meaning. Give beauty. Give excitement and adventure and fear and love and hate and loss and all those emotions we bury to look strong. All it does is give and you need to do is look and listen. It doesn’t care if you’re at your TV or your iPad or the theatre or a drive in or IMAX. All it wants is for you to look and listen and be immersed in your own way. To get lost in the wonder.

I like movies.

  • YayMayorBee

    Yeah, Netflix and Amazon aren’t killing cinema. They’re keeping it alive, even as theaters try desperately to kill it. I love movies, but in recent years have grown to hate going to the movies. Theaters routinely deliver subpar presentation. The prices for food and drinks are wildly inflated. And, worst of all, they have no interest in customer satisfaction–someone texting or making a scene? Oh well. Too bad. Why would I pay $20 or more to watch a blurry, dark movie in the company of rude assholes when I can wait 3 months and watch it in the comfort of my own home, with free food, and no rude assholes?

    I get that theaters are kind of stuck in a tough spot. Most of the ticket price goes to the studios and so they try to cut corners and inflate prices on snacks to make up the difference. The net effect of cutting corners, though, is that nobody wants to go to a theater unless the theatrical experience is really necessary (IMAX movies, 3D movies, etc.). They need to find another way. Or, at the very least, they need to eject assholes who make going to the movies a social minefield. That would be a big improvement. Either way, people should stop blaming Netflix and Amazon for delivering a superior customer experience while–by the way–doing more to boost independent cinema than most studios do.

    • This is what theatres and studios have done forever. They backed DVDs to kill the rental market. Their goal is first, last, and always self-interest

      • YayMayorBee

        And yet the things they try to kill always end up making them more money.

    • SmithDoc

      you get free food at home? where is this? 🙂

  • Something
  • My boss (GM at local theater) routinely uses pricing at other events (e.g. concerts) to justify the high prices we have to charge and some of our policies (no outside food/drink), and that’s rational, but I’d never connected that to the least-common-denominator feeling blockbusters so often have.

    My location is actually part of an experiment corporate is doing to see if putting in luxury recliners in an area without competition (the closest theater is maybe 40 miles away) will drive people to come here more often anyway. While it’s risky—we’re losing 3/5 of our capacity because of how big the chairs are, and obviously we can’t undo it if the experiment fails—I think it’s a step in the right direction and hope that it pans out so we can justify our prices and the experience better.

    I’ve also received a new sense of how truly important the half-hourly auditorium checks we’re supposed to do are.

  • jeves23

    I like movies.

    I’ll watch them whenever and where ever. Yes, theatres are still the best place to experience a film (you know, except for all the dickheads), but it’s not what makes a film a film.

  • What I want is to see the other big name film festivals take the opposite stance to Cannes on this, and to make a BIG FUCKING DEAL of it. Toronto, San Sebastián, Venice, Berlin, NY… Let’s see them appraise films for their quality, like it’s supposed to be done, without being snobbish fools, and throw massive amounts of shade while doing it.

  • I love this so much. Thank you.

  • MK

    Thank you for this extremely well thought out article.

    Not much else to add on my part, except that without Netflix and Amazon I know for a fact that my film literacy/understanding of film would be much, MUCH lower.

  • This is a fantastic article, and I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective on it.

    Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer was never released in the UK, neither in cinemas nor on home video. It’s a film that is quite literally impossible to view in this country without either a) pirating it or b) importing a foreign disc, which is what I did. My Norwegian copy of Snowpiercer may not be the ideal way to watch the movie (the Korean subtitles are, naturally, in Norwegian, a language I don’t speak), but it’s still one of my most prized Blu Rays, simply because it’s a great, great movie. I would happily buy it again if it ever got a UK release.

    The details of why Snowpiercer was never released in the UK is ultimately of no importance to me – what is important to me is that despite actively wanting to purchase and view a movie, I was unable to thanks to some company somewhere deciding that they weren’t going to release the film in the UK. It was probably an arbitrary decision, but the result is that an entire audience for this film – again, a great film – cannot see it without great difficulty.

    With that in mind – sorry, but how are Netflix the ones killing cinema? They’ve funded a genuine artist to create a film that looks to be every bit – possibly even more – as uninterfered with as any of his previous films, and they’re able to do that while offering worldwide release as part of a package that costs me the same amount as just one cinema ticket for an entire month. Regardless of whether or not Okja is any good, it’s a film that thanks to Netflix I actually have access to, something that traditional studios are apparently no longer able to guarantee.

    Netflix makes films infinitely more accessible to regular people, and it’s doing it at a fraction of the cost of cinemas without sacrificing an artists vision. Netflix (and services like it) aren’t killing cinema, they’re killing cinemas, and unless cinemas do something to change very soon, I’ll have a hard time saying that they’ll be missed.

  • SmithDoc

    I’ve got to chime in, as a recent Toronto immigrant – going to movies here is downright terrible. The lack of genuine matinee screenings is appalling. And while I’m happy that during my professional transition to Canada that I’m still making and spending American dollars up here, I do realize that once I land more freelance work here, that the financial situation will be quite different – and seeing movies will become the luxury that it really isn’t and shouldn’t be.

    To get to your point, I agree that movie theatres are killing the movie going experience. At the height of the Great Depression, 65% of the American population saw movies every week (or so I’ve read). And honestly things aren’t much better these days in terms of lower and middle class economics… But the big difference now is that movie theatres are too damn expensive – and the product, the experience that they’re offering, is largely mediocre, at least in Toronto (with a few exceptions). Going to a film used to be a basic and economical option, and now it’s not. A family can’t afford to go to a movie together anymore -or they can only afford to go a few times a year. With netflix, or purchasing a blu-ray, you may not get the “experience” of going to the movie theatre, but when that “experience” is getting heavily gouged on pricing, why bother?

    • Phillip Bastien

      Like, it shouldn’t be like this. I shouldn’t have to pay 25 bucks for our Drafthouse Analogue at the Cineplex VIP to get a decent viewing experience. I shouldn’t have to watch a movie on a Damaged screen, with employees that don’t check focus. I have a home theatre system with a colour calibrated monitor that gives me as close to cinema quality as I can get without getting a bigger screen and I enjoy myself way more. It shouldn’t be this way, but I understand people have stopped going to the theatre.