in movies

How Netflix treats great indie films

David Ehrlich, writing for Indiewire, on what it means to have your film on Netflix:

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.”

I’m really torn about Ehrlich’s piece. On the one hand, I agree with his overall point: Netflix is buying up great movies and doing very little to promote them. And while being on Netflix might make you financially whole, it’s questionable what it may do for your career or for your movie being seen.

On the other hand, he makes numerous points I disagree with. For instance, he writes:

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.”

Five star ratings are awesome for people who are really into movies and like refining their preferences. But the vast majority of people don’t give a crap about that, and just use one star or five stars. Not to mention there is wide disagreement about what the star ratings even mean. From a piece on The Verge about Netflix’s decision:

Switching to a binary thumbs-up / thumbs-down system might seem less granular than offering five stars, but [Netflix VP] Yellin said there’s an implicit understanding with thumbs-up / thumbs-down that people are doing it to improve their own experience rather than trying to rate it for the rest of the world. And at the end of the day, it’s really about just getting more people to rate things.

“What’s more powerful: you telling me you would give five stars to the documentary about unrest in the Ukraine; that you’d give three stars to the latest Adam Sandler movie; or that you’d watch the Adam Sandler movie 10 times more frequently?” Yellin said. “What you do versus what you say you like are different things.”

Later, in Ehrlich’s piece for Indiewire:

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.

In the era of peak TV, I can certainly agree that there is a lot of fluidity in the division between TV and film right now. But I also think the implication that the theatrical experience is an essential part of making something a “film” is a somewhat privileged viewpoint.

If Netflix never existed, the vast majority of Americans probably never would’ve seen Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore in a theater. They may never have even had a chance to. That film might never have even played in a theater outside a film festival or special event. But today, over 40 million Netflix subscribing households in the US can pull it up on their TV and access it instantly. The fact that most of them will not is a problem I think Netflix (and its filmmakers) will need to contend with. I don’t see how that makes it no longer a film, though.

See also: The Ringer’s piece on “The End of Independent Film As We Know It”