Old Hollywood has been parked on their front lawns yelling at the clouds this past week, ruminating provincially about Netflix and streaming.
It first began with filmmaking legend Steven Spielberg arguing that Netflix should not be permitted for Academy Awards consideration, even going so far as to label the company a “clear and present danger to filmgoers.” These comments echoed those made by Christopher Nolan last year, though he eventually apologized for his remarks (without really backing off the central idea behind them).
The growing divide behind generational entertainment was driven home over the weekend when the Cannes Film Festival banned Netflix from competition.
“Last year, when we selected these two films [Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories], I thought I could convince Netflix to release them in cinemas. I was presumptuous, they refused,” film festival head Theirry Fremaux said, according to THR.
“The Netflix people loved the red carpet and would like to be present with other films. But they understand that the intransigence of their own model is now the opposite of ours,” he said.
No worries, Fremaux. Your argument absolutely doesn’t sound like the music industry’s early resistance to iTunes, which eventually led to its own downfall. Keep doing what you’re doing.
Coupled together, you could see how these stories craft the narrative that Netflix is having a bad week. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“This reeks of old-school Hollywood trying to throw a giant-scale cinematic wrench into the powerful machinery of the Netflix system,” Eric Schiffer, CEO of the Patriarch Organization and chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, told Observer. “The future of Cannes, if they continue down this route, will be one with very few attendees because the overwhelming future of film will largely be distributed directly to consumer.”
Netflix added a staggering eight million new subscribers during the last fiscal quarter of 2017, blowing past the recent average right around four million. The streaming service was recently valued at $140 billion, more than that of McDonald’s, General Electric and Time Warner. They’re set to release 700 originals this year and invest $8 billion into content while expanding the overseas customer base. Domestically, Netflix boasts nearly 55 million subscribers. Estimates peg cable’s U.S. customer base around 48 million.
Life is good for Netflix right now, regardless of what Spielberg and those behind Cannes think about the service. Their choice highlights a sense of detachment from the reality of today’s entertainment landscape.
The delivery mechanisms may not be tailored to the old guard’s way of thinking, but the paradigm surrounding content creation has changed. The big screen is still our favorite method of film consumption—try recreating the visual mania of Gravity on your laptop—but it isn’t the only viable method anymore. Hollywood’s elite aren’t the only ones capable of telling stories these days.
“The original decision will be reversed; it’s just a question of when,” Larry Aidem, president and CEO of movie streaming service Fandor, told Observer. “The point is digital has democratized filmmaking in an incredible way that many are still adjusting to. Digitalization has brought down the costs of filmmaking so that virtually anyone can be a filmmaker. That’s not to say everyone should be. That’s where Cannes and other great festivals play a critically important role.”
“The point is not whether a movie is made on 70mm by Nolan, or shot on an iPhone by a 20-year-old newcomer, it’s about the distinctiveness of the artist’s vision and storytelling,” he added.
In 2001, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings correctly predicted that independent films would eventually bypass the traditional release system and instead turn to digital streaming to directly reach audiences. Though the streamer opted not to buy anything out of Sundance this time around, their last foray into the film festival netted them Mudbound, which scored four Oscar nominations this year.
At the same time, the company has been building towards bigger and more mainstream films.
Will Smith’s Bright cost between $90 million and $100 million and though it was met with widespread panning from fans and critics, it drew a solid number of viewers out of sheer curiosity, while also signifying a strategic shift for Netflix’s development branch.
Going forward, we can expect Netflix to tinker with quality while allocating more resources to broad appeal hits so that the company can both compete for prestigious film awards while also reaching mainstream audiences with commercial blockbusters. As such, they will continue to redefine what a film studio can be.
“Spielberg’s comments are evocative of a time when traditional broadcasters objected to Emmy consideration of series from HBO and Showtime, and look how far we’ve come,” Aidem said. “Twentieth century definitions of film and TV are increasingly inapplicable. New platforms, large and small, feature a range of impressive, diverse movies—some straight from festivals, some limited theatricals, some made-for-streaming. The idea that the logo of a streaming service should result in work by certain storytellers being regarded simply as ‘made for TV films’ ignores the reality of today’s multiplatform landscape. It is also on the wrong side of history.”
A-list filmmakers can deride the streamer for foregoing theatrical releases, and exclusive film festivals can ban them from their competition. But all they’re doing is distancing themselves from the evolving industry and segmenting audiences. This isn’t a battle between two opposing forces, it’s an inevitable coupling.
“It just shows you the powerlessness and weakness on the part of the studios to stop this killing machine,” Schiffer surmised. “The fact they have to resort to these petty obstacles screams to their powerlessness over the machinery of Netflix.”