Last month it was announced that the distribution rights to Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited mob film, The Irishman, had been purchased by Netflix. This will no doubt be a major coup for the online streaming service. The film is reuniting Scorsese with his greatest muse, Robert De Niro, for the first time since 1995’s Casino, while Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel have also been confirmed. It’s the filmic equivalent of a classic rock supergroup – like The Expendables but it might actually be good.
It won’t be the first time, however, that Netflix has attracted A-list talent. Since 2015, the company has emerged as a major player in original film production, and in doing so it has shaken the foundations of the studio driven system which we all took for granted.
Their initial foray into feature films back in October 2015 was Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts Of No Nation, starring the acting powerhouse that is Idris Elba. Since then they’ve produced films from the likes of Ava DuVernay (13th) and Ricky Gervais (Special Correspondents), while Adam Sandler (like him or loathe him, he can still put bums on seats) signed a four-picture deal with the company. This year will see the online release of Mute, a sci-fi epic from Moon director Duncan Jones, and War Machine, a contemporary war drama which stars Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, and Ben Kingsley.
Clearly, Netflix original films aren’t your typical direct-to-TV material. They may do a strong line in lightweight comedies (Sandler’s Ridiculous 6 comes to mind), but their line-up is more eclectic than you’re likely to find on multiplex screens. Ava DuVernay’s politically charged documentary 13th made waves when it arrived on TV screens last year, heralded by critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. The emphasis on digital distribution straight to TV sets, which circumvents a traditional theatrical release, has also cut down distribution costs and helped to resuscitate the mid-budget feature. Unconventional stories like the Irish war drama The Siege Of Jadotville have been given room to breathe on Netflix, where they would otherwise have floundered in the blockbuster laden cinema chains.
However, the Netflix business model hasn’t been welcomed by all. Since the advent of VHS, the release window between a film’s time in the cinema and its appearance on home media has long been considered essential for the survival of the cinema industry. The UK Cinema Association has stated that ‘the sector strongly believes that a wholesale move to an unacceptably short (or even no) window would put hundreds of cinemas up and down the country at risk, along with the jobs and local services they support’. In releasing their films online from day one, Netflix has torn up a longstanding consensus between film distributors and exhibitors.
Cinema attendance in the UK has remained reasonably consistent in recent times; last year saw over 168 million admissions, a far cry from the all-time peak of 1.64 billion in 1946, but a great improvement on the 54 million trough seen in 1984. The trend is similarly stable in both the United States and the EU. Behind these figures, however, is the disconcerting fact that young people as a demographic are increasingly turning their backs on the cinema. The reasons for this are complex and the subject of much debate, but streaming services have fed this development with a distribution model that bypasses cinemas entirely.
For those of us who still enjoy paying to see a film properly projected, that can’t be a good thing. Viewing a film at home for the first time is never the same as catching it on a big screen; aside from the loss of scope and picture quality, home cinema has diminished the role of film as a collective activity. Sitting in your living room in front of an old LCD TV or laptop, with the wrong brightness settings and a dodgy aspect ratio, is no way to enjoy all that modern film-makers have to offer. Instead of an auditorium full of like-minded people, you’re left to laugh or cry at the picture with only yourself for company. There’s a reason us film enthusiasts are often called cinema-goers – the big screen is simply the way movies are meant to be seen, and an inherent part of what it means to love movies.
The release of 13th last year was illustrative, perhaps, of things to come. When the documentary was first reviewed, it was advertised as playing in ‘selected’ UK cinemas. In fact, this meant that it was showing in just one cinema, the Bloomsbury Curzon. It is evident that this gesture was made to ensure the documentary was properly reviewed in the British press, without going through the hassle of a wider release. Even cinemas which wanted to show the film had apparently no recourse for doing so. A similarly compromised arrangement had been reached with Beasts Of No Nation a year before, despite Elba’s star-power presence, and Netflix show little sign of expanding their theatrical ambitions. This practice sets an unfortunate precedent in limiting the choice of the consumer.
Now I’m not naïve – I understand that the modern cinema experience is often characterised by dirty and uncomfortable seats, noisy teenagers, and light pollution from an idiot’s mobile phone. Many multiplexes will show little more than the latest Marvel film in 3D and charge a pretty penny for doing so. And it’s clear that in today’s age of online piracy and streaming, the current business model is plainly unsustainable – the cinema-centric distribution formula is a hangover from a time before television sets and video recorders.
Only a luddite would fight the growth of online distribution – it’s a phenomenon which has diversified and enriched the films which are available to us. Against this tide, we still back and fight for independent establishments which serve those with a passion for the silver screen. If you’re lucky enough to live near a hall which shows a genuinely diverse range of films, perhaps a branch of Picturehouse or Everyman, then that is something to be treasured.
So far, the impact of Netflix original films has been ambiguous. The debate is likely to rage on, particularly as we enter uncertain times for the industry over the next few years. For casual consumers and film geeks alike, it’s essential that we preserve the choice in how and where we’re able to enjoy both the latest movies and our favourite classics.
I can’t predict where this trend will take us, or if the march of Netflix will continue unopposed. The spread of simultaneous release schedules across cinemas and streaming services might just be inexorable, but for now, all we can do is support our local independent cinemas. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.