Compared with Netflix, many of the industry’s players operate like beached whales. Movie attendance in the United States is dismally low. Traditional network ratings are collapsing. And despite high net international grosses generated by blockbuster films, the ubiquity of such films is overcrowding release-date schedules, resulting in friction among the big six majors: Paramount, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Disney and Universal.
Since Netflix distributes all of its content online, it ingeniously avoids the fraught issues that come with being a physical studio. Moreover, Netflix can afford to produce more cinematic lemons than its competitors because failure costs them less. Although there is a slog of subpar Netflix Originals within its extensive catalog—movies like Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox are examples of films that were critically panned—the streaming service can still get eyes on these projects by targeting precise niches through data mining and algorithms.
Another major difference between a bad Netflix production and, say, one created by Warner Bros., is that the former charges its audience only $10 a month for that lackluster viewing experience; if the subscriber doesn’t like one film, they can simply sift through Netflix’s endless coffer to find another one. It is a matter of selection versus curation, and as evinced by ebbing theatrical attendance in North America, audiences have chosen Netflix’s cheaper, democratic ecosystem over a $15 movie ticket.
Much of the hatred encircling Netflix has been aimed at its unsavory distribution methods. Contrary to industry standards, Netflix decided that a scanty three-week run of Roma in November qualified it for awards season. Eventually, they expanded to 600 theaters in mid-December, but they decided to debut Roma on the online platform at the same time, adding to the general confusion about where moviegoers could see Cuarón’s magnum opus. In Hollywood, there is an unspoken agreement that studios and networks must play films at an exhibitor’s venue for 90 days before it is available on streaming services. As a result of Netflix’s consistently failing to comply with this window rule, it has become the bane of many theater owners.
Despite Netflix’s influence and deep pockets, not every theater chain is acquiescing to its demands. In Mexico, Cinépolis refused to show Roma, while Regal, AMC and Cinemark also took a firm stance against Netflix’s erratic maneuvering. Two years ago, Netflix’s widely celebrated Okja was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, causing them to pull out of the competition prematurely. Even Steven Spielberg recently took thinly veiled shots at Netflix during an acceptance speech, implying that Netflix has precipitated a tragedy: the demise of the traditional moviegoing experience.
But what is ironic about Spielberg’s criticism is that he is attacking what has arguably become one of the industry’s only viable platforms for independent cinema. Roma might have been showered with film festival awards, but without the financial backing of Netflix, it is unlikely that the black-and-white epic would have amounted to a major cultural moment, which ultimately pressured the Academy to put the film up for four awards. Netflix is emerging as one of cinema’s incubators for directorial passion projects and independent films, doing away with much of the creative balking and red tape traditional studios have exacerbated in recent years. Maybe we should be supporting that while holding Netflix accountable to continuing the mission that properly honors tragically dying genres.