Netflix is a darling no more. The streaming service has become a major media platform, turning the movie and TV industries on their heads. Particularly within TV, their success has snowballed in recent years. They received 91 Emmy nominations this year, up from 54 noms in 2016, beating out every cable and TV network other than HBO. Their shows receive top mentions by critics and consistently create hyped fervor each time a new season drops, whether it’s House of Cards or Master of None.
Their cozy and influential relationship with standup comedy is undeniable. They essentially bought out the market, funding the comeback stories of Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, but also jump starting previously lesser-known talents like Ali Wong. The creative freedom they allow artists has caused many to sing their praises, and that reputation has branded them into an ally of the creative community. Can’t sell a niche or obscure project to traditional buyers? Sell it to Netflix.
This attitude is unanimously true everywhere except the film industry. That’s where things get tricky. In any other subset of the entertainment industry, they don’t just get invited to the big kids’ table—they are the big kids’ table. Though Netflix has cornered the independent film market in some ways, they still cannot garner serious respect amongst the major film community.
The strategy they employ within the TV and standup comedy industries has not had the same effect in movies. That strategy goes a little something like this: Target known celebrity commodities and dump boatloads of money at their feet. Allow them to do whatever they want, but no promises of serious advertising. They can promote themselves if they want. That method netted them stars like Brad Pitt and celebrated filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Bong Joon-Ho. Yet the streaming platform has yet to win an Oscar for any of their feature films or release a movie anyone would consider a masterpiece.
And this year major voices within filmmaking and fan lovers alike have struck back. The wedge between Netflix and these dissenting voices is the platform’s outright dismissal of the theater-going experience. They believe it a thing of the past. This contention reached a maelstrom at Cannes, the premiere French film festival, where the visionary director Pedro Aldomovar read a manifesto defending the theatrical experience. “What I prefer is to be seen in not only 190 countries but always to be seen on a big screen,” he said.
At the time, Will Smith defended Netflix because, well, his project Bright will release on the platform this year and Netflix reportedly paid $90 million for it. (Also something about Jaden and Willa Smith liking Netflix, I guess?) Later at a Cannes press conference, Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos labeled Aldomovar’s statements as, “beautifully romantic.” All this caused Cannes to ban Netflix from future festivals, unless they followed a French rule that stipulates a three-year window between a movie’s theatrical release and it appearing on streaming platforms. Netflix refuses to oblige.
Now Christopher Nolan has come out against Netflix, amidst the promotion tour of his new war film Dunkirk. In an interview with Indiewire, Nolan stated he didn’t support Netflix’s release strategy and wouldn’t work with the company.
“Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films,” Nolan said. “They have this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation. So they’re not even getting in the game, and I think they’re missing a huge opportunity.”
He condoned the Amazon model, which constitutes of a 90-day window between theatrical release and a title appearing on the company’s streaming platform. Nolan’s comments aren’t that surprising. He clearly favors large-scale epic films designed for maximum impact on the big screen. At the exhibitors’ conference CinemaCon in March, Nolan emphasized Dunkirk must be seen in theaters to truly appreciate the film.
Even when Warner Bros. worldwide marketing and distribution president Sue Kroll commented that audiences have spoken in wanting more options to consume content, Nolan didn’t back down. “The only platform I’m interested in talking about is theatrical exhibition,” he said.
Perhaps Netflix once felt they needed to horde their exclusive properties to drive membership subscribers to their streaming platform. They could promote themselves as the exclusive home to whatever star’s next big project. But how much water does that hold anymore?
With more than 100 million subscribers, releasing films in theaters will not drive away subscribers. No one will watch Okja or War Machine in theaters and think, “Welp! Don’t need Netflix anymore!” Netflix has already won its hard fought war. Through aggressively hording must-watch programming, and continuing to produce more of it, it has already established itself as a vital pillar in the entertainment industry. As millennials have proven with their dollars, having Netflix in your home far outweighs paying for a TV subscription.
So why not elevate the experience of your movies by showing them in theaters? Why not create hyped events around your releases and sustain increased excitement over your films and TV shows? Netflix almost seems to vehemently oppose watching their programs in any context outside of streaming it through their devices. You start to wonder if Netflix fears their programs becoming bigger entities than the bright red brand itself. Which is so utterly baffling. Netflix assumes the responsibilities of a production/distribution/tech company, but sometimes only operates with the mindset of a tech company.
Ultimately this is the end result of how contemporary tech media companies choose to view themselves. Netflix is not in the movie, TV, and comedy businesses. Netflix is in the content business. That is the word the company repeatedly uses in describing its projects. Because Netflix isn’t selling Stranger Things or Adam Sandler movies. Netflix is selling Netflix because that’s the only way the company assumes it can make money.
Netflix currently operates at a $2-2.5 billion negative free cash flow. While its CEO isn’t worried, believing their strategy will provide “enormous” dividends in the long run, it seems like ignorant foresight not to make money and positive good will where they can. It paints Netflix as the kid who takes his ball and goes home—and who likes that kid?
“I think the investment that Netflix is putting into interesting filmmakers and interesting projects would be more admirable if it weren’t being used as some kind of bizarre leverage against shutting down theaters,” Nolan told Indiewire. “It’s so pointless. I don’t really get it.”
A word on Netflix’s supposed disruption, perhaps the silliest buzzword in Silicon Valley these days. (Quick: If a technology startup disrupts in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does anyone care? Is it even a startup anymore?) Netflix didn’t really change the ritual behind watching TV. The machinations remain the same—you sit on the couch, turn on the TV, maybe smoke some weed or drink some wine, and slowly doze off. Maybe some teenagers and college kids watch on their phones or laptops instead now. For the most part, people still watch TV on their TV. Netflix changed how we receive TV—internet instead of cable or dish networks—not how we watch TV.
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But the blanket statement that people don’t want to watch movies in movie theaters anymore is almost embarrassing in its arrogance. You can’t change the how of an entertainment experience and expect everyone to follow along. Netflix will tell you people consume content differently now, but how true is that? Netflix continues to refuse releasing the figures behind how many people watch their properties. Like Donald Trump, they expect us to trust their word on that one.
Years ago, network and cable companies blindly allowed Netflix to come underneath them and stake massive control in the TV world. Those companies did not value how their customers preferred consuming TV, even as technologies like TiVo and DVR rose in popularity: People want to watch TV wherever and whenever they want. Somehow Netflix seems to be making the same mistake. Loads of people may not mind watching movies on TV, but a significant number do. Moviegoers want to watch movies at the movie theater. Demanding otherwise isn’t disruptive. It’s just dumb business.