The rise in popularity of on-demand video streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime is increasingly seen as a threat to the 113-year-old ritual of going to a cinema to see a movie. James Robins spoke to Dr Karina Aveyard, Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, author of “Lure of the Big Screen: Cinema in Rural Australia and the United Kingdom” and co-editor of “Watching Films: New Perspectives on Movie-going, Exhibition and Reception,” about whether Netflix might kill the cinema.
Earlier this year, the organisers of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival drew a line in the dirt: only movies released into French cinemas could be considered in competition. Any film released solely on Netflix or other streaming services were barred from vying for the coveted Palm D’Or prize.
The Cannes decision exacerbated the tension between the established film industry and new upstarts who provide movies and television shows straight into your living room, prompting fears that streaming services could spell the end of the traditional cinematic experience.
At last count, Netflix alone has more than 125 million subscribers worldwide, with 1.2 million of them in New Zealand, while cinema attendance in the United States last year dropped to its lowest level since 1995.
Prominent filmmakers have joined the chorus against Netflix and its ilk to defend the cinematic experience, including director Steven Spielberg, who doesn’t believe “films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theatres for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.” Christopher Nolan stated that “Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films. They have this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation.”
And yet these warnings about the death of cinema have all been heard before.
Dr Karina Aveyard of the University of Sydney doubts that streaming services on their own are going to significantly disrupt theatres, or the traditional ways of experiencing film.
“There is and has for several decades been a perception that the cinema is under threat or facing some sort of challenge,” Aveyard told The Big Q. “That is true, it does. But it’s the sort of challenges that I don’t see, at the moment, closing down cinemas for example in large numbers.”
“Thinking about the question of whether Netflix is killing the cinema is a criticism that was levelled at television for a long time in the Fifties and Sixties – that was why cinemas declined in that period, because everyone bought a TV and no one wanted to go out.”
“Like when video came out, it was again going to be another death knell for the cinema. But in fact, there’s research that showed that people hiring films and buying films on video were actually going to the cinema more. There isn’t a straight line to draw into any of those developments, [i.e.] this has been invented therefore other modes of film viewing are now obsolete.”
And, as Aveyard points out, movies haven’t always had a cinema release, regardless of other methods of viewing. “There’s always been loads and loads of films that have been produced that never made it into a cinema,” she says. “Whereas you have films that are now circulated through streaming services, a few decades earlier would have been on video cassettes – you went to the video store and there were lots of things that were never released in cinemas. I think that’s always been a feature of the industry.”
On a more intimate, social level, Aveyard argues that the greater number and choice of films being beamed into every bedroom has a democratising effect, especially in ordinary people’s aesthetic, philosophical, or political engagement in artistic works.
“Once upon a time, you had people, very influential, as film critics, and it was very much as though they were the ones that would tell you about particular aspects of the film,” Aveyard says. “Ordinary people didn’t feel confident discussing different aspects of film – style, music, those kinds of things. Whereas now more people feel much more confident in doing that. I think that ability to be closer to texts through the ability to have them at home is one of the interesting parts of that.”
Aveyard also notes that home viewing in some ways, sometimes, reproduces the behaviours of theatre attendance.
“It’s interesting that when you sit down to watch a film at home, you are dimming the lights, you are at least partly recreating the cinema experience. So socially and individually, you’re making a commitment to watching something with other people. That’s true to some extent of the cinema as well. But at home you put away the phones, you’re committed to sharing that with someone…It is a sense of making time for other people, your family or your partner or whoever.”
“There’s a lot of throwaway remarks that people make: ‘If you’ve seen a film on television it’s like you’ve never even seen it because it’s so awful. Nothing compares to the cinema.’ There is definitely something unique about the cinema, and I think even more so in the present when we have access to so many screens and any content we want, and it makes the cinema experience even more special, or so different to the other kinds of media experiences that we have. It’s enabled a deeper connection, a deeper understanding.”
While Netflix and other streaming services like Amazon Prime, or Lightbox in New Zealand, may not lead to the rapid closure and tearing down of your local arthouse or multiplex, their recent move into creating their own films and long-form series is posing a serious challenge to the economic structure of the Hollywood establishment.
In 2015, Netflix brought distribution rights for Beasts of No Nation, starring Idris Elba, and released it simultaneously in theatres and on its streaming service, prompting a boycott from major US cinema chains like AMC. And since them, as well buying copyrights and distribution rights, Netflix and other services have created their own studios and funded original works, cutting into the monopolies of massive studios like Disney or 20th Century Fox.
Recent films like Alex Garland’s Annihilation and Dee Rees’ Mudbound were both released to Netflix, but garnered serious praise from film critics still tied to the traditional modes of cinematic releases. (In a sign of the changing times, the popular Kermode and Mayo film show on BBC Radio 5 Live recently added a segment for exclusively streamed films called ‘Cream of the Streams’). Mudbound earned several Oscar nominations, including one for Rachel Morrison, the first woman to be considered for Best Cinematography. Barry Jenkins’ Best Picture-winning film Moonlight was partly funded by Amazon Prime.
This new intervention by streaming services into the production and distribution side of the film business “changes the dynamics,” Aveyard claims, “in the sense that the films that didn’t get a cinema release and had the kind of money that those films did, that was somehow a continuation of their cultural value and certainly their economic value.”
“What Netflix and Amazon gives them is a platform for release, not quite compared to a cinema release but it nevertheless has a lot of credibility and an audience that is readily subscribing. It helps to give films like that that might otherwise be more peripheral, a place more in the establishment of the industry. That means that people give them a little bit more serious attention. That’s quite an interesting development in terms of where things might go in terms of feature films.”
Further, Aveyard suggests, streaming services with their own studios provide a middle-ground between the large franchise-based entertainments of the major US studios and purely independent filmmakers. Consequently, these studios are much more malleable to social change in the industry.
“The kinds of films they’re funding in almost what Miramax was doing twenty-thirty years ago,” she says. “Independent but still quality, not cheap, cinema. They are providing something that is a little bit different. And if you think philosophically about the industry, issues of diversity, issues of power and corruption, those kinds of things are very topical at the moment, and those films are providing more of a space for wider participation in the industry.”
James Robins is a published author. He has also written for among others the Listener and the NZ Herald.