Are Netflix’s Movies Less Legitimate Than Studio Movies?

Methinks some people need to be a little less pretentious concerning the art form’s integrity.
Netflix Logo

The 2017 Cannes Film Festival is in full swing, but it wouldn’t be Cannes if there wasn’t some controversy a-brewing, and this year’s no exception. Granted, it’s not nearly as bad as Lars von Trier’s Nazi jokes back in 2011 but this year, the festival doesn’t like Netflix. Consider the audience’s initial reaction to Bong Joon-ho’s Okja.

At the film’s premiere, audience members booed when the Netflix logo appeared on-screen. (Their mood didn’t improve when the film experienced technical difficulties and had to be restarted.) And this response is just the tip of the iceberg.

The incident follows weeks of snide back-and-forth between Netflix, the Cannes Film Festival, and the National Federation of French Cinemas, over the question of whether releasing movies primarily on streaming platforms somehow delegitimizes their standing as cinematic works. Okja is set for a limited theatrical release in the United States and the UK, and a wide release in South Korea, but it won’t be released in French theaters at all, due to French law that films be kept off streaming platforms for 36 months after their theatrical release.

Netflix briefly considered a limited release in France starting June 28th, when Okja premieres worldwide on the streaming service, but the conversation ended abruptly. Shortly after, Cannes announced that only films with scheduled theatrical releases in France would be considered for competition in the festival starting next year.

The key word there is “delegitimizes.” Essentially, is a film produced by a streaming service (e.g., Netflix or Amazon) less of a film than one produced by a “real” studio because it’s not necessarily intended for the theatre? No less a luminary than Pedro Almodóvar — who is this year’s jury president and whose previous films, including All About My Mother (1999) and Volver (2006), have won awards at Cannes — has expressed skepticism about the “legitimacy” of streaming films:

“Digital platforms are a new way of offering words and images, which in itself are enriching. But these platforms should not take the place of existing forms like the movie theaters,” he said. “They should under no circumstances change the offer for spectators. The only solution I think is that the new platforms accept and obey the existing rules that are already adopted and respected by the existing networks.

“He added: “I personally don’t perceive the Palme d’Or [should be] given to a film that is then not seen on the big screen. All this doesn’t mean that I am not open or celebrate new technologies and opportunities, but [as long as] I’m alive I’ll be fighting for the capacity of hypnosis of the large screen for the viewer.”

Basically, Almodóvar seems to be saying that films that aren’t seen on the big screen are less valid because they don’t provide as powerful of a cinematic experience. On the surface, that sounds all well and good, and I’m certainly for maintaining the integrity of the art form. At the same time, methinks some people need to be a little less pretentious. For starters, why the assumption that the movie theatre experience is inherently superior to the home theatre experience?

Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing movies in the theatre. As far as I’m concerned, companies like The Alamo Drafthouse are doing the Lord’s work to make the movie theatre experience as entertaining and enjoyable as possible. But at the same time, let’s be realistic about the movie theatre experience for many people, and how technology has changed the movie-watching experience overall.

In other words, technology has dramatically impacted how “special” seeing a movie in the theatre can be by making the quality of a home viewing just as good, if not way better. Of course, it’s hard to replicate the social experience of seeing a movie in a theatre (and if you’ve seen a great movie with a great audience, you know exactly what I’m talking about). But do we really want to judge the legitimacy of a movie by the quality of the crowd experience? Or by the technological capabilities of whatever venue is showing it?

According to The Telegraph, “Netflix currently has 50 films in production around the world, plus 65 documentaries, and original series made in the local language in 19 different countries.” Furthermore, Netflix spent $6 billion dollars on content last year, including original programming like Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, with plans to spend even more — and that includes content that other studios might not be willing to touch… again, like Okja (which happens to be the most expensive Korean film ever made, and is about a genetically engineered super-pig).

I find this comment from Bong about his experience with Netflix particularly illuminating: “Giving such a budget to a director isn’t very common and [I] had total liberty. It was a wonderful experience. I’m saying that in terms of the shooting and the editing. They never intervened. They respected me from the beginning until the end. Quite frankly they gave me total freedom and liberty.”

Spending billions of dollars to produce original content around the world, and giving directors “total freedom” (and budgets to match) to make movies that “regular” studios wouldn’t touch. Wouldn’t those things indicate that Netflix is doing the exact opposite of “delegitimizing” movies?

To be fair, there are certainly valid questions and concerns about Netflix’s service and priorities. Their push into original content was as much a business decision driven by a desire to pay fewer licensing fees for other people’s content, as it was a desire to create and promote good art — if not moreso. As Netflix made a bigger push into streaming, there were laments that its DVD library was suffering and paying less attention to older and more obscure movies. And finally, Netflix doesn’t always do a great job of supporting and promoting the films that it acquires.

But shortly before I started writing this piece, I’d just finished watching Netflix’s adaptation of Tsutomu Nihei’s seminal cyberpunk manga Blame!. Which is something I never thought would see the light of day. And let’s not forget that Netflix helped resurrect Mystery Science Theater 3000. So from that (admittedly, super nerdy) perspective, I’m ultimately thankful that Netflix does what it does, and to the extent that it does it.

Does Netflix still have room for improvement? Absolutely. But are the titles that Netflix creates and releases somehow less legitimate simply because it’s Netflix that paid the bills and it’s Netflix’s logo that appears in the opening credits? That seems less legitimate to me.

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