Acclaimed director Steven Spielberg and legendary actress Dame Helen Mirren recently came out against Netflix-only films saying they were dangerous to cinema. This comes after the Cannes Film Festival decided to reject any films from streaming services. Previously, so long as they had a couple of screenings these films could qualify for Cannes, but the new rules require a full cinema release. This has revived the argument as to how the film industry should deal with the new streaming market and whether these films should be considered valid for recognition at all.
The main fear from these major figures is that an increased amount of streaming-only films would be hugely damaging to cinemas. If all movie fans can get the best films in the comfort of their home, and crucially as part of their monthly subscription, then there is little motivation to go outside the house and break the bank to see the latest movie.
Cinema has faced similar problems before with many seeing the advent of home video and DVDs as signalling the decline of movie theatres and whilst there was long period of reduced attendance and closures, cinemas have largely stabilised and remain a popular activity. The threat from streaming is a different one however. Whereas previously most films would have had a cinema run before their home release, there is now an increasing number of films premiering on Netflix or Amazon. The buzz surrounding the surprise release of The Cloverfield Paradox this year is evidence of how the streaming giant’s immediate customer base gives them a unique advantage. This challenge has already been seen to greater effect in the world of television.
It is fair to say that streaming has totally changed how we watch television. It is far easier to use, far cheaper, and far more convenient to watch what we like at a time of our choosing. Streaming has been great for the consumer but has offered a difficult challenge to the traditional TV and film industries.
Binge-watching has now become arguably the main way people digest programmes, certainly for young people. This has resulted in a wide drop in viewing figures for the initial broadcast of TV series. Major networks have tried to combat this by offering their own streaming services or by releasing their series in full after the finale is broadcast.
Despite these efforts, streaming from Netflix and Amazon is the king when it comes to popular interest and major new series. Stranger Things, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, 13 Reasons Why, Daredevil and Narcos are just a fraction of Netflix’s original output in the last few years; could you name a network with that many high-profile shows all broadcasting at once? There is big money involved as well with Netflix’s The Crown reported as being the most expensive TV series of all time and its due to lose that title to Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series.
It is due to the sheer size and international outreach of the two main streaming companies that they can provide a product that the traditional networks can’t contend with. Whilst the increased number of high-quality shows on offer is great for the consumer, I can’t help but lament the decline in the traditional way of watching TV. The week-long wait between episodes, filled with discussions and theorising about what could happen next is one of the best things about following a series.
Bingeing satisfies the immediate fix you need but waiting a full year to watch the premiere episode of a season makes the anticipation greater and the reward (hopefully) sweeter. The traditional method can also foster a feeling of event television. This hasn’t totally been lost, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are probably the biggest TV shows in the world and they maintain a traditional broadcast.
In Britain also, popular series like Peaky Blinders, Broadchurch and the acclaimed War and Peace adaptation have captured national attention without the need to release all episodes at once. Streaming has certainly revolutionised TV but it hasn’t killed it off like some said it would.
The romantic attachment to tradition appears to be the main motivation of those in the film industry trying to resist the rise of streaming. Going to the cinema is still a great experience – the smell of popcorn, the large screen, and being part of an audience is what makes a cinema great and it’s what films were made for. Losing or even diluting that experience would be a great shame.
The cinema here in St Andrews is a gem of an independent theatre and much of its business relies on the students here turning up for the latest films every week. Not just selling-out the full theatre for 50 Shades on Valentine’s Day (not that I endorse that) or for the next Star Wars (I definitely do endorse that), these things couldn’t happen if streaming takes over fi lm and cinemas begin to close down.
It’s not a question about the quality of films being made. As much as Bright and The Ridiculous 6 were god-awful, films like Beasts of No Nation, Mudbound and the recently-released Annihilation have been ground-breaking. Also, due to the streaming giants not relying on selling tickets, it puts less pressure on creators to make something that’s guaranteed to make money.
This provides a much larger degree of artistic freedom which can once again benefit the consumer by having different kinds of films available that may not have been backed by traditional film studios. Spielberg didn’t say he had a problem with the quality of the product he more believed that they should be classed as TV films. To him getting people to come to the cinema and watch your film is a major aspect of the movie making experience.
Is banning streamed films from film festivals or excluding them from awards ceremonies the right way to preserve the traditional cinema experience? I think that depends on your own perspective. For me, if a film is deserving of recognition it should get it regardless of how it was released and film festivals should showcase the full variety of films.
In terms of cinema being in danger, I think ticket prices are probably a larger concern. The age of streaming has forced many industries to adapt but evidence shows that it isn’t all destructive. Books and bookshops have survived, television lives on.
Cinemas have to adapt but I don’t think streaming spells the end for them. The unique experience of going to the cinema for a fi lm is something Netflix, as much as they may try, will never be able to match.