The Netflix Conundrum

Screen-Shot-2018-01-30-at-7.48.25-AMI wanted to move away from reviews for one post, just because of a quite recent and rather significant development in cinema, particularly relating to one of my most anticipated films this year: Annihilation.

A force for good?

Even those without it know what Netflix is, and the way it’s changing how we watch TV is probably a large part of why there’s been a bit of a TV renaissance as regards content. The platform’s exclusive shows (Stranger Things, the Marvel shows, Orange is the New Black for just a few examples) have been critically lauded or incredibly popular, especially given you can binge an entire series in one day if you’re mad enough.

Where Netflix is starting to affect cinemas and film in general is its move into movie making and distribution. It’s been making its own films just for its platform (the terrible looking Bright with Will Smith one of the most high profile so far), and early on quite a lot of these were decidedly independent, awards recognised choices – a welcome shift towards funding mid range movies, since Hollywood has gone largely for “go big or go home unless your film costs peanuts” as a strategy recently.

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However, in recent weeks huge changes have come our way. Duncan Jones, director of Moon and Source Code (or Zowie Bowie if you’re of an older generation) made his latest film Mute with Netflix, and it was released nearly entirely online with a small run in Curzon Cinemas. The Cloverfield Paradox, the latest in that franchise, created cinema history by being the first film released internationally, on Netflix, during the Super Bowl and at the same time.

Clearly, the platform is getting into films in a big way. What’s both interesting and concerning is that Netflix has all of a sudden become a big player, inherited films studios don’t want, and in the interim started to distort what we see in the cinema – not necessarily for the better.

Helping and hindering

Mute is a good example of the platform’s colourblindness when it comes to genre. The film is weird and odd and may well have struggled to make much money, so perhaps Netflix was its natural home. However, it’s this kind of strange, genre bending sci-fi film that I would love to see in the cinema. Netflix made this, so it’s ultimately their choice, and that’s fair enough given that they stumped up the cash, though it’s a damn shame.

The Cloverfield Paradox is the first troubling sign of what’s to come though. Originally a sci-fi film called The God Particle, it was reshot to fit into the Cloverfield universe by  Paramount. The studio then panicked they wouldn’t make enough out of it, and sold it quickly to Netflix. While it made history for being a trailblazer, regardless of its ultimate quality (it’s all over the place IMO), the fact is the studio handed the film off, and a huge sci-fi film is again bumped to your TV rather than being on the big screen.

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This has continued, most sadly from my perspective, with Annihilation, the new film from Ex Machina’s Alex Garland. Having read the book series and been thoroughly unnerved and excited by them, I was looking very forward to seeing how this excellent director would adapt a truly mind-bending sci-fi horror onscreen. But I didn’t anticipate it would be my TV I’d have to see it on.

Again, Paramount (I see a pattern here) abandoned the film to Netflix everywhere, except the USA (where you can see it in cinemas), and so for those of us looking forward to it, we’ll have to do our best to recreate the cinematic experience at home. Sure, I’ve got surround sound, but I don’t really want to piss off my neighbours – and a curtain can only do so much to block out light!

A loss of experience

What I’m facetiously getting at is that the experience of seeing a hugely anticipated film has been taken away, with the justification that I am now in control of when, where and who I watch it with. These surmised benefits are overshadowed by the loss of what makes going to the cinema so great – the atmosphere, the immense screen, the booming sound and an audience’s shared experience.

How do I go about reviewing a film, as with the many others I’ve reviewed here, when I can’t treat it the same way? The films of Denis Villeneuve, for example – Blade Runner 2049SicarioArrival – are some of the best I’ve ever seen because they are tailor made (from sound to visuals, from soundtracks to vistas) to awe, shock, terrify and move you and your fellow cinemagoers IN THE CINEMA.

You take this away from a movie that demands this sort of experience, and you leave viewers with a subpar experience of seeing such a film for the first time. That’s nothing against people who don’t get to see something at the cinema: I’ve enjoyed many a film on DVD – most notably Fellowship of the Ring – months after it was in cinemas, but removing that option for those of us who love the experience is a step change that I feel might be quite retrograde looking ahead.

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Netflix is not doing anything wrong – it’s building on its empire and in many, many cases – Mute particularly – giving directors creative freedom to make the films they want. Hell, Martin Scorsese’s new movie has been made by them, so it’s clearly popular with directors: more power to Netflix in that sense!

But these new releases trouble me as a film fan – as cinema trips get more and more expensive, and some staff or most patrons respectively couldn’t give two shits about their customers or fellow cinemagoers, what reason is there to go? And how will that ultimately affect the films released, their quality levels, and the unforgettable experiences when we see something truly great in the medium it was made for?

I don’t know what to expect and I certainly don’t want to predict what’s going to happen. The recent release of Annihilation just made me want to share my unease and disappointment – particularly that quality, anticipated movies will not get their time of day in the cinema. I wonder where this might take us next.

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