The clash between Netflix and the movie industry reached new heights in late February when Steven Spielberg re-entered the fray. The 72-year-old filmmaker previously stated that Netflix releases should only be eligible for Emmys rather than Oscars. Following The Green Book’s Best Picture win over Roma at the 91st Academy Awards, Spielberg has lobbied the Academy Board of Governors to ban all Netflix movies from future Oscar consideration. This would be the biggest slight against Netflix since the Cannes Film Festival banned screenings of the company’s films in 2018.
The fight between the old guard of the film world and the young upstart disruptor has prompted a number of pieces about the theatrical distribution model, the cost of going to the movies, the way filmgoers consume media, and even what constitutes a film. In response, Netflix tweeted the following:
We love cinema. Here are some things we also love:
-Access for people who can't always afford, or live in towns without, theaters
-Letting everyone, everywhere enjoy releases at the same time
-Giving filmmakers more ways to share art
These things are not mutually exclusive.
— Netflix Film (@NetflixFilm) March 4, 2019
It’s a nice sentiment, but I have to ask the Bee Gees’ question: “How deep is your love?” If Netflix loved cinema as much as it claims, it would be doing a fraction of what The Criterion Channel does in terms of its presentation of films as art.
Look through Netflix’s classic section and you’ll find it lacking. Sure, you have Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and The Stranger, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, and selections from Kino Lorber’s excellent Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers set, but it’s a meager collection. So much about film appreciation comes from a celebration of the medium’s history and giving people access to landmarks in moviemaking. The Criterion Channel admittedly has an advantage over Netflix since it has the power of Janus Films, which is more than six decades old.
Katie Dowd at SFGate provided a succinct analysis of Netflix’s shrinking classics section. The company’s focus on original series and films has led to less money for third-party licensing. Since the majority of people prefer contemporary films and series, Netflix may not feel it is worth the cost (Neon Genesis Evangelion notwithstanding). This lack of classics on Netflix will become more pronounced as other media companies hoard their film libraries and launch their own streaming platforms. In other words, this is going to get worse once Disney+ gets off the ground.
Yet shouldn’t a company that loves cinema be willing to eat a loss so it can give its subscribers access to the treasures of the past? Outside of the robust Janus Films library, The Criterion Channel promises a rotation of films from other licensors, which will give its subscribers access to classics from MGM, Warner Bros, Paramount, and so on. Adopting something along those lines can bolster Netflix’s skimpy classics selection while keeping it fresh as well.
Netflix may be trying to kill two birds with tens of millions of dollars as it tries to buy The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. The deal with non-profit American Cinematheque isn’t finalized, but it’s one way of courting the movie industry’s devotion to the theatrical experience as well as cinephiles who appreciate classics and world cinema. Netflix would use the venerable theater to host weekday screenings of its original content while the American Cinematheque operates autonomously on the weekends with repertory screenings, lectures, and festivals. That is one way to show a type of film love, and may grant audiences more access to contemporary and classic films. At least if you have the disposable income to go to the movie theater. And live in Los Angeles.
While Netflix pursues its own brick and mortar theatrical base, they remain mostly resistant to physical media for their original output. Apart from DVDs and Blu-rays for Stranger Things and House of Cards, Netflix hasn’t given the majority of its original film productions the physical media releases they deserve; they are just a title to stream, with little in the way of extras. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma certainly deserves a Blu-ray release, with an audio commentary track, featurettes with the cast and crew, and more. The same goes for prestige Netflix film releases like Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, Dee Rees’ Mudbound, Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, and Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja. While Netflix has given funding, creative freedom, and online distribution, these filmmakers could also be given a release that treats their work like art worthy of further discussion rather than just more streamable content.
The allure of the Criterion Channel, by contrast, comes as much from its vast and acclaimed library as the high standards for presentation set by Criterion Collection physical releases. Many of the audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes features, rare footage, and interviews found on physical Criterion Collection DVDs and Blu-rays can be streamed through The Criterion Channel. Using that as a model (i.e., a Criterion Collection Blu-ray but online), Netflix could produce streamable audio commentary tracks and making-of featurettes for their high-profile original films. They don’t need a multi-part interview series like Beyond Stranger Things; or a feature-length documentary like Morgan Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which complements the Netflix-restored/completed version of Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind. Netflix could just make featurettes or interviews available alongside the films, or include an audio commentary as a separate audio track.
Netflix does have audio description tracks rather than commentary tracks, but they are not the same. Rather than insight or analysis, these audio description tracks are verbal descriptions of the visuals on screen. While a useful aid for the visually impaired, these audio description tracks do not involve filmmakers or film historians discussing craft or providing context. I am kind of interested in the audio descriptions regardless, but not because they add to the art or appreciation of film. I may put one on in the background while cooking or cleaning, sort of like I do with Criterion Channel audio commentaries. The Criterion Channel audio commentaries are like movie podcasts about the art of making a movie, while the Netflix audio descriptions are a zen-like tautology.
Netflix flirts with the idea of supplemental material on its YouTube page. There are a few short behind-the-scenes segments and digital exclusives, yet most of them are brief and feel a bit more like ads than fully realized supplemental content that elevates the art and the artists. On that note, there are reports that Netflix wants to put out a print magazine called Wide later this year. Rather than a publication committed to thoughtful commentary and analysis, the debut issue of Wide will primarily serve as a promotional tool to sway the favor of Emmy voters.
To me, this speaks to Netflix’s identity being stretched by the divergent imperatives of art and commerce. The company faces issues on multiple fronts. Despite the Oscar clout last year, the film industry is resistant to the company’s presence on the scene. Disney+ presents major competition given its robust library and affordable price point. While Netflix makes gestures toward supporting cinematic art, its declaration of love feels more like a branding opportunity than a business priority, especially since Netflix seems more interested in becoming its own formidable, next-gen media empire.
This makes me curious about Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. How will Netflix handle the release of this expensive original production? Will Netflix learn a lesson from The Criterion Channel’s film presentation and offer streamable supplemental material? Perhaps an audio commentary with Scorsese, cast interviews and discussions, and a featurette on the extensive de-aging technology. Or will Netflix just puff the movie up in Wide, release a pair of three-minute making-ofs on its YouTube channel, produce a 50-second Scorsese video intro, and call it a day?
With an estimated $200 million production budget for The Irishman and the subsequent cost of advertising and a possible awards push, would Netflix be willing to invest in a streamable Criterion Collection-style release? Netflix will give The Irishman more promotional support than it does most of their original films (many of which are funded and then dumped into the library void), but how much and how far will they go to make it feel special?
Thinking about this idea of cinematic love, corporate disruption, and new modes of film presentation in the world of streaming platforms, I think we’ve gone from the Bee Gees’ question to The Beatles’ truism: “Money can’t buy me love.”