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Netflix stepping in to serve an audience craving middle-budgeted movies only offers the illusion of diversity
Back in 2013, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted the film industry was headed toward a major upheaval. Speaking at the University of Southern California, they lamented the increased difficulty in getting their films in theatres. The future, they argued, would see the filmgoing experience taking on a Broadway play model, with fewer films being released at a much higher cost. The pair, who had just released Lincoln and Red Tails respectively, predicted that mid-budget movies like the ones they had just made, would find new homes on cable and streaming services like Netflix.
What the filmmaking icons failed to forecast — and for which, they can certainly be forgiven — was that Stuber , an action-comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista, would be coming to cinemas on a summer weekend six years later.
While likely best known in recent years for its original TV productions, Netflix has also become a dominant force in film production and distribution. As wages stagnate and the cost of living seems to be increasing exponentially, the filmgoing experience has become something of a luxury to the average person. Looking at things from a purely economical perspective, the rise of Netflix makes sense: For the cost of a regularly priced movie, you can have unlimited access to an entire streaming archive for a month. It’s not necessarily that people are no longer interested in regularly seeing films in theatres, it’s simply not fiscally responsible.
The situation is reminiscent of something that happened more than six decades ago with the dawning of the golden age of television. Rather than go out to the cinema, people were staying home to catch up with I Love Lucy , Gunsmoke and The Ed Sullivan Show in the comfort of their living rooms. As the film industry competed with this new entertainment medium, it embraced widescreen and colour, things early TV sets could not offer. It also invested in larger-than-life epics, spectacles unsuited for the boob tube that audiences were willing to pay extra to see on the big screen.
Exchange a biblical epic for a superhero film and you might as well be describing the current state of filmgoing. Remove Disney productions from the equation and chances are the last movie you watched was on your couch, curled up in front of Netflix or your streaming service of choice. While every passing year sees new box-office records, it’s an increasingly smaller number of movies that are attracting audiences to the cinema.
The same thing happened when the home video industry took off in the 1980s. Cinemas again embraced gimmicks that appeal to experiential desires which cannot be fulfilled at home, like 3D screenings. Even then, however, movies like When Harry Met Sally , Die Hard and Moonstruck had a chance for box-office success. If these same films were released today, it is not unreasonable to imagine that they might just as well be Netflix exclusives.
While cinemas have tried to cope with the departure of its customer base once again with premium bells and whistles — UltraAVX and D-BOX — Netflix has found a market for mid-range films and seemingly exploited it with films like Always Be My Maybe , The Ridiculous Six and Private Life. While it is safe to be apprehensive about Netflix’s self-reported numbers, it is not inconceivable that Netflix originals like Bird Box and Murder Mystery are reaching more eyes through the streaming platform than they ever would in theatres.
It’s easy to suggest that cinema is dying as a result, but what we’re actually witnessing is a recurring ebb and flow: Much like when television became competitive or when the video market emerged, the cinematic experience for films is being reserved for big-budget blockbusters that manipulate our modern fear of missing out.
It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, however. Netflix stepping in to fill the gap may assuage the dominance of companies like Disney, but their own homogenous house-style is also dispiriting. There is something fundamentally wrong when a dark art-world thriller like Velvet Buzzsaw is virtually indistinguishable from a sweet teenage rom-com like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before . The colour grading may be slightly different, but the average Netflix original film feels more akin to television production than artistic practice.
In many ways, Netflix stepping in to serve an audience craving middle-budgeted movies only offers the illusion of diversity. While Lucas initially predicted a more high-brow cinema experience six years ago, it seems as though the film industry is taking a completely different shape: Easily accessible action and adventure in theatres combined with templated and formulaic, middle-brow content at home.
Which brings us all the way back to Stuber . Based on the trailers, the movie already feels like the last remnant of a former time. It’s exactly the kind of film an audience seems more inclined to watch through a streaming service rather than at a theatre in 2019. I can’t help but hope it finds a measure of box-office success as a form of cinematic counter-programming. If not for any other reason than it might just encourage a little more variety at the theatre, and a little less time spent on our couches.
By Justine Smith
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019