With the recent release of Okja on Netflix’s world famous and immensely popular streaming service alongside a quite limited cinematic release, we decided to get together and have a chat about Netflix’s methods of producing, distributing and advertising cinematic releases. Taking part are contributor Carmen Paddock, Reviews Editor Rachel Brook, and our esteemed Editor-in-Chief, David Brake.
Kambole: So, Okja‘s booing at Cannes and the festival’s general disdain for Netflix had me wondering: is Netflix distributing films the right way? Not just in terms of cinema release mind you, but also in its promotion, and support of its projects.
Carmen: I think that Netflix isn’t doing anything inherently wrong – it’s a new model of distribution which is rapidly disrupting the industry and entertainment value chain and it might still be figuring out the correct theatrical release and overall promotion of its projects. But theatrical is not (and possibly will never be) Netflix’s primary source of revenue, and I think it might be missing theatrical opportunities since a lot of audiences still see such a release as a marker of quality.
Rachel: I think the key is considering releases on a case by case basis – not whether films should debut on Netflix, but should THIS film debut on Netflix? I’m all for an indie drama that plays on a small number of screens finding a larger audience through Netflix, but imagine something with the visual and aural qualities of Interstellar or Gravity not being available theatrically.
Carmen: Netflix is getting independent films out to wider audiences than ever before – while it might need to “play the game” a bit more in regards to theatrical distribution windows, I think it’s an excellent way for indies to be seen.
David: Nostalgia is a wonderful, warm blanket. We wrap ourselves up in the memories of the past. It was better in my day. A romance remains with the cinema. It’s likely how we all got involved in it. But romanticism should not muddle the path to the future.
Rachel: Very poetic David!
Kambole: Almost brings a tear to the eye.
David: Damn right. We romantics love cinema. Films in the ultimate format, yet this is such a small bubble. Such a tight, echo chamber that can often blind us to the fact that 500 million hours of Netflix users time has been spent on Adam Sandler movies. Half a billion.
Rachel: I agree about indies. But one potential problem with a Netflix debut – whether you think it’s the right decision or not – is that the lack of promotion outside of Netflix itself makes it all too easy for the film to be buried. It would be interesting to see Netflix address this by experimenting with more traditional advertising models for single titles.
David: I think the biggest issue that Rachel’s nailed is that Netflix is a black hole.
Kambole: As everyone has mentioned reaching a wider audience – how many posters for Netflix films have you seen? Have you seen a trailer for a Netflix release in the cinema?
David: I remember way back with the show Nasty Gal, with Britt Robertson. Promoted for a day – now try and find it anywhere on the service if you missed the advertising.
Carmen: The main places I’ve seen Netflix film news is on Indiewire, etc. – the average cinemagoer might not check there.
Rachel: There’s no real mechanism for attracting new members based on specific content; they only really promote the premise externally, and content internally to existing members.
David: It feels very much like Twitter in that sense. You just have to know how it works first.
Carmen: Netflix has millions of subscribers, but it’s still only a limited section of worldwide audiences.
Kambole: It does still feel very exclusive – which is a shame in Okja’s case, as it feels like Bong Joon-ho moved to Netflix because of Snowpiercer’s very limited release – it never got a UK release at all!
Rachel: Maybe it will be okay – simultaneous VOD/theatrical release has worked – 45 Years, for example. There will always be some romantics who would rather pay to see something in the cinema.
Carmen: But a theatrical release is both very expensive and potentially lucrative – if a film does not perform well during its theatrical run, a director might want to move to Netflix, with its relatively inexpensive distribution and a guaranteed (if limited) audience and revenue. It’s potentially lower reward but also much lower risk.
Rachel: It’s easy to see why that would be attractive.
Carmen: This might also encourage independent film producers and directors to be more experimental and creative instead of trying to woo people to the cinema
David: In the very good David Ehrlich piece about why Netflix is bad for cinema, he does reference a director who cried with joy that his little indie project would be snapped up by Netflix, and that he would receive $2 million in return. It takes a cold heart to not revel in a guy’s dreams coming true.
Rachel: Another consideration here, though, is whether Netflix will honour a director’s creative decisions. I’m thinking of the conflict over aspect ratios in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (although of course that did have a theatrical release first).
Carmen: That is true.
Kambole: I remember hearing something about directors working with Netflix only being allowed to use digital cameras?
Carmen: It might be more liberating from a financial standpoint but restrictive in other ways.
Rachel: Film should never be creatively restricted!
Carmen: Agreed, but there will always be distribution options (even if they are limited ones) for auteurs who have a vision that can’t be compromised. Netflix comes with its restrictions, but if a director or producer is willing to work with those, it’s a decent distribution model (though its publicity may need more work).
David: Yes, but no money to keep the lights on (that is, for the auteurs)!
Carmen: It’s suffering for art! Recently Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings said that they needed to take more risks with TV shows; hopefully the same will apply to their films soon!
Kambole: He says, after cancelling Sense 8.
Carmen: I KNOW RIGHT! I don’t agree with his decisions, but I like where he’s coming from.
Kambole: I’m wondering: what is Amazon Studios’ track record like? They’ve been behind the distribution of some beloved releases in the last year – Manchester by the Sea, Paterson, The Lost City of Z, even The Handmaiden in some places. All of those went to the cinema and some are available on their streaming service.
Rachel: They’re releasing The Big Sick next week as well, theatrically and online later.
Carmen: Amazon is much more respectful of the traditional theatrical distribution window, so at Cannes last year they were allowed in the competition whereas Netflix weren’t (yet).
Rachel: I think some of our concerns about publicity still apply.
Carmen: I don’t know what this says about the quality of their films, but it is nice that films got traditional advertising – at least, I saw them on London tube posters, etc.
David: I think Amazon’s just got lucky, and has done a few smatterings of releases. Netflix has released nearly 200 titles. Amazon will hit a bum note sooner or later. But you’re right – the publicity issues remain. Unless you know, you’ll likely never know.
Kambole: Maybe so – but they seem to be getting a lot of merit. First steaming service-turned-studio to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and all that.
Carmen: I honestly think it’s because their distribution model is more traditional.
David: Netflix must’ve been agitated (to say the least) with that.
Carmen: Wasn’t Beasts of No Nation excluded from the Oscars race due to its windowing strategy?
Rachel: On the other hand, I think there’s a feeling that streaming services are exploiting film festivals to get reviews, while disrupting some of the traditional purposes of a festival.
Carmen: Possibly? That’s an interesting point. But digital distributors are most likely here to stay – they might be disrupting the current purpose of film festivals, but in 20 years there may be a completely different film industry, where the independent producer/sales agent/distributor model may be outdated. Of course, this is speculation.
Rachel: Yes, and we have to be open to change of course. But it’s one way of looking, admittedly cynically, at why streamers would bother to show to critics at a festival (in theatres). It does then seem a little disingenuous if the film is never available theatrically to audiences who may have been attracted by the very festival reviews (still all speculation).
David: We’re a movie site – we love speculation.
Kambole: So in this regard, do you see Netflix as exploitative?
David: Not exploitative, but I think they know a good thing. It’s cheeky, and a faux attempt at being respectful to the origins, but name a better source of finding the freshest, best new movies than ones selected by a panel for a celebrated festival?
Rachel: Potentially, from some points of view, but I think it’s more a result of fitting in with some traditions and challenging others; in other words being part of change as it happens.
Carmen: To be honest, I would love to see Netflix and Amazon bow a bit to this theatrical release pressure and give their films a full run. But on the other hand, it is super cool to watch a film with excellent festival ratings from the comfort of your own home on a platform which is affordable and widely available, and easy to use on the whole!
Rachel: Personally I’d always rather have the choice of seeing something at home or in the cinema so I could decide given my perception of the film’s qualities. Still, if something wasn’t available easily in theatres I wouldn’t turn down the chance to watch it on Netflix!
Carmen: Film festivals are definitely still considered a high marker of quality and innovation. And I assume that Netflix and Amazon’s films earn their place there alongside every traditional film selected?
Rachel: Yeah, just look at the number of Sundance releases picked up by Amazon and Netflix this year. And from a UK perspective, this does increase our chances of seeing a lot of US indie films.
Carmen: On that note, Netflix is pushing for global rights for all its content. Which I think is brilliant for the industry and for audiences.
Rachel: Now, that I’m behind.
Carmen: It gets films seen around the world which would never get theatrical releases in those territories, and it discourages piracy and geo-unblocking while doing so.
David: I think my thing is that most people don’t live in London. Their nearest cinema is 15 miles away. They’re working on limited budgets. Are you going to spend money on Lady Macbeth (or I guess, War Machine – urgh – in this case), or are you gonna save your coppers for Wonder Woman?
Kambole: I mean, I don’t live in London and I’d do all three!
Carmen: Same, but I think we’re a special bunch. Also, something like Frances Ha looks just as good on a small laptop as it does on the big screen (well, maybe not just as good, but there’s not much lost) whereas the effect of the no man’s land scene in Wonder Woman is tremendous in the cinema, much less effective on a personal screen.
Rachel: Lady Macbeth would be a good candidate for VOD in terms of extending audience, but I think its use of sound wouldn’t come across so well on a lot of domestic setups.
Rachel: The sad thing would be a world where people just watch at home by default and don’t even consider that there might be a better, richer experience out there.
David: I think that’s on the cinemas too. Picturehouse Central (granted – lovely, central London) can be £18 a ticket.
Carmen: But is the massive cinema ticket price inflation due to the falling audiences and cinemas trying to recoup their costs?
Rachel: Yes. Though some cinemas are trying to address this. The Filmhouse in Edinburgh gives you a half-price ticket for arthouse releases when you buy a ticket to a blockbuster. For example, go see Wonder Woman, you’ll get a hefty discount on Lady Macbeth.
Carmen: That’s a great scheme – now I know where I’m going to see all my films while up here!
Rachel: Another example of healthy experimentation.
Carmen: True – innovation isn’t just coming from the digital side.
Kambole: So do you see a future where more traditional cinema and streaming thrives equally?
Rachel: That’s my dream.
Carmen: In my ideal world, yes! In reality, I am not sure. I think the most important thing for a film is to be seen, and Netflix provides a great route for that. However, a lot of great culture and atmosphere will be lost if independent cinemas and cinema releases are not maintained.
Rachel: Look at bookshops though – a lot of people thought Kindles spelled the end, and although there have been changes and difficulties, the print book is far from going away (guess who used to work in publishing).
Carmen: Very true!
Kambole: That’s a good comparison! Funny that Amazon have their hands in both…
Carmen: Amazon have also got a hefty DVD/video download and book store going – they’re going to roll with the times and still be here in 50 years (my ultimate prediction from today).
Rachel: Yeah, they’re certainly keeping their options open.
Kambole: What about Netflix – will they still be around 50 years from now?
Carmen: I am not sure about Netflix – if their cinematic release model is updated, they may thrive; but right now they have all their eggs in the streaming basket.
David: I think so. They’re a forward thinking, internet based service. So they’ll be around for the next 10. From then on, it’s their bag.
Rachel: I don’t know if we can even say TVs will be around in 50 years…
Kambole: Maybe Netflix will stream stuff directly to our eyeballs.
David: If only…
Carmen: That said, I think streaming films is less of a disruption from the audience’s perspective than from the distribution perspective – to an audience, it’s just like putting in a DVD, but a distributor has to navigate new rights and release windows.
Rachel: Yes. I’m sure we’ll still have visual/video entertainment in some form, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see major changes to the tech. Then again, I have been reading a lot of sci-fi lately.
Kambole: So to wrap up, what are your feelings about this, overall?
Rachel: I still feel like the best distribution model for any given film needs to be considered case by case. Not to say that we can’t learn from previous examples. So Netflix can be a great option, but not always the best for a given film.
Carmen: I think audiences will hold more control over what films are seen (and therefore made and releasde) and how they are seen (and therefore distributed). Netflix is certainly providing many with an affordable, easy-to-use service, and with skyrocketing cinema prices they seem a great option for independent films. My only hope is that Netflix does not creatively stifle any of its directors/producers, and allows non-mainstream films a steady source of income, diversifying the film market
Rachel: There are a lot of complex issues to consider, and this debate introduced me to some I hadn’t thought of too.
David: This is one heck of a complicated topic – and a lot of the points Carmen and Rachel said about publicity, old and new, innovation from cinemas ring true – and I think if all those things took place, then we’d certainly be in a better place. I do Netflix is a tiny bit sneaky, but if you’re going up against studios worth billions of dollars each – what else can you do? While imperfect, Netflix is a source of good if only to send films out to millions of users that would have never otherwise have seen them.