By Wheeler Winston Dixon.
This article caught my attention about a week ago, and though I blogged on it then, it seems important enough to me to warrant further exploration. Under the headline “Netflix Will Rip the Heart Out of Pre-Sale Film Financing,” Schuyler Moore wrote in Forbes that:
“Netflix is working mightily to expand its reach worldwide, so far including Latin America, Canada, and the U.K., with Europe next up at bat. When Netflix is done, people in every part of the world will be its customers, and those customers will be able to toggle what language they want to watch a film in. This trend corresponds to the shrinking of the piracy window (the time between the theatrical window and the home video window), so by the time Netflix has a worldwide reach, it will also probably be available day and date with the theatrical release.
This trend will have a huge effect on how independent films are financed. Right now, independent filmmakers raise funds by selling their films through “pre-sales” on a country-by-country basis to local distributors, but a worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors.
The net result will be that independent films will be financed by pre-sales to Netflix, not the local distributors. Instead of going to the Cannes Film Festival, filmmakers could be going to Las Vegas for a digital convention in order to pre-sell VOD rights to Netflix. Indeed, Netflix will likely expand from creating original series to creating its own large budget films, with the initial premiere on-line. Netflix may be a vibrant, important source of new financing that disrupts the studio system and bypasses standard distribution channels.
This trend will also change how films are watched and how theaters compete. In order to compete against collapsing windows and high-def, surround-sound, home entertainment centers, theaters are going to have to offer a better experience, and a big part of this is going to be 4D seats, which move to match the film (where you feel like you are flying when a jet is onscreen), and 3D sound, which seems to come from different angles at different times around you, like raindrops falling near you. I have experienced both of these, and the results are astounding. Theaters are going to have to get on this bandwagon or be relegated to bowling alley locations.”
The title of the article here tells all; it’s such an apt metaphor that it’s frightening. Netflix will indeed ‘rip the heart’ out of pre-sale film financing, but what Moore fails to consider here is the impact that this will have on national cinemas on a worldwide basis. Of course, Forbes is a bottom-line publication, a self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool,’ and really isn’t interested in artistic concerns, or empowering anyone other than the already dominant global media forces.
This is the voice of mainstream Hollywood cinema talking here, and it admits to the existence of nothing beyond that. What happens to filmmaking in Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, Nigeria, Morocco and elsewhere is no concern of Moore’s, who seems to think that cinema is more a spectator sport than anything else.
It’s probably true, as Moore says, that “worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors” but the problem with this of course is that it’s more concentration in the hands of a few – everyone wants the “master switch” as Adolph Zukor put it, and Tim Wu so effectively explored in his book of the same title.
So Amazon has destroyed all the bookstores, iTunes and Amazon together have destroyed all the recorded music stores, Netflix and Amazon have destroyed all the local video stores, and what we have left is a handful of worldwide conglomerates that essentially control all the content we read, listen to, or watch. This isn’t good for anyone, but I can’t help but wondering; when will it collapse? This isn’t the end game here, folks, it’s just a step somewhere along the line.
But when Moore argues that “in order to compete against collapsing windows and high-def, surround-sound, home entertainment centers, theaters are going to have to offer a better experience, and a big part of this is going to be 4D seats, which move to match the film (where you feel like you are flying when a jet is onscreen), and 3D sound, which seems to come from different angles at different times around you, like raindrops falling near you. I have experienced both of these, and the results are astounding. Theaters are going to have to get on this bandwagon or be relegated to bowling alley locations,” I just think he’s dead wrong.
This approach may work in the short term, but in the long term, as J.K. Rowling observed in a different context, it’s content that matters above everything else. This is just bells and whistles stuff, and there’s only so many ways you can be jostled around in a theater seat, or rained on, poked and prodded, and so forth. These tactics were tried in the 1950s by William Castle and others, when TV became a threat, and it worked for a while – even Alfred Hitchcock shot a film, Dial M for Murder, in 3D – but as he said later, 3D was a nine day wonder, “and I came in on the ninth day.”
And as Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International wrote me on this issue,
“Netflix was introduced on the Swedish market in 2012 and apparently has 1 million users in Sweden already (out of a population of 9.5 million). The most noticeable result so far is that the last of the non-chain ‘art house’ video rental shops here in Stockholm have closed down. But at the same time many thousands of the films that were available in these shops are not yet available on Netflix in Sweden, since they still have to buy rights for every country separately, which is too expensive for a small market when it comes to films that few people are likely to see.
Thus you can see some Bergman films on Netflix in the US but not in Sweden. I guess this will change given Netflix’s interest in changing it to further dominate the global market. As always, we are left with a choice between plague and cholera within the market system. And, again, the Internet proves to be a tool for concentrating media, not the dreamt-of opposite.
I really don’t believe 4D can have anything more than a limited future. After all, people don’t want to go on 2-hour roller coast rides generally speaking. I think most people want to sit comfortably and relax when watching a movie, even when it’s an action flick. As I always argue when film people seem to take for granted that more dimensions are always better – there’s a reason painting is a more popular art form than installations and that we don’t hang too many reliefs on our walls. And the cost of building and maintaining 4D cinemas surely must be too high to make this into a new standard.”
It’s obvious that I agree more with Lindvall than with Moore, but beyond that, it’s also disconcerting to note that in the end, Moore is probably correct in his prognostications for the future of cinema on a worldwide basis, 4D aside.
People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.
Why go out when you can have the images delivered with a touch of a button? Why bother to seek out anything new when there’s seemingly so much product – all of it pretty much the same, even the supposed “indies” – available on demand? You don’t need to do any exploring. We’ll do it for you, and not only that – we’ll put the films in nice little slots like “foreign” or “indie,” thus ensuring a miniscule audience. Along these lines, the Amazon “suggestion” feature on their website continues to amaze me, because of its utter lack of discrimination.
If you order one DVD of a French film, suddenly they recommend nothing but French films for you; order one Barbara Stanwyck film, and they think you’re only interested in films in which she stars; order a gothic thriller, and you’re inundated with offers for like material. Erase all of these possible options, and the suggestion engine comes up blank – it can’t figure you out. How come you like so many different kinds of films? Where’s the thread here that they can track? Why won’t you stick to a predictable pattern? And why do you want a DVD anyway, when there are these great films to stream, so easily, at the touch of a button?
What worries me even more here is the inevitable emergence of “reverse engineering,” which is already happening in books with Amazon Kindle, as Amazon tracks what books readers actually read, and which parts they skip; which parts they dwell on, and which parts they hurry through; which characters they seem to like, and which they find either “boring” or “objectionable.”
Already, Amazon – while embroiled in a long running feud with Hachette over book pricing, and thus marginalizing even mainstream authors – has begun to “suggest” to authors that perhaps a certain line of narrative pacing might be more preferable to readers, that this character or that is “unsympathetic,” and so should be jettisoned from the manuscript. The same thing is bound to happen with film scripts, pitched to Netflix execs in Las Vegas or wherever, with certain plot lines and themes deemed “uncommercial,” or reduced to the melodramatic minimums of such web series as House of Cards.
Why not put a proven star in the film – an international star, or maybe one for each country you want to appeal to? Do we really need this downer plotline? Hissable villains are OK, as are the cartoon malefactors of something like Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, but when it moves beyond cardboard, you’re in trouble. You’re asking people to do some of the work when they’re watching the film, and since most people simply want to go to the movies to escape – “popcorn night” – let’s keep things simple.
Netflix is really a commercial enterprise, rather than a business entity interested in creating art, but rather mere content or programming, one can easily see that it makes sense for them to follow the path of least resistance and greatest mass acceptance, and follow the Hollywood norm. So what chance do the films of emerging or marginalized cultures or ethnicities have in such a marketplace mentality? None.
Indie films will continue to be made – though it’s a mistake to call them films, in an era in which film has long since become obsolete – see this story from John Anderson of The New York Times for more on what happens to film originals after their makers have either moved on or passed on – but their place in the worldwide market has become ever more tenuous with each passing day. They exist because of the passion, against all possible odds, of reaching a wider audience, and yet they wind up in the free video on demand section of the so-called premium channels on cable, and now, they’re migrating to Netflix.
But the amazing fact, as Lindvall points out, is that national cinemas are now in trouble in their own countries – they’ve been under assault by the Hollywood juggernaut for quite some time, but still have managed to fight back, and retain a corner of the market. Now it seems that even that is gone, and the future belongs to engineered entertainment, rather than individual vision.
I vividly remember Ingmar Bergman being interviewed by Dick Cavett back in the 1970s on American television – Cavett actually brought the show to Sweden for the episode, which was shot with a Swedish TV crew in English – and at one point in the conversation, Cavett asked Bergman “what you would happen if a producer came on the set and told you ‘you can’t do that’ in your film?”
Bergman seemed deeply surprised that the question was even being brought into play, but once he fully understood what Cavett was asking, his response was both forthright and the only possible response that an artist can ever give to financial forces that seek to rein her or him in.
“I would tell him to go to Hell,” Bergman responded, and we certainly need more of that today. In an era in which Netflix seems poised to take over the living rooms, and viewing habits, of not only the United States by the entire world, an entity interested only in profits and nothing else, we should seriously consider Bergman’s response, and think about what the consequences might be if we don’t heed his example.
But as long as the bottom line mentality rules, and the lowest common denominator is held out as the most desirable goal, appealing to the greatest number of people while offending the fewest, I think Netflix will continue to expand until it achieves its goal of global domination, and we’re all sitting in our living rooms, watching whatever Netflix thinks we want to watch – and after a while, we’ll probably think so, too.
Wheeler Winston Dixon writes regularly for Film International. He is currently working on a book on black and white cinema.