Foreword: This is a fully sourced, 3161-word essay on Netflix, that I wrote for a University assessment. It received a first class grade, and I think that it handles the topic pretty well. The main obstacle holding the essay back is the lack of meaningful academic research on the subject of Netflix and film, as most of the investigations on the platform revolve around TV. Nevertheless, it is a burgeoning debate, and an interesting one if you follow the world of cinema, and having failed to sell this thing to any kind of publication, it will die a slow death on here where perhaps another student can find something within it.
The value of cinema is weighed on by two successes: financial and critical. These two successes can intertwine, and occasionally what is popular is also deemed as artistically valid. However, in an increasingly media saturated world where a wealth of content is at our fingertips, the artistic accomplishment of a piece of work could be irrelevant. The voice of the film critic is perhaps dying, when we live in a society that no longer requires human gatekeepers for entertainment media, news media, or common opinion. Netflix is the catalyst for this saturation and the instantaneous access of an unfathomable choice of movies to watch in the comfort of your own home, with it not only being a back catalogue of existing titles, but in recent years Netflix’s own original efforts, and own distribution method (McDonald and Smith-Rowsey, 2016). This idea of choice is questionable, and to truly understand Netflix’s model, you have to try and decipher their techniques, which is not an entirely easy task, and Ramon Labato says in his book ‘Netflix Nations: The Geography of Digital Distribution’: “While Netflix is an established global brand with 20 years of history, there is still very little agreement about what Netflix is or how it should be understood by the public, scholars, or media regulators,” (Laboto, 2019). What is clear is Netflix’s popularity and dominance, as they have 137.1 million users as of 2018, their net profit in 2018 was $403 million, and they take up 51% of the market share for streaming services (Iqbal, 2019). Their ‘Netflix originals’ have broken through to the mainstream, with their 2018 release Bird Box becoming an example of a ‘chat around the water cooler’ kind of popular culture (Bird Box, 2018). And yet the film received a middling reaction from critics, and appears to add nothing of significance to its genre, so its success is confusing, though it is almost impossible to gauge its actual scientific success, because there are zero box office figures when it comes to video on demand. On the other end of the spectrum is the film Roma, not a Netflix original but distributed by them, and except for a short, select cinema release, is only available to view on the platform (Roma, 2018). The film has been hailed by some critics as a masterpiece, was nominated for ten academy awards, winning three, and therefore its critical success is obvious, and outweighs its success in becoming a discussion point in the mainstream like Bird Box. This is the starting point in wondering whether the values we put on contemporary cinema are changing.
To begin to understand Netflix’s impact on cinema, there must be a look at how the platform works. As of April 2019 (it changes every month), there are 3,658 movies on Netflix in the United Kingdom (Cook, 2019). On the homepage (of the desktop version) you can see a total of 228 films if you scroll to the very end of each section (Netflix.com). This shows the disparity in what is instantly viewable when you first log onto the Netflix, compared to the amount of films that are on the platform. Netflix’s system of recommendation is what dictates some of what is visible on the homepage, and so what a user is most likely to choose is algorithmic. This creates the idea that there is a ‘myth of choice’ on the platform, that all of these titles are diluted down to a select few, through the analysation of the audience. In ‘The Netflix Effect’ Sarah Arnold discusses the ‘data-fication’ of users, whereby viewing figures can be measured more accurately than ever before, which can lead to a predictable audience (McDonald and Smith-Rowsey, 2016). She notes that Netflix subscribers can be reduced to “characteristics, attributes, and a narrow set of identities,” meaning that Netflix is putting a quick judgement on what a user would like to see, and the algorithm can work after one movie viewing, or one positive rating by the user. Consequently a Netflix subscriber is more often than not going to be watching similar things, or at least what Netflix is recommending to them, which produces a strange relationship between consumer and seller. Netflix has become a new gatekeeper for content intake by the masses, by partly cutting out the middle man, the middle man being the critic or the box office numbers. On a rudimentary level they have almost negated word of mouth, and moulded the word of Netflix. From this ‘data-fication’ of audiences Netflix can understand mainstream behaviours and wants as a whole, and thus re-create what the masses want. Of course this is not a completely new phenomenon in the movie business, because since the dawn of cinema Hollywood have been producing genres that are contemporaneously trendy, from film noir to westerns to buddy cop movies to violent male driven indies to superhero movies. An interesting add-on about Netflix is that they are aiming for the easy monetary win, but also a lot of their ‘Original’ titles and back catalogue are low budget, niche affairs, however the audience’s discovery of these films is on themselves. Subsequently there is a separate category on Netflix of forgotten films that has spawned a new kind of film journalism, where countless ‘Top ten Netflix movies you have haven’t seen’ features are published every week (agoodmovietowatch, 2019). And this is an example of media synergy, Netflix being a perfect tool for it, where internet brands can go hand in hand to help one another financially (Dong, 2019). The movie news and reviews website ‘Film School Rejects’ has a partnership with Netflix, where they constantly promote Netflix films, and are therefore granted access to interviews/preview information on what Netflix is working on (Filmschoolrejects.com). If popular contemporary cinema is becoming more centred on video on demand, then it is important to note how online media synergy can elevate certain platforms, and movies, through social media and online journalism.
Inevitably Twitter and sites like ‘Film School Rejects’ could be key in how a Netflix films gains serious traction in the day to day mainstream, never mind the covert algorithms of recommended sections and carefully crafted homepages. The symbiotic online relationship that culture websites have with Netflix is fuel for pushing exactly what Netflix wants at the top of the pile, whereas the time and space between a cinema release and a Tweet can halt the process of promotion. If you take a look at social media, aside from partnerships with film websites, Bird Box utilised tools like Twitter very well. The film has a definite hook in its plot, a hook movie producers get excited about, where the characters cannot be harmed by the dangers of the world (the ‘creatures’) if they don’t look at them, and the main protagonists use blindfolds for this. Consequently it created the ‘Bird Box challenge’, which entailed doing tasks whilst blindfolded, recording it, and uploading the video to social media. It quickly became a meme, gaining millions of views from all corners of the world, and Netflix had to tweet warning people not to injure themselves doing it, also stating that they didn’t know how it started. There is a naivety to saying that the challenge originated itself, as Netflix and the filmmakers would have been acutely aware of the motif, and hook they were creating with the blindfolds (Shoard, 2019). It’s a gimmick and a starting point for audiences when they are discussing the film with their family and friends. Furthermore this overnight internet trend highlights the power Netflix has in putting something at the centre of the cultural zeitgeist, because Netflix is so interconnected with the online world. Within a few clicks a user could go from a short article fluffing Bird Box, or a 30 second challenge video, to watching the film, which could partly explain the astronomical numbers that Bird Box pulled in. According to a claim made by Netflix and later verified by TV measurement company Nielsen, 26 million accounts viewed the film (minimum 70% through the runtime) in the first seven days of its release in the US, and 45 million worldwide, but the second statistic has not been independently verified (Loughrey, 2019). It is their second best reach for a Netflix original, after Sci-Fi series Stranger Things. Although Netflix are able to share their data on a success, they are less inclined to share viewing numbers on something less successful. Their only figure for Roma is that 50% of accounts in Mexico viewed the film, which means nearly 4 million, making it the second most viewed film in the country, behind Bird Box (Barnes, 2019). The lack of information on Roma’s numbers as a whole is an indication of its lack of an audience outside of Mexico (its success in Mexico is unsurprising considering the visionary behind it, Alfonso Cuaron, is a national treasure there). And of course the basic answer to the question as to why Bird Box is so popular globally, compared to Roma, is that Bird Box is a generic accessible thriller with a recognised star (Sandra Bullock), and Roma is a black and white, small plot film not in the English language. However the more pressing questions are how Bird Box got so much attention, and how are the values of contemporary cinema changing when a film as applauded as Roma is only available on small screens, where it loses a sense of place in history.
That sense of place is one of the key issues with films distributed on Netflix, and the odd ownership that they have over something that has been classed of artistic importance. Roma got a small, almost privileged theatrical release, where you had to live nearby a particular arthouse cinema to have any chance of seeing it on the big screen. Other than that it is only watchable on whatever screen and internet set-up audiences have at their home, streaming the film through Netflix, there is no DVD, Blu-ray, or any trace of physical copy available. Therefore, Netflix effectively owns a string of computer codes when it comes to the film, which means its place in history is fragile. The film is loved almost universally by critics, having a 96% Rotten Tomatoes rating, a statistic collated from 357 adjudicated professional reviews (Rotten Tomatoes, 2019). Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian gave it five stars, and described it as ‘a densely realised, intimate drama developing in what feels like real time.’ (Bradshaw, 2018). Editor of Little White Lies magazine David Jenkins said in his review that ‘It stands as testament to the awe-striking complexity of humankind.’ (Jenkins, 2018). In all of the Roma reviews there is a recurring theme that the film is totally cinematic – Cuaron’s use of widescreen, the endless depth of field and the extraordinary sound design built for Dolby speakers being examples of this. Yet only a lucky few got to see it in cinemas, with Netflix taking away the opportunity to get the full experience of the film, and Bradshaw notes that Netflix has been accused of ‘supressing the big-screen identity of its own product.’ Netflix users are relying on their bandwidth to watch the film in full resolution, and the strength of their in-built laptop speakers to enjoy the scope of the narrative. Ergo Netflix are diluting a filmmaker’s message down, with simple technicalities of their platform. It was not only the critics that loved the film, awards ceremonies did too. The most prestigious of them all, the Oscars (Academy Awards) gave Roma ten nominations, and three wins: Best Director for Cuaron, Best Cinematography for Cuaron, and Best Foreign Language Film (The Irish Times, 2019). Even though Netflix proudly champions Roma’s critical success, plaudits of this kind are almost irrelevant to them because the film hardly broke into the mainstream. If you compare this to the critical response to Bird Box, it becomes obvious that for Netflix it doesn’t really matter what the critics say. Amy Nicholson of The Guardian gave the film two stars and called it a ‘disappointingly clunky waste of a star-studded cast,’ and it has a 63% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, collated from 147 critics (Nicholson, 2018) (Rotten Tomatoes, 2019). This cold response from critics does not match the film’s success on Netflix, and interestingly the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 59%, from 6,354 user ratings. It is a tiny sample of the amount of people that watched the film, and completely unreliable, but it gives the impression that the regular Netflix subscriber was not thrilled by the movie. Furthermore, it is possibly showing that what is valuable is completely changing when it comes to Netflix products, with something not necessarily having to be good for it to be successful. It is less and less about the art, and more about how you can package and market it in an online world.
The value of a critic is not entirely going away. In Roland Barthes essay ‘Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers’ he is assessing the danger of cultural evaluation, when it creates a split between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, or the privileged and the desperate, the educated and the unaware (Barthes, 1971). He says: ‘Cultural Criticism, that is, must be impatient, it cannot be carried on without desire,’ which concludes his point in the essay that criticism cannot be given up on, despite it creating a gap between classes of people, it must continue to serve. The void between those that respect and follow a critic’s view, and those that are ignorant to it is larger than ever, with the latter sitting in the mainstream with Netflix. Therefore critical response is not invalid, but perhaps blunt to the power in numbers that Netflix has and their only real scrutiny has come from the old guard of cinema. Legendary director Steven Spielberg shot out at Netflix, saying in an ITV News interview: ‘I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theatres for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination,’ (ITV News, 2018). He believes that Netflix releases should not have the same value as theatrical ones, and whether they are good films or not they have committed themselves to the television format. This superior thinking again shows the gap between films ruling classes – the cinephile and the mainstream audiences. Netflix responded to Spielberg say that they ‘love cinema,’ and what is important to note is that Netflix loves diverse cinema (Pulver, 2019). It is easier for Spielberg to get his family blockbuster movies into cinemas, and less easier for other directors, such as Cuaron. He questioned after his Golden Globes win, how many theatres he could get a film like Roma into (no recognised stars, not in the English language etc), and its paradoxical to think that Netflix are simultaneously lessening value of films whilst also allowing chance for films with more artistic value to obtain a bigger audience (Variety, 2019). And arguably the greatest director of his generation Martin Scorsese has also made a film for Netflix coming out in 2019, but it’s not only these recognised artists getting a chance on Netflix, minority voices are getting backed on the platform as well. Bird Box is directed by a woman, Susanne Bier, and female directors are still sparse in Hollywood. It has films from Gareth Evans and Duncan Jones as well, other directors who have struggled to get their films financed (Netflix.com). This quantity, variety and scope of Netflix releases means that major critical organisations cannot ignore them. In the editorial of the May 2019 issue of Sight and Sound, Nick James writes how the Cannes Film Festival and others can keep their purity by dismissing Netflix films, but Sight and Sound cannot, because of the quality and interest in the works on the platform (James, 2019). He writes how they must be selective of what they review, because of the sheer amount of film releases available to cover, meaning that Netflix is taken over cinema so much that the critics cannot keep up with them. Respected magazines like Sight and Sound have to put value on video on demand movies because of the inevitable strength of them, and so critics in this sense give films a value they would be missing if they were un-reviewed. Ultimately though there is little evidence to show they will sway a Netflix films impact on popular culture.
In conclusion Netflix is changing cinema in many ways, and one of them is the disregard of praise or criticism in taking away or giving value to contemporary cinema. It all comes down to what is deemed as valuable, is it artistic accomplishment, transgressive meaning, culture changing or monetary success. Some would argue that the days when a film is of artistic quality and mainstream popularity is long gone, and that contemporary films are worse than ever. Netflix is not fully to blame for this view, their power to be successful with a poor product because of interconnect-ability online is slightly separate. The climax to the first stage of the decade dominating Marvel cinematic universe Avengers: Endgame broke all box office records easily, and is deeply engrained into the systems of society (Boxofficemojo.com, 2019). It is an expertly made film, but has its criticisms, such as being a silly distraction to real world realities, having abhorrent moralities around grief, and it ensures Disney’s complete monopolisation of the movie business (Brody, 2019). A film journalist has to prepare for some flak from the fans if they publish a negative review of the film, even questioning its issues causes them to receive tweets about how they do not know how to have fun (Shoard, 2019). And this is what is at the heart of popular culture, the centre of what people see and talk about, the validity of the product is clear when it is shaping the world around us. And in the end, critics struggle to place value in the world other than in their niche group of readers, who can speak of the greatness of Roma without really being heard, living in their own analytic entity. D. N. Rodowick sums this up perfectly in the preface to the second edition his book ‘The Crisis of Political Modernism,’ he says: ‘reading (critically) is a performative act, and an active construction of meaning, that not only challenges the preferred meanings of contemporary media, but also helps us recognise, and sometimes create, the utopian anticipation of forms of subjectivity, and way of thinking and desiring, that are occluded in contemporary society,’ (Rodowick, 2019). This was written in 1994, but applied to this essay, it realises the value of film criticism, or any criticism, is situated around form and content, the messages between the photo print, no matter where it comes from. Netflix may be a new machine to show the large audiences controlled, autonomous products, that they will unknowingly ingest, but criticism remains the same in revealing the products weight in the world.
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