Netflix Vs Cinema: Why We’re The Winners In The Fight For Independent Film

Here's everything you need to know about the controversy at Cannes.


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The fight between Netflix and traditional cinema is heating up. But, if you’re not the kind of person who thinks that the filmography of Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a killer conversation starter at parties (understandable), you might not actually be aware of it yet.

The scrap is between traditionalists who think ‘true cinema’ requires 35mm film projected onto a huge screen, and streaming services that have profit as their first priority. And it all came to a head last week when the Cannes Film Festival announced that films screening in Competition at future festivals would require a theatrical release in France.

This was a direct reaction to criticism over two of this year’s Competition films, Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, which were both produced by Netflix and thereby destined for small screen streaming. More broadly, though, the move reads as an attempt to maintain the status quo. Or, as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings put it, “the establishing closing ranks against [Netflix].

As a dyed-in the-wool cinephile — the kind of person who spends their weekends watching repertory screenings of Jacques Rivette or Andrei Tarkovsky films and, yes, has actually had extended conversations about Weerasethakul movies with strangers — you would think that my loyalties would lie with Cannes. After all, Cannes represents cinema at its most prestigious, and Netflix is the place where — if you’re lucky — you’ll find Chinatown sandwiched between Fuller House and Scrotal Recall. But I’m squarely in Netflix’s corner when it comes to this fight.

If you have an interest in the continued existence of interesting independent film, then Netflix should be an ally, not the enemy.

Are You Still Watching?

In a perfect world, independent films of all stripes would be easily seen in a cinema near you. But in the world we live in — unless you happen to live in New York, or the French Riviera circa May — it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see anything beyond the big names on a big screen, especially if you’re living in a regional area.

Since the 2000s, the viability of theatrical releases for independent films has been sinking fast. Netflix may have contributed to the holes in the theatrical distribution model, but they’re also now acting as a life raft for indie moviemakers.

Just take a look at their intimidatingly long list of Netflix Originals. Some of the latest indie procurements include Win It All, a lackadaisical gambling drama from American indie director Joe Swanberg (one of the defining figures of the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement) and Casting JonBenet, an experimental documentary from Aussie filmmaker Kitty Green. Both are excellent films. Both are packaged as ‘Netflix Originals’, after premieres at South by Southwest and Sundance respectively. Both are, significantly, much more accessible — particularly to Australian audiences — than their directors’ earlier films.

Swanberg’s improvisational approach allows him to pump out films at a fast pace; at the time of writing, he has 18 directing credits to his name over a dozen years (and that’s not counting shorts or television episodes). But if you’re a fan of his work, it’s unlikely you’re going to be seeing them on a big screen. I was lucky enough to see Happy Christmas at Sydney Film Festival a few years back, but that necessitated an interstate trip. Most people wanting to see his movies would have to rely on iTunes (spending roughly the cost of a monthly Netflix subscription to buy one movie) or — in many cases — a VPN or torrenting service.

Unless you’re a frequent film festival attendee, the idea that Netflix is stealing filmmakers like Swanberg away from the big screen is frankly ludicrous. These aren’t the kind of films that draw big crowds, so they’re not the kind of films that receive big releases. But the inclusion of films like Win It All — or Swanberg’s TV series for Netflix, Easy — on the streaming service makes them substantially more accessible.

That’s especially true for Kitty Green. Her debut, Ukraine is Not a Brothel, was one of the best documentaries of 2014. You don’t have to take my word for it, either – the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awarded it Best Feature Length Documentary that year. But if you don’t have Netflix — and missed the film’s screenings at the Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane Film Festivals — it’s pretty much impossible to see it. Even the documentary’s official website informs you “this title is unavailable in your region.” Netflix isn’t tearing these kind of films away from cinemas, because they weren’t screening there in the first place.

Netflix is picking up the scraps from an industry that’s finding itself unable to sell films that don’t feature superheroes.

If you live in a one-cinema town, options have always been slim (typically you don’t have access to anything bar blockbusters), but even those of us in the bigger cities are now running low on options. I’m based in Brisbane, and the past couple of months have seen an independent cinema (the Schonell, at UQ) close and our major film festival (the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival) cancelled. To see things on the ‘big’ screen, I’m increasingly reliant on independent cinemas finding space in their smallest rooms. When TVs can measure 60+ inches, you don’t feel like you’re missing much watching at home.

Granted, these arguments aren’t as applicable to something like Okja or, say, The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s next film set to be released by Netflix. It would be a real shame if The Irishman — which reunites Robert De Niro and Al Pacino (along with Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, phew) — never played on a cinema screen in Australia because Netflix decided to prioritise home viewing. It’s hard to place the blame at the feet of Netflix there, though, given how unsuccessfully Paramount Pictures were able to promote the release of Scorsese’s last film.

All Netflix is doing is picking up the scraps from an industry that’s finding itself unable to sell films that don’t feature superheroes or star wars.

Netflix and Shill

The difference between theatrical distribution and Netflix isn’t simply the size of the screen. Theatrical distributors need to promote their films to you; Netflix uses its properties to promote itself.

Screening films in a cinema is big business, and it costs big money. Lately the trend has been moving towards bigger budget franchise films because they’re believed to be a sure thing (though, as Paramount found last year, that’s not always true). You know people are going to watch the next Fast and Furious film, so it’s easier to justify spending big on the special effects and on the marketing.

Independent films, foreign films: these are trickier. You could have a smash hit on your hands, like Get Out. You could produce a small film about a queer black kid that goes on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Or you could end up with a PR disaster that promised Oscar glory and delivered infamy (hi, The Birth of a Nation). Studios tend to fund these films through independent offshoots, hoping for glory but recognising that they can afford to lose a few million here or there as long as one or two smaller films over-perform.

Netflix’s model is different, and has been since pretty much forever. Take this paragraph from a 2005 article, back when Netflix’s model was mailing out DVDs to customers in the States:

“The popularity of independents and documentaries on Netflix can be credited to the company’s internet-based business model, which is fundamentally different than that of traditional video rental outlets. In order for Blockbuster to make a profit on a film, it has to move several copies of one title. Hence, stores filled with Harry Potter and Phantom Menace.

“The heavy promotional budget and resulting ubiquity of such films virtually ensures that renters will seek them out. Netflix stocks these titles, but it also stocks thousands of more obscure films — mostly classics, and independent and foreign titles — and these account for a good deal of its business.”

Replace Blockbuster (remember them?) with “theatrical distributors” and “Harry Potter and Phantom Menace” with “Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One” and you’ve got an accurate snapshot of Netflix vs cinemas circa 2017. Studios are moving towards bigger films for much the same reason Blockbuster did — it mitigates risk. You don’t want to spend millions promoting an outré film that might bomb when you can just pump a couple hundred million into another franchise film that audiences will dutifully trot along to. Promotion isn’t cheap, but it’s necessary for studios; people aren’t going to see your movie if they’ve never heard of it.

Not so for Netflix. Back in April, Indiewire’s David Ehrlich griped that Netflix kept releasing excellent indie movies without a jot of promotion. I understand where he’s coming from, but I think he’s missing the point: Netflix has no intention of promoting their films because they don’t care if you watch the films or not. What they care about is that you keep paying their monthly subscription fee. If a film like Tramps — championed in Ehrlich’s piece — is the kind of thing that excites you and keeps you from clicking cancel, then Netflix has won — even if you never actually watch it. Netflix doesn’t want to tell you about the great films and shows it has an offer — it wants you to tell your friends about them.

What this boils down to is that Netflix isn’t constrained by risk in the same way that it would be as in the sphere of theatrical distribution. Provided they can hold onto subscribers, they don’t need any one property to make money back (I assume — they’re notoriously opaque with their finances). Films like Casting JonBenet and Tramps might not draw in as many subscribers as Fuller House or Sandy Wexler, but unlike Hollywood studios needing huge profits, Netflix relies on a diverse back catalogue rather than one or two massive success stories.

Diversity In Programming

The diversity of Netflix’s programming goes beyond the variety of films and television shows on offer too.

The push for cultural diversity has made some headway over the last few years, but it’s inevitably driven first and foremost by profit. Hollywood executives are beginning to realise that making their products more accessible to more audiences means more money. As such, casts for blockbusters are starting to include a greater proportion of non-white folks and even the occasional oblique reference to gay characters (never too explicit, mind; they’ve got the international market to worry about).

For the most part, though, the writers, directors and producers responsible for these films are overwhelmingly white men. There are enough exceptions — the Fast and Furious franchise, the phenomenal success of the aforementioned Get Out and Moonlight — to suggest that’s starting to change, too, but Netflix has been producing works from minority filmmakers and showrunners pretty much since they got into production.

That’s especially pronounced when it comes to television; there’s Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Justin Simien’s Dear White People and the Wachowski sisters’ Sense8. It’s increasingly true of the independent films they’re choosing to produce or distribute too: the traditionally white male directors like Joe Swanberg and Martin Scorsese are joined by the likes of Bong Joon-ho (Okja), Ava DuVernay (13th) Fernando Coimbra (Sand Castle), Sydney Freeland (Deidra & Lainey Rob a Train) and Yuen Woo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny).

It’s easy to be dismissive of such diversity because, just like the studios, it’s driven by profit. Of course it is! Yet because Netflix is working from an entirely different model to its theatrical competitors, this kind of diversity isn’t beholden to the vagaries of the box office. They can fund works from trans filmmakers with prominent queer themes without needing to worry about whether they’ll be universally popular, or if they’ll upset the Chinese marketplace (Netflix is currently unavailable in China). Netflix needs to appeal to as diverse an audience as possible — and the easiest way for them to achieve that is to find as diverse a group of creators as possible and let them do their thing.

Netflix is well-known for the autonomy they offer their creative partners. While studios are notorious for re-editing films to broaden their appeal, Netflix has no such motivating factors. This, more than anything else, is why I’m excited about the future of independent film nurtured by Netflix. It’s a shame that you might miss out on seeing these movies on the big screen, but if Netflix continues you on this path, they’re going to help ensure that you get to see these kinds of movies at all. Maybe that might ruffle some feathers in Cannes, but I can’t help but see it as a good thing.

Feature image via Do u remember/Creative Commons.

Dave Crewe is a Brisbane-based teacher and freelance film critic who spends way too much of his time watching movies. Read his stuff at ccpopculture or pester him at @dacrewe.