In France, the home of the Cannes Film Festival, films released in theatres cannot be streamed until a 36 month window passes. Netflix is a streaming site which, for the most part, depends on the titles in its library being immediately available. Unlike releases from AmazonPrime, which play theatrically before streaming, new releases from Netflix (like “Mudbound,” which I discussed here last year) go directly to the site, with no time spent in cinemas. Cannes adjudicators will not allow a film which is not released theatrically to be eligible for competitive prizes at Cannes. However, they are allowed to be shown out of competition. This is not unusual. Many excellent films are shown out of contention. However, Netflix representatives find the limitation an affront, and have thus pulled all their releases from the competition. They are making a point and they are sending a message. Accept us as we are, or we will not participate. This backstory is the centre of a major war waging in the film world for the past month. In its initial battle stages, this was a conflict between Netflix and the film festival only, but the battle has gorged itself on the numerous think-pieces on the topic and has turned into a war between traditional cinema and new-media.
In the mildly hectoring statement they released on the kerfuffle, Netflix claimed that Cannes’ rigid rules were more interested in distribution than the art of cinema. “We are 100% about the art of cinema,” Netflix’s Ted Sarandos claimed. The response from most critics ranged from bafflement to amusement. I’ll admit, I chortled a bit. The idea that Netflix, a business built on subscriptions, is interested centrally or solely in the art of cinema strains credulity. How can Netflix, with its paucity of old movies, be interested in artistry? Netflix is limited. One of the biggest issues about the streaming giant is that it does not seem to have a great interest in classic film. Its library is heavily skewed towards films released in the last 20 years. Netflix is interested in the now. This makes sense. Streaming is about the current. As Netflix makes an attempt to tussle with larger studios, it seems committed to disavowing itself as any sort of film archive and instead presents itself as a creator of original content. Proximity is everything. As Netflix raises its head as a major repository for film (new or old), and ends up being one with no awareness or interest in history, does it skew the concept of film for new enthusiasts, whose introduction becomes inorganically contemporary? Probably. But in Netflix’s move to jockey with studios, is it responsible for what audiences do not seek out? More significantly, what does the art of cinema even mean when cinema itself depends on its proximity to commerce and film as product?
What might have been a specific Francophone controversy set the stage for the ongoing debate on the future of cinema and Netflix’s imminent role in its end. Many essays have been written by critics I admire and by critics who are significantly intelligent and coherent in their film analysis. However, like with any major cultural debate on cinema and media, the debate on Netflix has crystallised the disparity between loving and writing about films in New York (for example) and writing about films in Guyana. Netflix is a faulty giant. At its best, and at its worst, Netflix threatens to destabilise and decentralise the idea of film distribution. This is not wholly good. But it is not wholly bad. And the way it is both good and bad is markedly different from those of us further afield from central cities in the West.
Film as a medium, as an art, and as a means of entertainment is markedly different when you live in a third world country like ours. A relationship with cinema is not the same for persons around the globe. It’s the limitation in many critiques of Netflix. The conventional idea of cinema, like theatre, depends on the communal experience. The idea that in the darkened theatre you are surrounded by people, and yet completely alone, as you experience a film. Consider, for example, the shared enthusiasm audiences feel responding to “Black Panther” or the communal silence watching “A Quiet Place.” Cinema as a community makes sense. Does Netflix’s deconstruction of this community aspect destroy cinema? What is cinema without that audience? It’s not theatre. Some of my favourite movies are ones released before I was born. I watched them alone in my room on a computer screen, more likely than not. Was I getting a counterfeit product because of the way I consumed it?
The sanctity of film has been a phrase that’s been tossed about in this ongoing battle. Netflix’s model threatens the sanctity that typically comes with film. No lights go down, there is no forced unplugging, and instead of going to films, the films come to you and meet you where you are. This means we are not forced to be silent, or to give our full attention. Instead, we are able to have a new film on as mere background noise. However, for someone unable to live in a country that immediately or consistently offers access to films which are not markedly commercial, the debate around Netflix’s “destruction of cinema” feels myopic. It is unfair, perhaps even ridiculous, to expect cultural critique of the (mostly) American film industry to look outwards but Netflix’s model benefits from having the majority of its subscribers outside of the US. Places where watching an excellent film on the big screen is not always viable.
Significantly, the tenor of the reaction against Netflix on the grounds of cinematic purity make me uneasy and make me consider younger film enthusiasts in Guyana and further afield in Trinidad, or Suriname or St Lucia, that exist on the edges of the film’s world centre. When Cannes director Thierry Fremaux argues, “In order for a film to become part of history, it must go through theatres, box office, the critics, the passion of cinephiles, award campaigns, books, directories, filmographies. All this is part of a tradition on which the history of film is based,” I wonder who he is really speaking to. Netflix’s model muddies the purity of real cinema. But who needs purity in art? Art, like life, depends on convergence of ideas, convergence of heart and convergence of classes. Implicit in the pushback against models is a pushback against the third-world way of consuming so many avant-garde films that never make it to theatres.
Netflix is not perfect in this. I do not even think Netflix is particularly curious about the third-world cinephiles beyond a means of commerce. What Netflix is doing, though, is decentralising access to cinema, for better and for worse. Ideally, I would love to see every film in a cinema but the ideal is not always plausible. Netflix’s arrangement for an alternative does not negate, but merely gives access where there was none. This goes for audiences as well as creators. When filmmakers of even the blandest films turn to Netflix as a way to get their voice heard, it’s because Netflix allows them a chance to express themselves where traditional means have not. There are many fair and legitimate arguments for the way cinema is on the verge of change in an increasingly technological world. There are real issues in the ways that Netflix decides to advertise (and not advertise their films). But for those of us on the edges, Netflix is not the end of the cinema. Netflix, instead, becomes a new pathway to cinema. Imperfect, but valuable.