Any article moaning about Netflix is likely to provoke comments along the lines of “Times have changed”, “Technology has changed”, “Most people don’t go/can’t afford to go to the cinema” and “They are just responding to consumer demand”. I expect some will even point out that Netflix are allowing film directors considerable creative freedom, which is a fair point. Nonetheless, I don’t care. I am going to have my say, and then I will disappear back into my Luddite cave with my imaginary reels of 35mm film…
Increasingly, Netflix have been making and releasing films directly to their platform, without a cinema release (give or take the odd film festival screening). This greatly irritates me, as I would much rather see a film on the big screen, at least when I first see it. I have much sympathy with Christopher Nolan, who recently lamented this trend. Why make a film that is designed for the big screen, and only release it on Netflix? Surely the best thing to do would be to give it a cinema release first, and then by all means make it exclusive to Netflix?
When I go and see a film at the cinema, it is still – despite the advent of digital projection over 35 or 70mm, despite occasional inconsiderate audiences with mobile phones – an experience. It has a very special magic. No matter how many surround sound systems or big TVs you get, psychologically nothing beats the escape and total immersion of a cinema. What’s more, when I see a film at a cinema, it often becomes a beautiful memory fixed firmly in a particular time and place. Case in point: I recently saw The Shape of Water with my wife, on our wedding anniversary. We both loved it, and now that film will have a special place in our hearts.
Having seen a film like The Shape of Water at the cinema, I am happy to rediscover it on television, even though films always lose something on a small screen. I feel the same way about many cinema classics – Apocalypse Now, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey and so on. I shudder to think of anyone watching those classics for the first time on a television screen, but the memory of that amazing first cinematic viewing can be rediscovered that way.
Speaking of 2001, my eldest son really wanted to watch it, but I urged him to wait for a re-release for his first viewing. We then saw it together during a re-release a few years back (he was 10 at the time), and he thanked me afterwards for suggesting he wait. That film will now be forever linked to the overwhelming experience of seeing it on a big screen, whenever he rediscovers it on television.
Discovering a film for the first time on Netflix simply does not generate the same potent sense of memory and occasion. This is a shame, as recent Netflix movies like Okja, Gerald’s Game, and Our Souls at Night (what the hell is a Robert Redford movie doing going straight to Netflix?) would definitely benefit from a bigger screen. Recently, when The Cloverfield Paradox was released directly to Netflix, it felt like a harbinger of doom. A shape of things to come. And sure enough, Alex Garfield’s Annihilation, which I have been looking forward to seeing in the cinema for some time, is now heading directly to Netflix (Paramount sold it) because it supposedly flopped on big screens in America for being “too brainy”. Even more alarmingly, Martin Scorsese’s new film The Irishman is a Netflix production. The words “Martin Scorsese film” and “straight-to-TV” have no business being in the same sentence. It is a cinematic blasphemy.
In one sense, this is nothing new. We used to get direct-to-video releases all the time, alongside major releases. But direct-to-video was not something to aspire to. These films had a justified reputation for generally being rubbish. In addition, video releases of major titles would come after cinematic runs. If you wanted to wait, you could wait. However, cinematic die-hards like me always opted for the big screen wherever possible, to see the good, the bad and the indifferent. As far back as I can remember, I have always loved being able to say I saw this or that film on a big screen – even if it was a bad one – because I remember the experience. To this day, I see at least one or two films per week at the cinema, and sometimes more than that.
At this point all is not yet lost, but I do wonder if in the long run, cinema as we know it is doomed. I desperately want Netflix to start giving their films a cinematic run, but I just don’t think that will happen. I don’t expect the world to revolve around me. I know that my cinema habit is not the norm. I know it is expensive (I rationalise that what I would spend on cigarettes if I smoked, I spend on cinema tickets). I know that all Netflix are doing is responding to consumer demand. I know this is apparently the future, that times have changed, and that technology has changed… but I don’t have to like it.
In short, if the Netflix trend ends up killing cinema, I officially hate the future.