In the Defence of Streaming Services
How can anyone view the democratization of cinema as the death of it?
Susan Sontag opens her seminal essay On Photography by describing how the field industrialized throughout the twentieth century. She comments on its transition from a niche practice into something with wide-spread artistic merit, making the point that:
“Since there were no professional photographers, there could be no amateurs either, and taking photographs had no clear social use; it was gratuitous, that is, an artistic activity, though with few pretensions to being an art. It was only with its industrialization that photography came into its own as art.”
I think the realm of cinema is a tad more complex.
The accessibility of high-quality video capture has certainly mirrored the industrialization of photography from a hardware perspective. With the advent of video-first platforms like YouTube and TikTok, the argument can be made that ‘everyone’s a director’ — much to the chagrin of cinephiles everywhere. Their disdain is similar to that expressed by the photography community every time someone with an Instagram feed is compared to a professional photographer.
Despite this, I can’t help thinking that there’s a bit more craft involved when shooting a feature film.
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I’m sure expert photographers the world over will disagree (all fifty million of them) but even the most proficient shutterbug cannot match the production logistics of a blockbuster. Ergo, I don’t feel Sontag’s take on the industrialization of photography can be mapped 1:1 onto the trajectory of cinema.
Rather, the boundary-pushing of artistic cinema is a product of its broad accessibility. Each film represents the execution of a creative vision, one that was able to secure financial backing. The easier it is for us all to consume these success stories, the more chance they have to inspire us in our own film-making pursuits.
In short — to push cinema forward as an art form, films need to be funded. Once they’ve been funded they can be made, and once they’ve been made they need to be easy to watch.
This is where streaming services like Netflix really come into their own. The one-time rent-by-mail delivery company has become a titan of media. They’ve completely democratized film & TV consumption. Pretty much everyone has a Netflix password — or someone else’s, at least. They green-light so many projects that it’s become an established industry joke.
They’re a proverbial island of misfit toys, one that acts as a conduit for the artistic boundary-pushing I just described.
And yet, they’re under attack. This article is titled In the Defence of Streaming Services, so before I spend any more time championing the likes of Netflix or their more morally ambiguous cohorts (Warner, Disney, Amazon, etc.) — I’d like to define exactly what it is that I’m defending them against.
Il Maestro and the Cultural Elite
The world-renowned director Martin Scorsese recently penned an essay titled Il Maestro, in which he discusses his love of cinema and the career of his dear friend/mentor, the amateur filmmaker Federico Fellini. He takes the opportunity to bemoan a loss of magic in an industry that has become more focused on making money than producing art.
This essay builds upon his much-publicized comments from 2019, where he proclaimed that “Marvel Movies aren’t Cinema”. He critiqued their by-the-numbers approach to storytelling and the lack of risks their directors can undertake whilst corporate interests dominate over the creative process.
I hold a great deal of admiration for Mr. Scorsese and his body of work. My own love of cinema has in no small part been influenced by watching his movies throughout my teenage years. Some of my fondest memories are of hot summer evenings spent with friends trying to covertly smoke out of my bedroom window, before sinking into a couch to dissect the likes of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, or The Departed.
I don’t believe his comments are meant to be overtly critical in nature, rather they stem from his true love of cinema and his desire to treat the fruit of its pursuit as a cultural treasure.
This is why it’s unfortunate that Mr. Scorsese’s commentaries are being warped. They’re being used as a rallying cry by those who would seek to restrict cinema, gate-keeping it as an exclusive pleasure of the cultural elite and financially privileged.
Sad as it is to say, this happens across all of the arts. Whenever something gets too popular the snobs will try and prevent others from climbing the ladder, denying validity to anything mainstream and refusing entry into their perceived cult of true appreciation.
In the case of cinema, this has resulted in an attack on streaming services, which have forged a new paradigm by reducing how much impact the traditional studio setup can have on popular culture. It’s been superseded by opaque platforms and incomprehensible algorithms which dictate what movies we should watch on our phone screens, or so the cinema snob complains.
There are some real classist undertones here, masked behind an anti-corporate agenda. I despise/benefit from capitalism as much as the next champagne socialist, but I think the positive impact of corporate streaming services is undeniable. They’ve completely democratized funding for and access to an expansive range of cinema. Going to the movies can sometimes cost twenty dollars or more, depending on where you live. Financial disparity means that a lot of people have been completely priced out of the traditional theatre-going experience. Is it then fair to critique streaming services as anything other than a bi-product of rampant inequality?
There are certainly examples of soullessly driven, artistically bankrupt streaming platforms. Spotify comes to mind — a corporate greed-machine, one that is shamelessly taking advantage of artists. Critically though, it sits outside of the film industry. ‘In Defence of Film Streaming Services’ just wasn’t as catchy as a title.
The socio-political discussion revolving around access to cinema as art is valid, but it doesn’t get at the heart of the cinema snob’s argument. I need to meet them on their own terms. I’m going to do just that, by highlighting a Netflix-funded project from an obscure, arthouse director — Orson Welles.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead
I jest, I jest.
Orson Welles is one of the most beloved independent filmmakers of all time. His first film and magnum opus, Citizen Kane, is widely regarded as among the most important pieces of cinema ever produced.
The Other Side of The Wind is the title of the bookend to Welles’ filmography. It was to be his last ever movie and it had a historic, monumentally troubled production. We’re talking ‘the Iranian revolution nationalized the assets of the film’s main backer’ troubled.
It sat shelved for more than fifty years until 2016 when Netflix negotiated a five million dollar funding deal to both complete and distribute the project, as well as a companion documentary — the titular They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.
Wonderful. The last hurrah of a celebrated visionary is resurrected and made widely accessible to the public, and all thanks to Netflix.
Did the cinematic community rally behind such a triumph?
Of course not.
They chastised Netflix for not giving Welles the same treatment Drake receives from Spotify. They highlighted the lack of promotion for The Other Side of the Wind as endemic to the decaying state of cinema.
The Times They Are a-Changing
A less idealistic author than myself may call this a cynical move by Netflix. They did something big and flashy i.e. rounding out a cult icon’s filmography, all the while documenting the process — it was all marketing.
Personally, I don’t understand how a true film fanatic could adopt such a narrow view. A piece of Orson Welles art was the outcome, and it’s now only a few clicks away from anyone with a Netflix subscription. Maybe someone who watches it, or the documentary behind its production, will be inspired to make the next Citizen Kane.
This is the beauty of cinema as an art, and in my mind, the streaming platforms are doing it justice. Netflix and Amazon already have an Oscar cabinet each and both platforms look set to add to them this year.
So how then can those who proclaim the death of cinema, simply because it’s now consumed on a phone screen or in a living room, call themselves real film fans?
They’re just an old guard who is so caught up in their own artistic interpretation, that they’ve become dependant on figure-heads to worship, expensive rituals to follow, and snobbish rhetoric to rally behind. They’ll scream travesty when The Other Side of The Wind isn’t plastered across the homepage banner of Netflix, whilst relishing in their pseudo-intellectual rant threads about it on r/movies or /tv/.
The truth is, the ‘Golden Age of Cinema' was only really golden if you were a white man. For every Federico Fellini there was a Harvey Weinstein — a monster that Hollywood traditionalists were more than happy to tolerate, so long as he kept on churning out commercial hits.
You can certainly critique the streaming platforms for pushing their woke corporate agenda when it affects the quality of the production (I’m looking at you Last Jedi). But equally, real proponents of cinema should recognize and celebrate the inclusivity of these platforms.
Streaming services are the ones leading this democratization effort, not only by providing a socio-economic gateway to the realm of cinema but as a funding platform for truly diverse content. More people than ever are watching documentaries, arthouse, and non-western projects — films that test the boundaries of the medium by incorporating new, previously marginalized voices.
True fans won’t see this as the death of cinema — they’ll just grab some popcorn and hit play.
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