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Willem Dafoe addresses Netflix versus theater debate prior to Death Note’s release

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‘To fight that is to live in the past’

Death Note James Dittiger/Netflix

Willem Dafoe is the type of guy who likes to go to a theater, settle into the darkness and let a film wash over him — but he also understands things are changing.

His newest movie, Death Note, isn’t being released into theaters. It will live on Netflix and be available to more than 100 million subscribers worldwide. People will be able to watch it on their television sets, laptop screens or even their phone while sitting on the bus. This move from venturing out to a theater to watch a movie with 250 other strangers to streaming it at home has caught the ire of certain directors, including Christopher Nolan. Nolan kicked off a conversation last month when he suggested he would never work with Netflix, calling the company a detrimental threat to the theater industry at large.

Dafoe doesn’t agree. The actor told Polygon that while he prefers to go out and watch a movie in a theater, he understands that audience viewing habits are changing.

“I always prefer going to neutral ground with strangers in a dark room to watch a movie on the screen, but that's not the way things are right now,” Dafoe said. “I kind of accept that there are different ways to watch movies. There's a whole generation of people who respond to a computer screen to get to their entertainment and art. To fight that is to live in the past a little bit. I'm still a cinema guy. It's how it's made, not just how we watch it. I've got my foot in both worlds.”

Dafoe’s comments are similar to what actor Will Smith, who worked with Netflix on his upcoming movie, Bright, said at San Diego Comic-Con last month. Smith told thousands gathered in Hall H that while Netflix was offering an experience different from what moviegoers are used to, it’s not a bad or evil development.

“It’s a difference in a way that in the early days of film, there was stage plays and then you went from stage plays to home entertainment,” Smith said. “There’s something about that big screen that does something in people’s minds that’s different. I don’t think [watching a movie in a theater versus on Netflix is] a competitive difference. I think it will just expand a fan’s ability to enjoy entertainment.”

Dafoe said one of the reasons he believes Netflix’s plan to incorporate more original movies into its streaming service strategy is because of the company’s biggest strength: television. Everyone wants to do television, Dafoe said, and Netflix was built to allow subscribers to binge whatever they wanted. With better television being released every year, it makes sense that Netflix would try to package original films into its offerings alongside the television content it’s known for.

“One of the things that people say is so great about television and particularly dramatic series is the long form, slow reveal,” Dafoe said. “You have lots of time to tell the story. The audience becomes attached to the story and the characters and they run home to binge watch. It becomes their little domain. With movies, I don't necessarily think the best part of cinema isn't always about narrative.”

That said, Dafoe said he isn’t interested in working within the television landscape anytime soon. There are some directors, like Wes Anderson, whose potential television ideas may be more intriguing than others, but Dafoe was adamant he wanted to remain in the world of cinema. He’s currently working on Aquaman with James Wan and, when asked if he had any interest in doing another superhero movie, Dafoe said he wasn’t sure.

“It's so hypothetical because it's project by project,” Dafoe said. “I don't make the distinction between DC and Marvel. All I can say is that Spider-Man was a great experience for me and right now I'm having fun with James Wan. That’s good enough for me right now.”

Dafoe can be seen next playing the death god, Ryuk, in Death Note later this month. The movie will be available to stream on Aug. 25.