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Netflix and the ‘stolen’ indies

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Do you like movie theaters? Too bad

Netflix being used on smartphone Netflix

Netflix plans to release 80 original films in 2018, and those films will not be given a theatrical release. If you want to watch what might be some of the most interesting movies of the year — if Netflix’s 2017 slate is anything to go by — by some of the biggest names in filmmaking, you’re going to have to stay home.

Which is a shame, especially when it comes to the smaller films that were already hard to catch in theaters. Netflix is pumping money into independent cinema and resurrecting the mid-budget movie, which is wonderful for both artists and fans, but it’s hard to stay excited when it’s also removing the theatrical experience itself as a cost of doing business.

Movies without the theater

Netflix does business in your living room and through your laptop or phone. That’s where the company wants you to watch movies, and it’s where it’s showing off originals like Bright.

“For some members of the press, the film was screened in a cozy, living-room environment on a high-end 4K OLED television and Atmos setup,” The Verge explained in its review of Bright. “(Generally, critics’ screenings happen in conventional movie theaters.)” Netflix wants critics to recontextualize large budget films as pieces of art that can, and often are, consumed primarily at home instead of at the theater.

But action films are safe, for now. Fans want to watch The Last Jedi on a nice, huge theater with a good sound system. Films like Dunkirk that rely on image and sound as experience are helped by the power of modern movie theaters, and people are willing to make the journey to see those films the way they were meant to be presented.

We focus on blockbusters when it comes to the theater, but the theatrical presentation helps us digest denser, more personal stories as well. I’m lucky enough to live down the street from an arthouse theater, which means I can take a walk and pay a few bucks to see intimate, experimental movies on a big screen with a reverent crowd.

It’s where I saw Raw and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It’s the theater that helped me fall in love with Todd Haynes when it showed Velvet Goldmine back in 1998, and introduced me to Studio Ghibli by running Princess Mononoke in 1999. These movies wouldn’t have been as powerful if I had watched them at home, and it’s these sorts of movies that are most at risk from Netflix’s strategy.

“It’s important for me to stress how I think movies like mine, and what would be considered more intimate stories than a movie like Dunkirk — where the benefit of seeing it in the theater is obvious on paper — is that it’s equally important to see movies like mine and Moonlight in the theater, because you’re more emotional in that way,” director and writer Noah Baumbach told Deadline. “It’s just a different thing.”

He has a reason to feel aggrieved. Baumbach’s latest film, The Meyerowitz Stories, was purchased by Netflix. The film is often written about in its context as a Netflix original, but the movie was written, directed and shot with an eye for the theater. Netflix purchased it once it was done, and that act meant that it would never get a chance to be seen outside of the living room.

“To be clear, I didn’t make the movie with Netflix,” Baumbach explained. “I made the movie independently, as I’ve made all my movies. I wasn’t even thinking of an alternative — I was thinking this would be shown in theaters, as all my movies are. Netflix acquired it from my producer in post and they have their way that’s important to them ... But I think it’s a singular experience, seeing a movie in the theater. I think audiences should be given the opportunity to see things for the first time that way.”

Amazon is a bit better in this regard

Amazon is also plowing money into movies and television shows to compete with Netflix, not to mention Disney, but those films are given a theatrical release. I saw Amazon Studios’ Paterson (I’m a big fan of Jim Jarmusch) and Manchester by the Sea at the theater, in fact. Both were smaller, more intimate stories that nonetheless benefitted from the big screen.

But Netflix doesn’t release movies that way, although there was talk about a limited theatrical run of some movies in France to make them eligible for awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Netflix believes that its business begins and ends in your living room, which means any movie it buys will lose its shot at a theatrical release.

There’s a middle ground between being a theater snob and enjoying what Netflix does — as a parent I’m happy I can see many of these movies at home when they launch — but we don’t often think about the movies that Netflix purchases after they’re made to only offer via streaming.

Netflix is doing good work by supporting smaller films as well as the latest Adam Sandler dreck, but it’s also “stealing” the theatrical experience from films that would otherwise offer that option to fans if Netflix hadn’t purchased the distribution rights. The Meyerowitz Stories deserves the theater as much as Star Wars does, but Netflix’s spending spree means is going to take that option away from many smaller films.

That transition may have been inevitable, but it’s also worth mourning. Your living room will never be quite as good as movie theater for these films, but it’s unlikely we’ll be given the choice to watch them any other way.

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