Polygon’s latest series, The Masterpieces of Streaming, looks at the new batch of classics that have emerged from an evolving era of entertainment.
Cinema is a religion to its most devout adherents, and the movie theater is its church. Whether in the reverent silence of an arthouse cathedral or the vocally participatory Friday-night popcorn sermons of the neighborhood cineplex, something about the communal element intensifies the experience of worship. One can observe around the house, the post-dinner living-room screening equivalent to saying grace, but it’s still a holdover between spiritual replenishments at a dedicated temple. The truly revelatory road-to-Damascus moments tend to come in public, among like-minded believers, where the potency of this higher force is at its strongest. However valid our private rituals, humankind has fought for centuries for the right to assemble and exalt. It’s in the Constitution. For cinephiles, their version of this freedom, the movie theater, feels like an inalienable right.
While 2020’s year of quarantine has all but anointed streaming video as the status quo, the debate continues to rage over whether that development constitutes an exciting paradigm of unprecedented accessibility, or the death knell of the film medium itself. Whatever its practicality may be, those most committed to the upholding of the motion picture form regard the sea change led by Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and the like as an unavoidable concession, inherently lesser to the immersive hugeness of theatrical exhibition. Even though the level of quality for the movies and TV premiering online has long since transcended their straight-to-7/11-discount-rack forebears (and we’ve collected 50 exhibits of proof, if any doubts remain), their reputation has yet to follow. We live in the Streaming Age, and yet it feels less like a brave new world than what John F. Kennedy’s FCC chairman Newton N. Minow once envisioned commercial television to be: “a vast wasteland.”
Not so long ago, the trailblazer Netflix was somewhere between a punch line and a novelty, and its competitors were nonexistent. Readers on the younger side of Gen Z will be shocked to learn that sending DVDs through the mail was once the company’s primary service and source of income, its “Netflix Watch Instantly” streaming service an intriguing side project. The chaff-to-wheat ratio in its selection was, to put it gently, suboptimal; I distinctly recall clicking past the Gabriel Iglesias stand-up special Hot and Fluffy dozens of times, its weirdly prominent placement always in the way of the hunt for something watchable. In this primitive paradigm, releasing a movie this way was considered a fate worse than development hell, bound to create the same impact as chucking the reels of the film into a ravine. The virtual library’s selection of licensed older titles was so paltry, it was understood as counterintuitive for any new film with a sizable budget in need of recouping to forego ticket sales and join them.
With each passing year, the Netflix coffers fattened, and more consumers realized that Wi-Fi was decidedly faster than snail mail. By 2015, co-CEOs Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos decided that the time was ripe to get in the game with Hollywood, which they did with a handful of documentaries and the buzzier narrative acquisition, Beasts of No Nation. Directed by a well-respected talent like Cary Fukunaga, boasting a powerhouse supporting turn from Idris Elba said to generate Oscar attention, and tackling the hot-button topic of child militias in Africa, the film made a splashy entrée to the big leagues. Things didn’t quite work out come awards season — Elba won the SAG Award but didn’t even score a nomination from the Academy, an early sign of the same industry resistance that continues to bar Netflix releases from Competition at Cannes — but with a Best Documentary Feature nod for What Happened, Miss Simone?, the Big Red N still got its foot in the door.
From there, the average movie-watcher knows the story well enough. Streaming exploded: Amazon committed more resources to expanding its presence; Hulu beefed up its offerings; boutique services like horror hub Shudder and blaxploitation central Brown Sugar emerged; Netflix cleared every bar of legitimacy imaginable, comfortably establishing itself as a perennial presence in the Best Picture category. Along the way, artists made peace with the thought that their films might be watched out of one eye on laptops, allowing Netflix to leverage its considerable clout to ensnare the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese and, most miraculously, the ghost of Orson Welles. But even if it earned true-blue studio status by becoming the sixth member of the MPAA, Netflix continued to wrestle with an image problem, unable to shake its perception by skeptics as the sketchy kid brother to the old guard of Warner Bros., Universal, and Disney.
Beasts of No Nation provides an early case study in the unavoidable, marginal image of streaming “content,” the blandly Orwellian umbrella term that hints at the optics issue. While Fukunaga’s drama’s success would theoretically confer a measure of relevance on Netflix, the opposite came to pass, with the streaming origins instead minimizing the film’s presence. This has played out over and over again, with even the highest-profile films damned to an inherent smallness that precludes most of them from attaining classic, culture-straddling Event status. For one, The Irishman came with a built-in prestige, and nevertheless struggled to leave a footprint beyond the internet, where film critics remain its biggest boosters and Twitter memes do the most to keep its flame alive. (At a robust three and a half hours, it was the constant butt of late-night gags about no one bothering to watch it.) A scant few Netflix films achieve the level of glowing consensus that has enabled theatrical films past and present to stand the test of time, the rest consigned to our foggier memory banks before being forgotten.
Making a lasting impression in today’s cluttered movie marketplace doesn’t come easy, and more so to those films without the benefit of a built-in recognition from recycled IP. But in showbiz, life finds a way, and excellence will occasionally gain the audience it deserves to prove that the system can work. John Wick, to name one influential example, didn’t just rack up receipts that made Hollywood stop and take notice. The film’s footprint extended into the real world, inspiring a generation of shoot-’em-ups, Halloween costumes, and hip-hop worship on par with Scarface. Even those who hadn’t seen it knew about it, a cultural osmosis that’s the surest sign of a sensation. The utterly delightful Netflix-released rom-com Set It Up should have enjoyed this same route, as a likable and clever crowd-pleaser. But like so many of the best streaming titles, a select few of which are as good as any you’ll find offline, it just didn’t.
A few factors contributing to the situation at hand for streamers can be written off as unique to the behemoth-sized Netflix. The staggering clip at which they unload weekly dumps of content (more than 150 original films arrived on Netflix in 2020, and that’s excluding documentaries and series) has negated the aura of occasion that accompanies other studios’ scheduling, while the minimal-if-any advertising disadvantages at best, and erases at worst. Discourse cycles are shorter and more hurried, leaving the public less time to discuss and obsess until it’s onto the next. Netflix’s willingness to pick up pretty much anything given the a-OK by the almighty and mysterious algorithm doesn’t help either, drowning the hidden gems and lowering the overall metric of quality-control. It’s harder for viewers to hold the company in high esteem when it’s intent on being the face of Adam Sandler’s laziest output, or the oodles of other minimal-effort, cheap-o releases aiming and sinking even lower. The old-school studios shunted those cash-in releases to direct-to-video divisions to distance themselves from it, but with Netflix, it’s all thrown into a single pool.
Humanity has spent a little over one hundred years developing a relationship to “the movies” as both a sentimental notion and a real place, priming us for the emotionally revelatory highs of a life-changing screening. There’s a crucial feeling of ceremony absent from the process of clicking around on the couch, and a certain investment in buying a ticket rather than simply hitting play. For the deliberateness required, these transactions mean more; it’s even in the language, of “going to the movies” versus “seeing what’s on.” Netflix has poured a bit of its capital into eventizing its films along these lines, buying out the Paris Theater in Manhattan as a place for the tastemakers of New York to take in the service’s more dignified releases as they were meant to be seen.
“As they were meant to be seen” is not a figure of speech. There are visceral, physical reasons for the way we have traditionally seen art and absorbed its effects. The sheer scale of theatrical presentation makes for an immediate bigness that amplifies our response to the moving lights on the wall. The enveloping environment of darkness, the elimination of extraneous sounds, and the upright stillness in the chair lull a viewer into a state of what film theorists called “lower wakefulness,” under which movies can permeate deeper than when watched from a couch. The company of the crowd goes a long way as well, their reactions giving approval to ours and vice versa in feedback loops of fuller-throated laughter, fear, or in the case of Magic Mike XXL, joy. The forced isolation of the past year-plus has only underscored the critical importance of the social, communal dimension to viewership.
Success, one of the key vectors by which we anoint classic status, becomes a slippery quantity in the untamed wilds of the internet. The markers of major-work ubiquity are all attached to theaters and the tangible world they inhabit, starting with box-office dollars. The refusal by the streaming giants to release transparent, straightforwardly reported numbers for individual titles diminishes credibility and muddles the distinction between hits and flops. With the inability of a third-party watchdog entity like Nielsen to monitor the analytics by household numbers instead of raw minutes spent watching, streaming platforms are free to instead issue the occasional pronouncement that eleventy billion people watched the latest thing and expect us to take it on good faith. In the flesh-and-blood world, people can see how many months a film spends at the local theater and adjust its estimation accordingly. Back in late 2019, the screenshots of sold-out showings for weeks at a time conveyed that future-Best-Picture-winner Parasite was a genuine phenomenon.
For omnivorous viewers, the preponderance of options likely complicates canon-building. The discussion about the high points of streaming video now includes specimens of outsider art like YouTube videos and short-form clips from TikTok and Vine (RIP). Can Roma be mentioned in the same breath as “Hi, Welcome to Chili’s”? Even those bits of ephemera with relative staying power have the legacy of a novelty, rather than that of an enduring work of cinema. The dismissive attitude toward these odds and ends as necessarily lowbrow is for the most part ill-founded and fading fast, but it still informs the inferiority complex from which streaming movies now suffer. In the same way getting shuffled to HBO was looked upon as a sad consolation for the Hugh Jackman-led Bad Education or Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, a streaming release relegates films to a separate category, with an implicit stink hanging over it.
Netflix has a stranglehold on the work-from-home replacement for water-cooler chatter. There’s always another Queen’s Gambit or Tiger King coming down the pike, the interchangeability in the autoplaying rotation of binges being the precise obstacle holding them back. Amazon has avoided this by thinning out its stable, allowing Garrett Bradley’s singular (and Oscar-nominated) documentary Time the time to amass an avalanche of critical plaudits and support from a grassroots base of admirers. But that achievement is still penned in by its niche, looking just as specialized as Tumblr fandom for The Old Guard. It’s hard to imagine anything released by the streaming studios being talked about five years from now, no staple of the mainstream on par with Get Out or Mad Max: Fury Road or A Star Is Born to be found.
Even when your business is buying things, the one thing you can’t buy is respect. The Oscars felt unusually anticlimactic in 2021, what with the two-month delay and the social distancing on the telecast. But a friend of mine more casually engaging with the movie world cut to the core of the dilemma in a conversation a few weeks ago. “It’s hard to know what’s even nominated,” he said. “Nothing actually came out last year.” Each passing year can bring another handful of great films to our fingertips, but it still comes down to whether we reach out and grasp them.