Despite a lot of hand-wringing from noted filmmakers and die-hard cinephiles, Netflix isn’t responsible for the death of movie theaters. Well, not entirely, and not yet. It’s true that theaters are suffering, but it’s wrong to hang the blame on Netflix, which actually represents a solution rather than a problem (not that Hollywood would ever admit this). The reality is that Netflix provides a home for small, indie, and mid-budgeted films that simply would not stand a chance in theaters, which increasingly favor big-budget blockbusters and event spectacles.
Movie theaters are stuck in the past, and they’re rapidly falling out of step with modern culture. The popcorn-and-soda-based theater economy only succeeds when the maximum number of butts are filling seats. The problem is, audiences aren’t showing up like they used to. Theater attendance is steadily declining — and has been for decades. Cultural addictions like video games, cable TV, the Internet, smartphones, and streaming services are providing compelling alternatives to the theater experience. Movie theaters have failed to adjust to or even capitalize on these trends.
By contrast, Netflix’s model of original films and series allows subscribers to watch anywhere at anytime, revolutionizing how such media is consumed. Movie theaters offer a limited selection of films with rigid showtimes — a 100-year-old model that doesn’t bother to hide its antiquity. Purists may lament the Netflix mode of consumption, but we’re a technology-driven society, and Netflix is leading whereas theaters aren’t even trying.
Yet some filmmakers, like Christopher Nolan, frequently take hardline, anti-streaming positions:
Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films. They have this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation. So they’re not even getting in the game, and I think they’re missing a huge opportunity… I don’t really get it.”
Nolan is way off here (and he’s recently walked-back these remarks). Netflix doesn’t produce huge films like Nolan’s Dunkirk or Interstellar (at least, not so far); instead, Netflix produces low and mid-budget projects such as War Machine, Wheelman, and Beasts of No Nation that serve audiences who are largely overlooked by blockbusters and the theaters that host them. The kinds of original films Netflix creates would likely receive just a single screen in most theaters, and might only hold that position for a 2-3 weeks (at best) — hardly enough time to capture or sustain a sufficient audience.
This strikes at the core issue plaguing theaters: quality and variety. Big-budget blockbusters are (generally) geared towards a young-male demographic, and the contents of these films are often derivative and formulaic. Add to that that the extraordinary production and marketing costs for these blockbusters — WB’s Justice League has a $300 million production budget — consequently, their only route to profitability is spamming screens in multiplexes with a handful of major releases that offer narrow appeal.
I fail to see how Netflix is responsible for this situation.
So, if it seems like the vast majority of movies showing in theaters today are big-budget blockbusters, you’re not far off. According to the New Yorker, major film releases now debut year-round (in 2018 you can expect at least one big-budget blockbuster every other week), and they’re squeezing out smaller films. The reality is that Netflix is doing far more to support cinema than movie theaters; Netflix is responsible for more writers, actors, directors, and crew sustaining work year-round than the handful of big-budget productions from the major Hollywood studios (again, they’ll never admit this).
Ultimately, Netflix’s original movies require word-of-mouth to succeed, they aren’t overnight successes supported by massive marketing campaigns — the streaming model is ideal for these works. Netflix also funds international films too, which are nearly impossible to find outside of major urban centers. Naturally, some may cite Netflix for steering away potential movie theater patrons, but it’s clear that their offerings are distinct and serve different (or at least complementary) audiences. The end of movie theaters may be nigh, but it’s not the fault of streaming services like Netflix — even though they might be the last one’s standing a decade or two from now, crazy as that sounds.