Netflix is a safe haven for authors who seek more freedom of expression, but pure cinema deserves to be seen in a movie theater
It’s true. “Roma” is one of the most cinematographic movies realased this year. Because of its picture and its black and white cinematography, it can be considered without a doubt part of the modern neorealistic epopea.
Nothing strange, expecially for those who already know well Cuaròn’s style and especially his “Gravity”, the manifesto of this sublime and revolutionary technique.
Produced by Netflix, it barely appeared at the movies
There was a three days special event at the beginning of December, to which most of Italian cinema people did not take part. Here, it all began with a crowd standing for the awards that three Netflix productions obtained during the Venice cinema festival — “Roma”, “On my skin”, a movie about the complex case of Stefano Cucchi, and “The ballad of Baster Stuggs”, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen — plus a general tribute to Western movies and to other cinematographic genres.
While the Cannes film festival jury rejected all Netflix movies as the American company did not present a fully-fleged distribution plan, Venice did not show any kind of hostility towards the streaming colossus. To be honest, all the three movies deserved to participate as purely cinematographic works, narrations capable of moving people with all the weapons to the provisions of cinematographic art. Nonetheless, without the dolby-sound system, the silence and the isolation of movie theatres, “Roma” and the other two movies lose a lot of their driving strength.
The problem is that Netflix, as any other streaming company, aims to make products for its own service, favoring the exclusive distribution on its platform. This is the reason why — and rightly so, in my personal opinion — Italian cinema operators are annoyed, as they do not want to fill their theaters with movies that people can watch at home.
Spectators, viewers and casuals
To go any further, however, we have to start from a simple assumption. There are three kinds of cinematographic audience: spectators, viewers and casuals. The first category loves movie theaters viscerally. Spectators are addicted to its darkness, smells, sounds and, above all, love to lose themselves in the experience, even more when unprecedented exhibitions, old movies, special events and so on are displayed. This is the category I think I figure in.
The second one, the viewer, is a movie-bulimic: he sees lots of films (maybe more than the spectator) anywhere and he hardly admits that the difference lies in the experience. At the movies or at home it is the same. He prefers to invest in higher quality TV screens, very expensive sound systems and anything that can improve homemade vision. Therefore, Netflix and other streaming services are his true bible.
Casual spectators are those who go to the movies only in case of widely advertized events (The Avengers, Star Wars, Christmas movies).
And this difference is precisely where the problems arise. Indeed, true hardcore fans are a minority, whereas the majority of the audience prefers to sit on the sofa and watch movies while they are chomping a sandwich.
How Netflix changed the rules
November saw the implementation of the 2016 cinema law, which regulates the time window between the release of Italian movies in theaters and on TV and streaming platforms. Before then, there wasn’t any disposition, albeit there was the consolidated practice of waiting at least 105 days. However, Netflix changed the rules.
“On my skin”, despite being released in theaters and on Netflix at the same time, had more than 100 thousand paying spectators, numbers that are hard to reach with a three-days event. But for Netflix this is not a problem, as it only lives with subscriptions.
Indeed, Netflix’s interest is to reach more and more subscribers by creating good and exclusive products. Theaters and festivals then become just a shop window. For Netflix all is marketing, as everything they do seems to say “look, in addition to our famous series, we also have wonderful, original movies that you can only find here, Don’t you believe me? Ok, go to the movies to watch them. Then sign up, because you’ll want more”.
Theaters are thus becoming a sort of Netflix’s advertising space, a road billboard with a few thousand people watching. But this is not their role. Movie houses are contemporary places of aggregation and solitude, a collective and private moment at the same time. They are the final part of the production process of a movie and it can’t become the impromptu trailer of some streaming giant. This is the reason that led operators to ask for an intervention (in addition to the economic reasons that, I think, don’t need detailed explanations).
However, there is another important aspect to consider. Raise their hands the producers, and especially Italian film distributors, who would have invested money in a movie like “On my skin”. Raise their hands those who would have devoted all that money to a movie like “The ballad of Buster Struggs”. Are we sure that, without Netflix, a peculiar movie such as the neorealistic “Roma” would have been released?
These three movies all have a great experimental force that helps the overall growth of cinematic art. Nonetheless, nowadays, most producers stay on the safe side with the cheap “The Avengers”, “Star Wars”, “Justice League” and so on.
The spectator’s dilemma
Let’s not hide behind an excuse, the world cinematic landscape is “flat”. In 1968, “2001: A space odyssey” was a success for both the public and the critics, although it created strong debates. In 2017, Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” met with general indifference and was catalogued as a horror movie: the majority of the critique did not understand it, while the audience showed little interest. However, “Mother!” was an excellent movie and we could spend hours to talk about it. In other times experts and reviewers would consume oceans of ink and kilos of paper.
Paradoxically, Netflix has become a safe haven for those authors who seek more freedom of expression, just because Netflix doesn’t need to fill the cinema. So it can risk more. And with the implementation of the above mentioned decree, there is the concrete danger of depriving Italian authors of this strong and free distributor.
So, what should the spectator do?
The big dilemma is still there. Netflix grew up and its works are always more interesting, with Amazon Prime, Infinity, Hulu, YouTube and soon even Disney investing in their own streaming platforms. This new reality allows everyone to do everything, as these services experiment with styles and themes, withouth incurring in unfair reviews, bigotry and censorship.
But the movie theater, the armchairs, the darkness, the sound system wraparound, the sound of the video projector, the silent and the emotional sharing, the whispers during the roll-in, the smell of hot popcorn are all things that we risk to lose and that future generations are unlikely to get to know. Trust me, the emotions that you can feel at the movies cannot be replicated by any 4k television and by any dolby-surround THX 5.1 home sound system.
You cannot compare Grandma’s kitchen with frozen food
I think that my idea is clear. I can’t deny the pleasure of seeing platforms like Netflix or Amazon video (which produced Woody Allen’s last movies) grow. However, losing movie theaters would be an enormous damage for the entire cinematographic audience. Shooting, set design, colors are thought and made for cinemas. Kubrick did not conceive “Shining” to be watched on a smartphone, while the final sequence of “8 1/2” totally changes if seen on the big screen or at home. And it is the same for Cuaròn’s movie, or for any other masterpiece by Nolan, Virzì, Sorrentino, Aronofsky, Garrone, Tarantino, Spielberg and so on. Are you ready to give all this up?