The Hollywood studios aren’t the ones who need to worry. Neither are the multiplexes.
The threat that Netflix poses to the movie industry, with their streaming exclusive releases of Awards Season-style hopefuls, is to the independent movie houses that cater to discerning cinephiles. To the art house theaters that actually care about film as an art form, not just a business, and fight to keep their doors open while providing a sophisticated experience for diehard film aficionados.
One need only look at three Netflix originals that have premiered this fall to see how direct the threat is.
Through September and October of 2017, Netflix debuted two films that garnered raves at the world’s premiere film festivals. A third also dropped, one that’s right in the wheelhouse of every indie theater’s primary demographic – older adults:
The festival track that Meyerowitz and Father followed, first starting at Cannes, is exactly the type you see leading up to strong fall release strategies. It’s these movies – with their calculated rollouts – that smaller, smarter movie theaters look to for solid, reliable, sustainable business.
But then Netflix came along to snag the new critically-acclaimed films by Noah Baumbach and Angelina Jolie, keeping them almost singularly for its own small screen subscription venue, save for a handful of lucky theaters in New York, LA, and a few other major cities where these films played in limited runs so that Netflix could crassly qualify for Oscar consideration.
There was also Our Souls at Night, a film not strong enough for a big awards push (despite its multi-Academy Award winning leads Jane Fonda and Robert Redford), but still one that would play like a bread-and-butter tentpole for indie theaters whose core base is older patrons and well-to-do retirees.
The local historic theater in my city of Tulsa – Circle Cinema – could’ve fed off receipts from Our Souls at Night for a solid month, probably longer. Add Meyerowitz and Father to that and it’s a banner quarter.
We can go further back, too, to June with Okja, the latest from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho; he tells artful, gonzo tales that parallel relevant issues. Art house theaters really could’ve benefited from that one when trying to fend off the onslaught from Marvel, DC, Pixar, and more during the summer months.
Yes, on its war path to marginalize theatrical distribution (and even burn it all down), Netflix has major studios in its sights, too. In December, it’ll stream Will Smith’s Bright, a sci-fi spectacle made with the blockbuster price tag of $90 million.
There’s less to worry about here, though (if anything), because the studios and theater chains will continue their symbiotic relationship regardless of what Netflix does, or achieves, even as they make necessary adaptations to lure customers from their couches.
But indie theaters don’t have that kind of money. They need the product that Netflix has begun to hoard at major film festivals.
Art house cinemas give a platform to more ambitious fare. Even when those movies do middling business, they become a part of the cinematic conversation – both now and ongoing – because of the life they’re given through theatrical release windows, instead of being buried in the casket of the Netflix streaming app.
So what can we do, those who care about independent cinema and the theaters that serve as a cornerstone to any city’s artistic culture and community? Boycott Netflix? No. That is futile fool’s errand. To say so is not defeatist resignation, it’s a practical reality.
Instead, we need to frequent our local art house theaters like never before, to keep those vibrant circles of society alive, and thriving, to show the shareholders of Netflix what Amazon Studios has already proven with their Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea: there is money and prestige to be had by embracing independent theaters, not abandoning them.
Here’s perhaps the best way to consider it:
Do you think Moonlight would’ve had a shot at its historic Oscar upset had Netflix streamed it? Would its director Barry Jenkins now be a premiere auteur? Would that small $1.5 million budgeted passion project with no stars have secured the place it now holds as a landmark work that will be talked about, studied, and appreciated in the canon of great American movies? Of course not.
It’s the Moonlight’s that Netflix endangers, and the indie theaters that give those movies their chance to stand out, soar, and make history, not the Dunkirk’s or the multiplexes anchored by an IMAX screen.