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Netflix: The Industry’s Villain?

What happened at the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival? If you paid even the slightest attention to this year’s edition of the renowned festival, you may have heard of the controversy that surrounded the screening of Okja, the latest feature film by Bong Joon Ho (Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer). If you have not, here is a short recap…

During its screening, the film was met with boos as soon as the Netflix logo was displayed on screen. The film itself then received a four-minute standing ovation and was critically acclaimed. The problem with this film came from how it was made and distributed, and not its content. Why is the American corporation not welcome in Cannes? According to the number of French theatre owners who called out to the organisers of the festival to not welcome Netflix films next year, it is simply because the film was not being released in theatres, but exclusively on the streaming platform’s own website.

While the theatres did demand that any film who does not have a French theatrical release should be ineligible to participate in the festival, isn’t it clear that this is more of a fight between traditional producers and online newbies than a combat for French theatres’ business?

What is shocking in this ‘scandal’ is not the pitchforks of the aging industry trying to protect its ancient model. This is far from being a new phenomenon. Look at Uber and cab drivers. The disheartening thing is the fact that they see it as an unfair battle, and that Netflix is not a serious actor in the world of entertainment. Except that it is a serious actor, if not currently the most relevant and pertinent one. High quality original content (from script writing to the technical beauty of its shows), reboots of cult series for the audience regardless of the original airing ratings (Arrested Development) and the artistic freedom it gives to its directors makes Netflix a producer more in touch with reality than the traditional parties. Netflix respects the artists more than a lot of these scandalised conventional businesses do. At a press conference, Bong Joon Ho declared:

I loved working with Netflix, they gave me total freedom, in terms of the casting, shooting, and editing. They put no pressure on me. There were no restrictions on their part. It was a wonderful experience.’, comments which were backed up by Okja’s lead actress Tilda Swinton: ‘Netflix has given Bong the freedom with this film to make his absolutely liberated vision and for that, I’m so grateful.

– Bong Joon Ho, director (Okja)

How many other studios and producers can claim to have such praise coming from their creative partners? To answer this, have a look at director Josh Trank, who after a row with 20th Century Fox over their meddling with his 2015 film The Fantastic Four, was dropped by other big studios. This exemplifies the sort of control that big traditional producers have over the creative process of directors. 20th Century Fox was willing to remove large portions of Trank’s vision in order to bring more people into theatres. A producer like Netflix, on the other hand, who are not bound by viewing figures (their success and profit are calculated on the number of subscribers, and not specific views) is able to give the directors the control they deserve as artists.

And Netflix is not only a liberating new path for artists but is also a refreshing new method of consumption for clients. While we all can name a plethora of old iconic shows that we all loved from the 90s and the 2000s, the fact that networks relied on viewing figures & ratings in order to keep customers (“if a show is bad people will easily switch channel”) forced producers to make generic shows to appeal to the widest audience possible. On streaming platforms, if a show is not to your taste, you can watch another while remaining a paying subscriber. Thanks to this we have seen a growing number of more niche and innovative shows. Netflix also provides a convenience and pricing that is more appropriate for life in today’s world. Viewers no longer have to wait for a specific time during the week to watch their favourite shows. They also no longer have to give away €30+ for one season of a specific show on DVD or Blu-ray.

The argument of the ‘arrogant and opportunistic newcomer’ is almost laughable. Netflix was founded in 1997 as a DVD rental store. It then adapted itself to the changing times by focusing on DVD rental via mail through the internet. Once DVD rental became a stale business, they turned to the Netflix we know today: a streaming platform. They noticed the changing attitudes of consumers and pivoted to please them, which very few of the older producers did, preferring to stick to the status quo.

This is not to say that the traditional media are necessarily evil and irrelevant. They have a long history and most of our favourite movies and shows come from them. We all feel more excited when we enter a theatre and hear the first notes of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ being played as a sparkly castle appears before whichever new Disney film came out then when we hear the Netflix chime. History and experience are their stronger assets, but they simply need to understand that we live in a different time period and customer needs have changed. Reconstruction and communication with the spectators and creative partners are vital and necessary for retaining the legitimacy that they try so rigorously to take away from the American streaming giant. Bitterness and sighs will not solve the identity crisis that they are facing, a crisis for which Netflix is not to blame.