On my YouTube channel ‘Cinema Beyond Entertainment’, I have two videos listing out My Top Films of 2015 and 2016. A lot of those films, mostly foreign language films that never got a commercial theatrical release in India, are available on either Netflix or AmazonPrime. None of these movies would have been seen in India legally had it not been for the streaming services. And now with Netflix out with its first Hindi original straight to streaming feature, Love Per Square Foot, a new era of film distribution in India has begun.
This is a great advancement for Indian cinema. Especially Hindi cinema. The arrival of these streaming services means that a lot of new talent will have a chance to get the foot in the door against the reluctance of the gatekeepers of Bollywood Colony. New writers, new directors, new actors could hopefully help raise the quality of Hindi cinema [Provided they get the creative freedom from these streaming services].
But as far as movie lovers are concerned, this is the best time. Numerous original films delivered straight to your laptops. Nothing could be better! But the arrival of the new dog in the area has caused a big stir among the theatre chains.
Cannes Film Festival and Netflix have been fighting against each other for quite a while now. Where Netflix wants everyone to have that individual choice of viewing a film wherever and however they want, Cannes want the audience to strive for the communal experience of cinema that can only be provided in a movie theatre. This has led to Cannes banning any Netflix film to compete in any of its competition.
I personally have my reservations about Netflix’s aversion towards a theatrical exhibition of their original feature-length films. And although I have my romantic inclination towards theatrical and communal experience, my arguments are more from the craft perspective than business. The big question in all of this is, does it really matter? As per audience, streaming is convenient, hassle free viewing of movies.
When you pay for your ticket and sit in a theatre, you commit to an unspoken contract with its makers that you will sit through the entire movie regardless of its quality. So the director knows she has you for those couple of hours, sitting at one place, in the giant dark hall. This allows the director to take her own time to tell the story.
Yes, it is convenient. But it is also, whether one like to admit it or not, an absolute passive consumption of the medium as opposed to watching a movie in a theater, where one is more actively experiencing things [Unfortunately, not always]. Needless to say, this is due to the design of the two platforms of viewing.
Now there are overt design differences like screen size and sound systems, etc. But there’s another difference that is almost always overlooked – freedom of narrative style. When you pay for your ticket and sit in a theatre, you commit to an unspoken contract with its makers that you will sit through the entire movie regardless of its quality. So the director knows she has you for those couple of hours, sitting at one place, in the giant dark hall. This allows the director to take her own time to tell the story. She can either get you right in the thick of the action from the very first shot – like in Raid  with the Police cars being monitored from the rooftops or – like in October  – slowly reveal the details of its characters for almost an hour or so for you to completely forget about the plot and get thoroughly invested in its characters.
The way the viewing experience of cinema is designed, intentionally or otherwise, allows the storyteller sometimes to build an entire film towards a single scene. Sometimes, to a single shot. It is this design of cinema viewing that has allowed movies like The Matrix, a fast-paced ‘Science-Fiction Action’ and Blade Runner 2049, a slow brewing ‘Science-Fiction Noir’ to co-exist and flourish among the world audience.
Now consider Streaming Platforms, which are just television with digital signals instead of analog. They are invested in the business of keeping the audience engaged. These services borrow this approach from Television. Largely Cable Television which has a set pattern of storytelling regardless of the genre of show.
A half an hour show is divided into four sections. Prologue or Cold Open which leads to the Titles. Then Segment 1 followed by a commercial break, Segment 2 followed by another commercial break. And then the conclusion and the end credits. In addition, every channel is competing with other channels to keep you hooked on their content and stay away from your remote control. These two things, the set show flow and the fear of remote control, compel the creators to aim at the similar narrative approach, consciously or unconsciously. So the cold open is notched up to a level that the audience would want to watch the content even when the titles are appearing. But all the segments now have to match the intensity of the cold open so that the audience stay glued to the content and don’t exercise the power of the remote control.
They are invested in the business of keeping the audience engaged. These services borrow this approach from Television. Largely Cable Television which has a set pattern of storytelling regardless of the genre of show.
Streaming services are also riddled with the same problems but instead of multiple channels, they are competing with multiple tabs on the web browser and a simple right click of the mouse. Not having a commercial break on a streaming platform is a good thing for the audience but that commercial break, at least, allowed the TV creators to have some sort cadence to the narrative flow. Whereas lack of commercial breaks means hooks have to be created at regular interval. Sometimes, every scene has to be a hook. This eventually leads to a show where the narrative intensity is turned up to eleven, resulting in narrative exhaustion.
And this is inevitable. You can’t compete against it. It isn’t the fault of creators or the audience. It is just the way the medium is designed; to be consumed not to be experienced.
And this is where Netflix is wrong with their business approach which outright undermines the theatrical exhibition. They definitely provide the convenience of watching an epic on an HD laptop screen with a low dynamic range stereo earpieces in the comfort of your bedroom. But they can never replicate the freedom of narrative flow and experience of watching the same epic on a giant 40 feet high screen with a high dynamic range sound blasting through a 7.1 surround or an Atmos sound system in a dark hall. This design of the viewing platform is what makes the audience actively get absorbed in a character struggling to win over every obstacle, instead of passively seeing the same character fight a bunch of things and win in the end.
Therefore, it is no surprise that Cannes Film Festival has been actively vocal against Netflix. So has been the English film director Christopher Nolan. To quote him, “transition starts with people offering a new choice but it finishes when the old choice is taken away”. The people at Cannes are adamant to keep the old choice available for the audience against the brute incursions of streaming services. And as things move forward with great pace, the fate of theatrical exhibition, the fate of cinema, isn’t in the hands of some corporate tycoons or a multibillion-dollar studio or any gatekeepers of cinema. It is in the hands of the audience. We will decide…whether we want to merely see a film, or truly experience it. We will decide if Cinema will live or will be buried as a dead medium.