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The Problem With Netflix and What Defines A Feature Film?

CinemaCon banner2CinemaCon opens this week in Las Vegas, a trade show dedicated to the business of theatrical motion picture exhibition.  One company that will not be physically there, but whose presence will surely be felt, is Netflix.  The great success of the streaming giant, along with Amazon, who are about to be joined in the coming months by direct-to-consumer services from Disney, Apple, Warner Media, and Comcast, has exhibitors worried.  They are on the defensive, fearing the elevated quality of home theaters and easy access to the latest content, will eat into their business.

Netflix LogoSo what defines a feature film?  Although we use the word “film”, it is not that it has to be acquired or displayed on celluloid; that ship has sailed.  Then perhaps, it can be defined by where it is first shown.  That is also getting to be a murky area for such films as Roma, which was acquired for distribution by Netflix.  Although it is mainly intended as a premium streaming offering, and will no doubt be seen by only a small fraction of its audience in actual theaters, Netflix did follow the Motion Picture Academy’s protocols for Oscar consideration.  In fact, it won a Best Director and Best Cinematography award for Director/DP Alfonso Cuarón, Best Foreign Language Film, and was in the running for Best Picture.

That seems to have rubbed some people the wrong way.  Steven Spielberg, for instance, is trying to prevent future contenders that debut their films with only a token theatrical release from being eligible for Academy Awards.  They want Producers to honor the “theatrical window,” the length of time a movie plays exclusively in theaters which has traditionally been at least 90 days.  Companies like Netflix are, of course, challenging that model.  Unlike theaters, they don’t have to rely on box office ticket sales to make up for expensive production and marketing costs. They can give their subscribers the content they want when they want it…Now.

Theater owners felt similarly threatened by the rise of television some half a century ago, but they survived and even thrived.  However, with the rising quality of home theaters, there is starting to be less of a viewing quality differential between the home and the shoebox size, smaller screen theaters you find in many multiplexes.  I, for one, will continue to want to share the theatrical experience with an audience in a premium theater for major motion pictures.  I have no horse in this race, but wherever the content may be premiered or displayed, the rise of so many new outlets, and their need to produce exclusive content, means lots more work for filmmakers, and I am very happy about that.