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26 February 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:45pm

Is Netflix killing cinema?

Some claim the streaming platform represents cinema’s slow death march, while others argue the backlash is simply cultural elitism from rigid cinephiles.

By Kambole Campbell

Netflix has become an object of growing unease in the film industry. A recent protest at the Berlin Film Festival and a standoff with Cannes’ film festival over release rules for Roma betrayed the film industry’s wariness of the streaming platform. For some, Netflix’s entry into cinema – with productions like Roma and Bird Box – represents the medium’s slow death march. 

For others, the Netflix backlash signals a cultural elitism voiced by rigid cinephiles. Following Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, Richard E. Grant suggested The Academy didn’t award Roma best picture because of its resistance to Netflix. The effect that Netflix’s involvement had on Roma’s Oscar chances remains speculative (unpacking Academy politics is a subject for a whole other article), but the industry’s relationship with the screening platform has become undoubtedly tense. 

These scuffles are the tip of a cinematic iceberg. Netflix’s relationship with cinema is particularly fraught in the UK; cinema chain Vue recently threatened to boycott the Baftas following Roma’s nomination. A common criticism among British cinemas is that Netflix prioritises driving new customers to its platform rather than holding cinema releases. Bafta stipulates that eligible films must be “theatrically exhibited” to a paying audience; Roma played at cinemas including the BFI Southbank and the Prince Charles. But many Netflix films won’t get widespread cinema screening – which is why some think the platform corrodes the communal spirit of cinema and the experience of watching a film on the big screen.

But it’s still reductive to label Netflix strictly “good” or a “bad” for cinema. The platform signals easier access to film. As film critics, it’s easy to take our access to new films for granted. Film on demand can democratise the medium for those unable to afford regular cinema tickets. The value of a £7.99 subscription service that provides access to several new releases outstrips that of a one-off cinema ticket. For those beyond London and other large UK cities, faced with the narrow selection of mainstream cinema chains, digital platforms can make it far easier to consume arthouse productions. 

The truth is that Netflix could be a great tool for cinema. But it’s limited by the way it treats its own content. Depending on the platform’s almighty algorithm, a new release may linger in the “hidden gems” section until you’ve scrolled sufficiently to stumble across it. This is crucial: Netflix is designed to retain viewers in an infinite loop of content, film credits barely holding the screen before autoplay strikes once again.

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Roma was a rare instance of the platform taking a risk with an atypical production. Yet the majority of Netflix content is geared towards endless scrolling. Projects like Maniac have been devised from audience data designed to hook viewers. Like junk food, the product may be addictive, but the outcome can be unsurprisingly bland. When acclaimed releases like High Flying Bird get lost in a flood of new content, it’s hard not to be concerned. 

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The best example of how on-demand screening can be integrated with the silver screen might be MUBI, which recently launched a scheme called MUBI Go at no extra cost to its regular membership (notably, the same price as Netflix’s base subscription). Members receive a free cinema ticket each week to a film chosen by the platform’s editorial team, removing a barrier that might otherwise give audiences pause before viewing a film outside of their comfort zone. 

MUBI has been buying up whatever films Netflix won’t. Unlike Netflix, the platform works with cinemas to exhibit releases simultaneously; Suspiria and Under The Silver Lake are two recent examples. MUBI’s long-term sustainability is unclear – but it should be an aspirational model for a company as large as Netflix, which has the budget to take risks. The path forward lies in realising the potential of both watching films at home and seeing them on the big screen – and striking a balance between cinephiles and newfound Netflix audiences.

Kambole Campbell is a film critic who writes for Sight and Sound, Little White Lies and Birth.Movies.Death.