Netflix Killed the Movie Star

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Netflix recently announced a major deal with Adam Sandler to release four movies on its streaming platforms the same day as its big-screen premiere. In light of the announcement, of which I am particularly enamored (read with sarcasm), I wanted to analyze the implications of the deal, but not before I take a few shots at Sandler first…

French author François de La Rochefoucauld once wrote, “The only thing constant in life is change,” but he was wrong. Adam Sandler movies suck, and that, my friends, is a constant.

Okay, so Punch Drunk Love was pretty good, but anything Paul Thomas Anderson directs is pretty good. The guy could film Joaquin Phoenix eating Cap’n Crunch for an hour and it would be mesmerizing. Leave Sandler to his own devices, on the other hand, and you get Jack and Jill. When Al Pacino’s shameless Dunkin’ Donuts promotion is the highlight of the movie, that’s saying something. And it’s not good. We’re talking about Al “Michael Corleone Can No Longer Act His Way Out Of A Paper Bag” Pacino.

You want the honest assessment of those four Adam Sandler movies, well ahead of their release? They suck. And even though I haven’t seen them yet, my assessment will prove to be correct. Sandler is going to give us what we know he’s going to give us: Two hours of scatological humor, boob jokes, nonexistent and/or unengaging and generic plotlines, and superfluous appearances by Rob Schneider (A.K.A. that unfunny guy nobody likes).

Netflix has indeed given us a deal that it would seem nobody would, could, or should want. But take away his few box office bombs, including this year’s Blended, and what do we see? Over time, no matter how dreadful his movies have gotten, audiences have asked for more, with their wallets. We are talking about a guy who has made some of the worst movies EVER but has still grossed almost $4 billion thus far in his career. It’s a financially savvy deal, but is it good for anyone except the parties involved?

Sandler’s movies are always bad for the art of cinema. They feed the insatiable hunger of a consumer asking for movies that render art a sleazy, unfunny, lazy, sexist product. They perpetuate a corporatism inherent in the film industry, under which perfectly good scripts are perverted and churned out as homogenized—yet decidedly profitable—garbage.

The works of Stanley Kubrick should not be relegated to the digital confines of a space they will share with YouTube clips like “WATCH THIS WITHOUT LAUGHING”

Netflix knows that, but it does not worry about Sandler’s garbage so much as it does about the profitability thereof. We are talking about Netflix, the great purveyor of such seminal classics as Titanic II (most certainly not a James Cameron production) and Hobo with a Shotgun (you’ll want to read the book first). Netflix doesn’t offer these movies because they won Oscars; it offers them because someone out there is watching them… A lot of someones.

Sandler has made $4 billion at the box office. If Titanic II is profitable garbage, Sandler’s movies (and let it be abundantly clear that there is a clear distinction to be drawn between a movie and a film) constitute some of the most profitable garbage in the world.

It’s bad for movies for another reason, though. In all of this discussion, what is too often left out is the central debate, regarding the digitization of film. In this case, there are those who stand on the side of digitizing, including numerous directors like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. On the other side, you have people pushing for digitization, and further, for the proliferation of online movie-streaming sites (be they legal or illegal).

The Pirate Bay, just one of those sites, has been in operation since 2003, designed to provide access to copyrighted materials—in this case, TV shows and movies—at an affordable cost. Theirs might seem like a noble effort, especially since Warner Brothers doesn’t necessarily need the $10 you save by watching The Dark Knight online, but $10 is a loss if multiplied by the millions who choose to illegally download on a global scale. And while arguing in favor of Warner Brothers isn’t going to win anyone over, another question remains: even if some would contend that The Pirate Bay is simply a champion of the freedom of information, is stealing ever right?

The late Mark Poster in Information Please argues that illegal downloading does not constitute theft, only replication: “When the CD is taken from the store, the store no longer has it; when the file is downloaded, the person sharing the file still has it” (189). Here’s where he’s wrong, though: Yes, the content itself has been merely replicated, but such an argument presupposes theft occurs without the loss of profit. The action of stealing may now occur in a different context and form—as copying—but the profit is still lost. Theft isn’t about the action so much as the ramifications. Illegal downloading is indeed stealing.

Illegal downloading is not necessarily the central issue in this discussion, though it plays a role. Anyone who prefers illegal downloading to the payment of Netflix’s obligatory monthly subscription rate stands on a side of digitization that advocates for the transferral of film away from the realm of “IRL” tangibility and into the digital sphere. Netflix is on that side, too. That’s how it makes its money.

I am not on that side, and it is not simply out of some blind loyalty to the Hollywood corporations that oversee the movie industry. The problem with digitization is that it steadily chips away at the viability of film in the sense of theater-going. Oh great, you say to yourself, he’s the kind of idiot who pays $10 to go see a movie on a big screen.

Imagine explaining to your children what a movie theater was, even what an art museum was.

Yes, I am that kind of idiot, an unrepentant one at that. I firmly believe that art should be viewed as it is intended to be viewed. You probably don’t spend hours analyzing the art of Edvard Munch on Google, and if you do, you probably understand that it hardly begins to do justice to the experience of seeing his work on exhibit. You also probably don’t watch concert footage on YouTube, but if you do, you realize it pales in comparison to how you would have felt had you been there. Digital replication of art is just that—a replication. In no way can it be a substitute, even if its cost is preferable.

2001: A Space Odyssey was not meant to be viewed on an iPhone. Doing so removes from the art of cinema its sense of grandeur and the notion that this is truly something special, something beautiful, something awesome. The works of Stanley Kubrick should not be relegated to the digital confines of a space they will share with YouTube clips like “WATCH THIS WITHOUT LAUGHING” (which you inevitably watch without laughing).

If you think I’m taking a purely pro-corporate stance, think again. This debate is not so black-and-white. In a masterful—if perhaps excessively optimistic—editorial published in the Wall Street Journal, director Christopher Nolan discusses the corporate-led efforts to digitize film. While Hollywood attempts to digitize for the sake of minimizing expenditures and thereby augmenting profits, its savings will be trivial. “The real prize the corporations see,” Nolan writes, “is the flexibility of a nonphysical medium.”

Corporations are moving towards digitization not to put forth more digital-based works in theaters, but rather to move away from cineplexes, creating what Quentin Tarantino calls “television in public.” The film industry’s growth in the next decade—likely at a rate of 5% annually—will be led by electronic home video. Theater revenues are projected to stagnate.

Why would anyone oppose the stagnation of theater revenues? Why not celebrate the demise of an enterprise that asks $10 to see an image projected on a big screen and $8 for a 90-cent bucket of popcorn? Unlike Nolan, I see a demise of the theater in the not-so-distant future. Sure, with the progression of technological capabilities and the eschewing of formal standards in the industry, film may evolve to a point at which it can be anything at all, stretching the limits of current human imagination, but how does that ensure the survival of the theater? It doesn’t. Because as much as the theater can evolve to reel consumers in (see what I did there?), home entertainment can evolve at the same rate. In fact, in the past several decades, it has evolved exponentially faster.

The question is: who cares? For Netflix subscribers, why not be okay with its deal with Sandler, as well as its deal for the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel? At least the latter will be somewhat good. Netflix leaves hundreds upon hundreds of TV shows and movies at a user’s disposal, for only $8.99 a month. Why go back to paying $10 a person to see one?

For illegal downloaders, why not just keep watching low-quality, pirated Putlocker movies? Why not pay $0 to download a movie illegally, saving yourself the trip to the theater and the cost you would inevitably incur? It just makes sense to go the illegal route.

Nobody expects that arguing in favor of corporations will be remotely persuasive, and that isn’t the point. The point is that the theater is dying, and whether or not we recognize it now, that’s something to lament. Want to go to a drive-in theater? Good luck. They’re already all but completely gone, unless you can find the handful spread thinly across the map of the United States. Imagine a future in which our current methods of viewing art, in the manner in which it is intended to be viewed, die out. Imagine explaining to your children what a movie theater was, even what an art museum was.

When we put personal savings ahead of the dignity of an art, we get deals like the one Netflix made with Sandler, which reflects an increasing emphasis on digitization and streaming as the theater slowly trudges on towards extinction. And to illegal downloaders, you may evade the risk of being beholden to corporate influence, be it from Netflix or from massive conglomerates that profit from theater revenues, but you too contribute to the demise of an art form in its purest, most authentic, most majestic form, stealing content in a vain attempt to strike back at the corporations that nonetheless batten down the hatches and choose to strike back at consumers even harder.

I hate—with a capital H, A, T and E—the Marvel movies (okay, Guardians of the Galaxy was decent, though I’m not sure there’s any non-guardian in this galaxy who can explain the plot to me cohesively and completely). I think movies like The Avengers, which was universally hailed by critics as one of the top movies of 2012, lower the bar for quality entertainment and whet the consumer’s appetite for explosion-laced, story-devoid trash, replete with fantastical, nonexistent macguffins that leave nearly nothing at stake but the universe, which is awfully overdone. But I thank Marvel for one reason: It attracts droves of moviegoers (Indeed, the company may be largely to thank for any marginal increases in ticket sales over the past five years). And while those moviegoers may be wasting their money on predictable dreck and lame villains, they are rediscovering the magic of movies, seen as they are meant to be seen, on a big screen in a communal setting.

In the end, that’s what it boils down to. That’s the point. The feeling of sitting in a crowded theater, laughing with other people, crying with other people, cheering with other people, taking in the wondrous magic that is cinema in its grandest form… that can’t be replicated. It never will be. Not by an iPhone, not by a laptop, not by a TV with surround sound and all the extra trimmings, and most certainly not by illegal downloading sites or Netflix.

Netflix has won. By signing a deal with Adam Sandler, it cements the inevitability of an outcome we knew we would one day face. The theater is on the way out, and as more movies migrate to at-home streaming mediums, its death will be merely expedited. You say I’m a pessimist, and you’re right. But my argument is nothing but math and some common sense. Theaters can’t operate without revenues, and revenues aren’t generated without clients. Even with the help of Marvel and a few blockbusters here and there, there simply aren’t enough clients. Take away the clients who are hungry for Oscar-worthy entertainment, and you have even less of a constituency.

Cinema isn’t dead, but it will be if you bludgeon it with enough of this.

My predictions are bleak, but in the end, pessimism is just the philosophical term for realism.

And I’ll be honest, I threw out that reference, but I haven’t even seen True Detective. I probably won’t. Because in the words of Christopher Nolan when asked if he would direct a miniseries on TV: “I like movies. Movies are great.”

They certainly are.

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