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Hurrah Netflix, long live cinema

Netflix, Amazon and other streaming platforms have moved to producing and distributing stories from being purely technology companies. Photo: Reuters
Netflix, Amazon and other streaming platforms have moved to producing and distributing stories from being purely technology companies. Photo: Reuters

The news came on the morning of 21 June. Daniel Day-Lewis has retired from acting. That evening, just as an intimate experiment, I watched There Will Be Blood on my smartphone. I wish I hadn’t. 

The bow-legged and drawly miner Daniel Plainview was like a distorted puppet—muttering and hamming. The actor’s stylized craft, which he has used differently for each of his roles, as most great method actors do, looked ridiculous. The mountainous landscape which director Paul Thomas Anderson imbued with a subtle savagery looked puny. 

Andersonian artistry on a standard-sized smartphone? Epic fail. 

The actor was mesmeric on the big screen, directed by many great directors such as Anderson, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. Unless he changes for the intimate and solitary Netflix viewing experience, or for the CGI-enhanced, thrilling sensorial delight of the tent-pole productions of Hollywood, someone like Day-Lewis is an anomaly in today’s film hierarchy. His retirement, most likely for reasons other than this, comes after Scorsese and Ridley Scott, another master of the sweeping real-time shot, said in different interviews late last year that cinema was dead. 

They could be wrong. But big screen rigour, unhinged by CGI and post-production wizardry, which coalesces cinematography, sound engineering and production design for a cinema moment or sequence, is sinking towards relicdom. 

Think Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Mani Ratnam. Think Baz Luhrmann and Tim Burton. And many others, including Anderson, Spielberg and Scorsese, of course. They are masters of overemphasis—some to melodramatic effect, like Bhansali and Luhrmann, some just for the dramatic inflation of moments and scenes for impact, the visual equivalent of a suspended release tablet. 

It is a strictly non-European language and Spielberg is its supreme artiste. He explores the dramatic moment to its fullest potential, his camera never shies away from big sweeps and bold movements, from the wide to the close-up. In the best cinema experience, the movement and the verbosity don’t seem trite. The micro screen, on the other hand, is most conducive for the close-up, and for talk. One would assume indie never had it better than now. Purism can be the last refuge of the tech-laggard. 

These are exciting times, with a vibrant film democracy out there. For the internet-literate, still a small percentage of the population here, downloading a film has been an option for many years (most of the times illegally), but now we are into the formal age of film on the go. 

Netflix is an inexhaustible buffet. The various series it is best known for are made with the production heft of films, and are meant really to be a film broken down into seasons and episodes. America has pioneered the small screen film. Remember The Sopranos? That was the tip of the iceberg. 

Netflix, Amazon and other streaming platforms have moved to producing and distributing stories—or what now goes under the umbrella term of “content”—from being purely technology companies. 

The moving visual of cinema, from being communal, has become an intensely solitary experience. It requires us to see anew, and see alone. It is me, my screen, my headphones and the story, hook after hook after hook of episodic transition. We are almost running out of the option of flexing the muscles of our cinema memories to like or dislike a film. It is a new template.

A lot of us in India are tuning in. With the launch of Reliance Jio last year, streaming of online entertainment is at an all-time high. The recently published Mary Meeker Internet Trends Report 2017 has many insights on Indian internet behaviour this year: Internet penetration is still at 27%, but 80% of all web traffic comes from mobile devices, and 45% of the time users spend on mobiles goes towards entertainment, ahead of search and messaging. 

But all filmmakers, all actors, and some of us who can’t live without the spell of the big gleaming screen inside a dark theatre, know a film is not really a film if it premieres online. 

A personal disclaimer: I say this after having learnt to make the internet serviceable to me instead of being a slave to it. 

Three years ago, trips to the movie theatre became less frequent than weekly, after many years of watching mostly bad Hindi movies every week to do my job as a film reviewer for Mint

I needed a break from the painful multiplex experience—for Rs300-and-above ticket prices, our theatres screen more than half-an-hour of ads, including a grotesque, preachy and long social service ad on smoking, and obligatory national anthem videos, during which, if I am not standing, I could be in jail. 

But I still couldn’t resist going to the theatres; every other week, I made time for The Movies. Then came the home revolution. Netflix satisfied my appetite for gripping visual fiction like no other medium ever had. The love turned obsessive and unhealthy pretty soon. About three months ago, I went on a self-imposed Netflix detox; the spinal cord had started making stiff protests. Meanwhile, films like DangalMasaanKapoor & SonsUdta PunjabA Death in the Gunj and other Bollywood and Hollywood films kept my love affair with cinema afire. 

But that is me, the consumer. Besides the sensorially diminished experience, Netflix or Amazon can be the end of visibility for a filmmaker. Unless it’s their own production, online streaming platforms are just another source of revenue for a producer to “recover”. 

Manish Mundra, founder of Drishyam Films, known for an array of low-budget, acclaimed films including Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015), Anu Menon’s Waiting (2016) and Amit Masurkar’s Newton, which releases on 18 August, says, “For a film’s life after it is complete, a theatrical release is still extremely important. Every step, including a film’s marketing, its distribution and post-release satellite rights sell and now the online streaming partner have to be in place. But it is not easy for a film to get into Netflix. You have had to make a splash either commercially or in terms of critical acclaim to have negotiating power with something like a Netflix.” 

Kamal Gianchandani, CEO of PVR Pictures, says the price of selling the licensing rights of a film to any online streaming platform is a small part of the revenue for a studio or producer, much smaller than the television rights. 

Once sold, a film moves into the giant repository of Netflix or Amazon. On Netflix, all films get a three-line descriptor and a small thumbs-up or thumbs-down symbol, which has replaced the ratings system it launched with. The producer and filmmaker sell the film’s license for a one-time deal, the rewards from it lasting for a maximum of a year, through quarterly payments. 

So far, there is no way of knowing who and how many people have watched the film; Netflix or Amazon do not reveal traffic figures, even to the producer or filmmaker. “If you see a film being promoted on the site you know it is doing well, and usually a film is already big before it is on Netflix to attract viewers,” says Mundra. 

Theatre chains, especially in America, are feeling the threat, which does not really help the cause of cinema. I am neutral to this war—an impossible position to have in the increasingly polarized world we live in. Is it crazy to hope Netflix series and films will also release in theatres one day? I definitely want to watch the one Scorsese is making for Netflix both on my laptop and the big screen. 

Earlier this year, the National Association of Theatre Owners in America expressed ire when Netflix violated the traditional release window model for producers—of letting a film debut in theatres months before they stream online or go on what used to be once called “home video”. 

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said at a press conference that the film-going experience is ripe for destruction: “How did distribution innovate in the movie business in the last 30 years? Well, the popcorn tastes better, but that’s about it.” 

At the Cannes Film Festival this year, the French were vindictive. After including two Netflix titles, Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories and Boon Joon-ho’s Okja, in the competition section, the festival committee announced at the last minute that starting next year, they would ban any film which does not have a French theatrical release from competition.

The New York Times reported, “At the heart of the Cannes-Netflix clash is what’s known as the French cultural exception, a law that requires a percentage of all box office, DVD, video on demand, television and streaming revenues to be pooled to finance homegrown films and help finance foreign films. The law also mandates a 36-month delay between theatrical release and streaming date. Netflix has not wanted to participate in the French system, and that offended some in the film industry here.” 

Christophe Tardieu, director of the National Cinema Center in Paris, said this about Netflix: “They are the perfect representation of American cultural imperialism.” The director is no less an imperialist, but as my grandfather would say, who’s to argue with the French about culture?

The Hindi film world is doing what it does best when required to find new direction: follow Hollywood’s path. While the newly-launched online platforms for entertainment struggle to find languages, ideas and genres unique to India and entirely different from television soaps and Bollywood formula, all film producers now have an online streaming partner before a film is released in theatres. 

Talking to a number of producers and studio heads, I got the sense that they are even more wary of spending on the promotion and marketing of the small or mid-sized film, now that there is at least the assumption that the film has an online life—a life that has no fixed trajectory but that has the promise of reaching out to an elite international audience. 

That is a tragic shortcut in a film culture and industry that has not had resources to nurture the small film with radical ideas and stories in a sustained way like America or Europe has for most of the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s. A small-budget, hatke film in India is always a risk because there is no infrastructure or plan to make sure it succeeds. 

Big producers are moving towards the tent pole after the success of Baahubali 1 and 2, and after Hollywood biggies started making money in Indian theatres in the last two years. “There is definite excitement about the tent-pole movie. That seems to be the direction in which Indian film producers are thinking at least because there is the sense that nobody wants to go to the movie theatre anymore unless you give them a great story told so spectacularly that only a 3D experience at the theatre can justify,” says Gianchandani. 

Director Akbar Khan has announced a film on Ghenghis Khan with Indian, Chinese and Turkish actors that is expected to go on the floors in October. A trilingual, three-part, 3D live-action Ramayana was announced earlier this year with a budget of Rs500 crore, to be produced, reportedly, by Madhu Mantena, Allu Aravind and Namit Malhotra. News about the Rs1,000 crore Mahabharata with Mohanlal in the lead role of Bheem continues to trickle in. 

For big names, web “content” mania also is great news. 

Recently, Brad Pitt was in Mumbai to promote his Netflix debut War Machine based on, a pseudo-satire  Michael Hastings’s book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan. It is a strange mishmash of a film, and anybody with minimal knowledge of Pitt’s filmography will realize he gave it short shrift. 

He tackles the lead, a general nicknamed “Glenimal”, without obvious relish, summoning a jarring combination of tricks that worked in his roles in Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) and Fury (David Ayer, 2014)—most noticeably a raspy drawl and boring, sedate contrasts to it. 

But unlike the confused Glenimal, he was even-toned and earnest at an interview with critic Rajeev Masand in Mumbai, alongside our badshah Shah Rukh Khan.

Both men spent considerable air time talking about the future of cinema. They said Netflix and its rivals are altering the way the world consumes the moving visual image—and how that propels screenwriting that Hollywood or Bollywood can’t or won’t risk. True. (Hearteningly, neither used the word “content” to describe fiction that the internet streams for a minimal subscription). 

Pitt’s was that rare promotional tour for a Netflix original outside of America. As one of its producers, Pitt, of course, has personal stake in War Machine. You would expect him to spend money to promote it aggressively. At the sit-down question-answer session in which director David Michod also made a meaningful appearance, Pitt tried to sound convinced about doing something important to stay relevant. 

As for Khan, the focus is on upping his own digital stature. Earlier this year, Khan’s production company Red Chillies Entertainment signed a deal with Netflix to release his films, starting with the latest, Dear Zindagi—a commercially successful film, fetching more than Rs50 crore on the first weekend, that released in theatres in November 2016. 

For matinee idols and stars like Pitt and Khan, the internet streaming platform is hardly revolutionary. Netflix can’t reinvent a Shah Rukh Khan. It can’t relaunch a Brad Pitt for the internet. What it can do is widen their reach, perhaps by a few million. If they are in a Netflix original, Netflix would use its own promotional machinery to tap into the fan base of billions that these two megastars have garnered over years. 

Between the two extremes—tent pole and online streaming—is cinema conceived and shot in real time keeping just the big screen in mind? The cinema that Daniel Day-Lewis lit up with limps and incantations, that Sanjay Leela Bhansali, among others in India, pursues with methodic madness? 

In this age of Netflix neutrality, I will hold on to that cinema till I can. The wizard who does not know if all that money and madness will really produce the magic—some of us will have to buy tickets for him.

Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer and critic, and a former editor of Mint Lounge.

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