Panic, dread, fear and anguish are not just the four mental stages the writer experiences during a meeting with an executive. They are also what cinema chain owners, studios and everyone along the distribution process are currently feeling in Hollywood. You may feel that way too when you see yet another blockbuster hammering its way to your favourite bus stop.
You may remember last year when an idea was running around that was scaring those people: the idea of a home movie service that would enable people to watch new theatrical releases from the comfort of their own home on a pay-per-view basis. Facing a fear that this would cut ticket sales -as well as popcorn and soda sales which make for a substantial part of the revenue too, let’s face it- cinema owners started panicking about the prospect of having their business model reduced to shambles. As if Netflix hadn’t done enough damage.
Well, the topic is now back on the table. Last week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings made headlines for making the claim that the movie chains hadn’t innovated in 30 years. When asked what advantages he thought they had over Netflix, he stated: “Well, the popcorn tastes better, but that's about it.” Cue gasps and press releases stating indignation at the claim.
When you take the inflammatory formulation of the statement out of the equation (come on, you must have giggled reading that), Reed Hastings makes a fair point that Netflix is extremely comfortable, and more so than putting trousers on and leaving your house on a Sunday. That’s irrefutable.
While most tend to think that Netflix is a major disruptor in the business, taking the long view of the matter may lead to thinking that we’re just noticing the tip of the iceberg. Netflix seems to have merely affected the way that films and, more generally, content, reaches audiences. Their motto when it comes to production is to create great content and make it accessible worldwide instantly: so far, they have put their money where their mouth is. They even managed to snatch Martin Scorsese’s next outing.
But that doesn’t mean much for independent filmmakers yet. Most indie films that were sold to new distribution films went to Amazon rather than Netflix. It comes from a more profound ethos of guaranteeing that new voices are heard. Granted, Grace & Frankie, a show whose two leads are women in their seventies, and whose equally senior male counterparts are gay, probably couldn’t have been a traditional television show.
Amazon, however, snatched Kenneth Lonergan’s harrowing Manchester by the Sea, and Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight. You can see the touch of Ted Hope, the veteran indie film producer who is now helming Amazon Studios. Moonlight was groundbreaking on every level. Grace & Frankie looks like an early Nancy Meyers movie.
To be clear: this isn’t a diss of Nancy Meyers (she’s awesome), just a way to expose contrast between filmmaking techniques. Let us not forget that Netflix tailors their content for your envies from all the big data they have been collecting on you since you signed up.
Most of us take for granted now that we’re going to listen to music on Spotify or Apple Music, and if we really want to buy music we’ll go on iTunes and buy digital files. Because of this a small indie band that you love could record its tunes in their drummer’s garage and upload it for the world to listen, all of that done on their laptop. It’s easy to forget how radical that notion was: upending an entire established business and opening it up to smaller players.
The movie business is going through profound changes. You can consider Netflix as the next big thing, but you can also look at it more holistically. Economic structures are changing in the Western economy, and we are undergoing an industrial revolution. Netflix is a traditional company that knows how to make the most of the new wave of digital communication technologies. It’s just like the 2008 financial crisis: you can look at it as a phenomenon in and of itself, or you can look at it as a ripple in a bigger, wider undercurrent.
Netflix and Amazon are just the bigger players in the market, and their revolution in the distribution market is taking all the attention. Screening Room, the pay-per-view home cinema service that has everyone scared, has been backed by names such as Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. It’s convenient for them to focus on the distribution side because they more or less know that their next project could be funded on a blockbuster scale if they wish.
So how does this affect us, independent filmmakers? We still have a hard time getting funded, and it’s not like we can simply knock on Netflix’s door to say “Can you give me a hundred million please?” (Always say please.)
If you’re reading this article on smartphone, you have the tools to make a film. And that should be empowering enough. It doesn’t mean anything to have groundbreaking ideas: Harry Potter would have been as brilliant a series of books if the manuscript had been discovered in an old woman’s basement after her death, it just wouldn’t have been the epic phenomenon we now know.
Netflix and Amazon haven’t figured out how to make production as simple as it could be, or as DIY as independent filmmakers are used to. And that’s where the power of independent filmmakers lie: you can shoot how you like, improve your work, put it out on social media and, if you have enough following, you can reach enough people to get noticed.
That’s for you to figure out. Hollywood is panicking because the first of many disruptors have emerged. You could be next.