Netflix v. Cinema

It is mere days away from DIFF 2017. I’m finalizing the little details of films and guests, completing various excel sheets and google docs (it is amazing how a film festival may have functioned before google docs), and trying to figure out my two-week wardrobe (packing for Dallas in spring is one of the greatest challenges of travel I believe).

The experience of showing a film in a theater with an audience has been on my mind. I’m looking forward to being with a community of film lovers and meeting filmmakers and artists; being in a room with people who are ready to discover something new or different, to experience an escape, to share a moment of fear, excitement or thrill.

That’s why this IndieWire editorial by Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas co-founder and CEO Tim League refuting Netflix CEO Reed Hasting’s recent remarks about cinema hit home for me this week. I’m posting Tim League’s full editorial below.

It’s a great reminder about why you go to the movie theater, why you see a film at a festival and why the cinema is an experience that my colleagues and I work so hard to create for both the audience and the filmmaker. Netflix is an impressive side of the film industry, but as League says, it is not cinema.

Tim League Refutes Netflix’s Reed Hastings On Movie Theater Innovation

The founder of the Alamo Drafthouse has some issues with Netflix’s Hastings saying that the movie business hasn’t innovated in the last 30 years.

Netflix. It seems like every other interview I give asks me about the “threat” of Netflix. I’ll be blunt. Netflix doesn’t concern me, and I think it is obvious after last week that the cinema industry is of no concern to Netflix either.

We are in very different businesses.

Let me define those businesses.

Netflix is in the business of growing a global customer base by being the best value proposition subscription content platform.

And they are doing a great job. Their portal is stable, intuitive, cheap and delivers plenty of great, new content every month. They also provide a fantastic financial opportunity for both emerging and veteran storytellers. I stand in awe of the audience they have built and the wealth they have amassed in such a short time.

But here’s my business: Cinema. Cinemas are in the business of offering an incredible, immersive experience that you simply cannot duplicate at home. Our job is to put on a show and provide a great value proposition for getting out of the house, turning off your phone and enjoying great stories in the best possible environment. At our best, cinemas should also be local community centers with a real, tangible relationship to their surrounding neighborhood.

Last week, Reed Hastings once again dumped on my industry. He summarized the innovation of cinema in the past 30 years by saying, “Well, the popcorn tastes better, but that’s about it.” While our industry has not shown the vision and truly game-changing innovation of Netflix, Hastings’ antagonistic approach to cinema inadvertently exposes an underlying disrespect to the creators and auteurs that drive this entire machine.

Our best and most talented, passionate filmmakers vehemently do not want their films to be viewed first and foremost on a phone, on the train to work, while checking email, while chopping vegetables for the evening meal, on mute with subtitles while rocking a baby to sleep, or while dozing off before bed. The reality is, most Netflix content is being “consumed” in a less-than-ideal environment.

Great filmmakers create content to share their fully realized creations in a cinema with full, rich sound; bright, crisp picture and a respectful audience whose full attention is on the screen. And because of that, when courting filmmakers young and old to create content for their platform, I wish Netflix would consider the relationship with cinemas built by Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Showtime and Epix.

They all believe in cinemas as meaningful partners. They also respect those filmmakers who want meaningful theatrical engagements for their films. They believe in the promotional partnership that successful theatrical engagements can give to word of mouth, awards consideration, brand loyalty and ultimately maximized financial returns.

Amazon, for example, will be at CinemaCon next week building and strengthening their relationship with cinemas instead of tearing it down the week before.

I got into this business because I love movies. I hold the cinematic experience to be sacred, wonderful and these days even therapeutic.  I love the shared communal experience and the charged conversations I have after watching a movie in a cinema. I want to forge relationships with companies who truly love movies, too.

I do not believe that cinemas are owed or grandfathered into an exclusive window before movies are offered ostensibly for free on platforms such as Netflix. I contend that cinemas have earned, and must continue to earn, an exclusive window by providing the experience that directors desire as well as providing a significant financial benefit to producers and financiers.

To close, I’ll offer my flippant counter, as I was asked specifically to respond to Hastings’ remarks of last week. Until a meaningful relationship is forged with cinemas, Netflix is not making “movies.” They are instead funding exclusive-access commodities that help grow their subscriber base.

In “Lost in America,” Albert Brooks told his wife, after she lost their entire savings at the roulette wheel in Vegas, that she no longer had the right to use the term nest egg.

“Do me a favor,” he said. “Don’t use the word ‘nest egg’. You may not use that word. It’s off limits to you! Only those in this house who understand nest egg may use it! And don’t use any part of it, either. Don’t use ‘nest.’ Don’t use ‘egg.’ You’re out in the forest you can point, ‘The bird lives in a round stick.’ And you have ‘things’ over easy with toast!”

I, for one, would welcome the dialogue to forge a meaningful partnership for theatrical exhibition and promotion of select Netflix productions, but until we have that, I consider the term “movie” to be their “nest egg.”

But even as I pen this probably unjustifiably snarky retort, I will acknowledge some underlying truth to Reed Hastings’ words. We do, as an industry, need to invest in innovation. Cinema’s primary threat today is not Netflix; it is ourselves. We must continue to maintain high exhibition standards, invest in new sound and picture technology, improve the digital experience for our guests, develop innovative ways to delight our guests and ensure that we live up to our one job – make going to the cinema an amazing experience.

If we do that, we should be able to look back on another thirty years of limited innovation to our core product and say, “Job well done, we didn’t screw up what has always been and remains great about the cinema: the show itself.”

What do you think of his comments? Let me know in the comments!

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About this historic week…

I don’t know about you, but the past week has been rough.

I spent the 2008 and 2012 Election Nights in Los Angeles at AFI FEST (which is happening now by the way). In 2008 I was still living in Texas and was away from home for the evening. In 2012, I had moved to California four months earlier. Each night was different, but they were memorable. Los Angeles felt alive. Watching the results with fellow art and film lovers was the best place for me to be.

Watching Tuesday’s results surrounded by Denver staff and patrons started with the same mood, but as the night wore on the room became somber and quiet. I texted friends and family as each state’s prediction rolled in. At some point I couldn’t hold back my tears any more. A feeling of deep dread and loneliness sunk in. I found Britta and we hugged and cried.

The next morning, I wondered if audiences would show up. Thankfully they did. My eyes puffy and red from hours of crying, I stood in front of a room full of Denver locals who bought a ticket to see short films. It was a sliver of restored hope. I wanted to be in a movie theater that day to see stories about diversity and overcoming struggles. They did too.

Being in a theater that day wasn’t about avoiding an issue or the situation. It was about remembering who we are; remembering humanity, respect and love. I love curating films because it sparks conversation. And now more than ever we need to communicate with each other, to listen. Not point figures or walk away. Cinema and art are a tool for respectful dialogue. The films created out of this dark moment in our culture will be powerful and that brings me hope.

Wednesday night I stood in the wings of the theater for all 90 minutes to watch the short films again with the audience. This was a place of community and inspiration. It was where I needed to be. I grieved for the dreams I had before Tuesday night as each short played. I remembered how important my part is in a larger movement. I’m so thankful to have been working at a film festival this week.  We may not be curing cancer (which is what us veterans say when problems occur during the event), but we are making a difference in promoting and showcasing art.

To any filmmakers reading this, I am so excited for how this week will inspire you. Use this energy to make something special. Use your unique voice is important. And if you’re from the city, explore the stories of rural areas. (Lord knows there are plenty of LA-based stories out there already.) If you’re from the country, visit the city and see the diversity.  Our country is desperate for change and we all feel abandoned in some sort of way. Now is the time for film to create community and conversation, so let’s get to work.