Have you ever walked into a book store and thought, “Man, they’re printing too many books. How can all of these books compete for the attention of readers? Why, some publishers are putting out DOZENS UPON DOZENS of books a year!”
Of course you haven’t. And yet an article on The Ringer – “Netflix and Shill” – bemoans the fact that Netflix has already released 25 original movies this year, and that most of them sink without a trace. Deservedly, it seems. The argument is that Netflix, by inundating the market with these films on their service, is ruining movies and the moviegoing experience, etc etc. You should read the piece, it’s well written.
Now you’ll say, “Look, movies and books are different. You can’t compare the two.” And you’re right, more or less – they have different price points, different production methods, different economic models, different distribution methods, and they’re each consumed in different ways. (Maybe I should just end this essay right there) But it seems like the dismay about Netflix’s model is actually an echo of a continuing cycle of technophobia that goes all the way back to the transition from the oral tradition to the written word.
The teachings of the Buddha were not written down in his lifetime. In fact, they weren’t written down for centuries after his death. It wasn’t that the people didn’t have writing – Buddhist monks of the time were likely literate – but rather that there was a belief in the oral transmission of the teachings. Monks would get together and memorize and chant the suttas, keeping the teachings alive for 200 years. That was when they were finally written down.
This reminds me a lot of our modern belief that moviegoing should happen in one ideal way, that we should go see a movie in a theater. I love going to the movies, and I do think it’s the best way to see a movie. I always prefer to see a movie on the big screen with a good audience. I get where the ancient Buddhists were coming from – it’s not just about seeing the movie/reading the sutta, it’s about the community and the experience. There’s stuff outside the content that elevates it all to another level.
Going from oral tradition to a written canon was a big technological change. It happened two thousand years ago but there are STILL Zen folks who argue that oral transmission is the best and that reading the suttas and commentary is secondary. But for the rest of us, we’ve moved past the oral tradition. We’re happy that someone wrote down Homer’s poems; maybe the experience of THE ODYSSEY was better when heard, live, in the ancient Greek, but we’re happy to enjoy it the way we have it.
Then came printing. That was the next disruptive technology. Some people were really against that as well, as it devalued the work of scribes who hand wrote books, and it spread information to people who previously were dependent upon their ‘betters’ for learning. Check this link – the arguments this guy makes in the 15th century are really similar to the arguments we make today about ALL digital distribution, mainly a sadness to see a special artifact being made less special.
The printing press changed everything – before that only the rich had books, and so only the rich were literate. What had been a fairly controlled world of literature – when every book had to be hand copied only so many books could be produced at a time – exploded and all of a sudden all kinds of people were writing all kinds of things. What had been a carefully curated garden now became a messy, chaotic, lively forest.
Today I own more books that I haven’t even opened than an average person would have HANDLED five hundred years ago. I have, over the course of my life, owned enough books to rival the libraries of some scholars in the fifteenth century. I bought a lot of them for like a dollar. This is a really big change from the days when people gathered around a storyteller to hear a carefully memorized tale being spun by firelight. I think it’s better; yes, we’ve lost the human connection and the performance, but I have more access to information and ideas and learning than my wisest ancestor a millennia ago.
This, to me, seems very similar to the arc along with the movies are progressing technologically. Ignoring the medium’s debut as nickelodeons – the ultimate solitary viewing experience – we are seeing a communal information technology becoming more and more personal. There are trade offs and there are things lost in the transition, but it seems to me that there are also incredible upsides. As someone who remembers how hard it was to see movies you wanted to see in the early days of VHS, the availability of so many foundational and classic films on streaming is astonishing.
So I think the technological evolution of movie delivery systems is mostly a good thing. I love the theatrical experience, and I think it will always exist, just as we still have spoken word performances today. I think that theatrical exhibition will, for the next few decades, remain fairly mainstream, unlike spoken word performances. But now we’re in the Gutenberg phase of the technological life cycle of the movies, and the question isn’t ‘Is this good or bad’ it’s ‘How do we make the best of this?’
Look, change is inevitable. Moviegoing has been changing since my grandparents were children, back in the day when everybody went to the movies every single week because there was nothing else to do. That has changed; what was once a central part of the social calendar has evolved to be more of a ‘night out’ event (with prices increasing commensurately). Now it’s changing again, and that change is to reverse the narrowing of the moviegoing experience (that narrowing is real. Look at the movie listings for your city from fifty or sixty years ago. Marvel at how many more movie theaters, showing how many more diverse films, there were in the past). Now movies are going wide again, as the choke point to their distribution has been cleared.
This has been happening for a while. The choke point to production was cleared a decade ago, already leading to a glut of feature films on the festival circuit. Ask Manohla Dargis, who wrote plaintively a few years ago about how there are now TOO MANY movies playing in New York City, and how the New York Times was forced to change its review policy, which once had them reviewing literally every film that played in a NYC theater. So it isn’t like Netflix is causing this glut (and in fact many of its ‘originals’ are movies it’s buying on the festival circuit).
The Ringer article points out how many of the Netflix movies released this year are no good. That’s a no duh proposition, in my opinion. Sturgeon’s Law is in full effect here – 90% of everything is crap – and it only seems shocking because the theatrical release choke points were so severe that even the crap that was hitting theaters was largely high end crap. I’m not sure if Sean Fennessy of The Ringer has done many festivals, especially regional ones. If he did he might have more favorable opinions about the quality of Netflix’s films. There are A LOT of garbage movies floating around out there in the universe.
When the printing press democratized literature it opened the door for thousands upon thousands of pieces of shit to be published and distributed. Yet we don’t look at the advent of the printing press as the end of literature; if anything it’s after the printing press that literature truly takes off. Today that democratization is continuing, as the internet and e-publishing removes the last remaining barriers between everyone and publication. Is a lot of shit getting published? For sure! But there are also voice being heard that never would have been heard before.
The printing press forced people to learn how to deal with an influx of new information, and today we live in a world where we understand that thousands of books are published every year that we will never know about. I was looking at the large print romance section of my local library and let me tell you that is a WILD ecosystem all its own. And that’s really cool! People are finding things that speak to them, and they have access to it.
So now we’re faced with the same thing. We can wring our hands and complain about how overwhelming it is, or how things aren’t the way they used to be. Or we can look at this new influx of movies and rub our hands together, ready for the challenge of finding a new way to discover and share the gems amid the dross. Too often I see people complaining about how Netflix buries movies in its UI, or how hard it is to find something good, and what I hear is an abdication of responsibility. Just as the digital world has broken the choke points for creation and delivery of movies, so has it broken the choke point for recommendation. It’s up to us to get out there and tell people about the stuff we have discovered and liked.
And get this: this is how it used to be. Before the internet, before every weekend was a battle between only two blockbusters opening in every theater at once, before algorithms that recommended things to you, we used to find things and then share them with like-minded people. We used to have to hunt for things, we used to dig through record crates and go through the dusty shelves of video stores. We used to read about movies in magazines and have to hunt them down. We used to have word of mouth. And there was a thrill in all of that. Weirdly, the world of on-demand movies and instant availability is opening the door to a return of that kind of culture, one where discovering something of quality is truly a joy, and part of the whole experience.
Now, more than ever, film criticism is important. And yet so many who practice it seem less interested in spreading the word of what is good and where to find it, and more interested in posturing about their tastes and snobbery. That’s a whole different essay, but I remain shocked that at the moment when film critics can be most helpful to a public trying to find quality streaming stuff all they do is sniff about how Netflix movies shouldn’t be considered movies.
The movies are being redefined all around us. We can complain and fight the change (we will lose), or we can figure out how to not only make the best of it, but also how to guide the changes towards the better. The old ways won’t last, and the landscape will change, no matter what. The old ways are ending because all that arises will eventually cease. Accept that this is how things are, and from there the path to how to make things better will become apparent. That applies to your life, and it applies to the production and distribution of movies.