The smart money these days is on Netflix, as both a growing, deep-pocketed agent in the television and movie industry and an attractive new model for how this entertainment can and will be consumed. What started as a mail-order service for movies and some television shows on DVD is now a primarily digital venue for streaming some of the most popular television. It offers movies too, of course, but as far as their quality, The Onion said it best last year with the headline, “Netflix Instant Thinking About Adding Good Movie.” Consider the tendency for movies, especially old ones, to just vanish from the service as TV new and old, from House of Cards to Friends, colonizes the most valuable real estate on its homepage, and we can conclude that Netflix has its own smart money on television rather than movies.
That’s an image Netflix is working to change. This fall, Netflix plans to premiere AAA films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II and Cary Fukunaga’s war drama Beasts of No Nation the same day they open in select theaters. Chances are you will know full well that Beasts of No Nation is available to stream if you load Netflix around the time of its debut. It’s likely that it, like this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga, will have a prominent “Netflix Original” logo over its home page banner ad, or some other graphic claim to ownership that can be easily, imperceptibly mistaken for authorship.
But Netflix is not making Beasts of No Nation. Fukunaga has written and directed the film via Participant Media and Red Crown Productions. Netflix bought the rights for day-and-date streaming, but it has no more claim to authoring the film or the Crouching Tiger sequel or Virunga than Fox Searchlight Pictures has for The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Tree of Life, both of which it distributed.
Do you refer to The Grand Budapest Hotel as Wes Anderson’s film, and The Tree of Life as Terrence Malick’s? I do, even if I still wish to stress that Ralph Fiennes and production designer Adam Stockhausen contributed much to the first film, as Jessica Chastain and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki did to the second. But as a cinephile and film student, I prescribe to the auteur theory, which holds the director as the primary author of any given film (even, crucially, the supposed trash). I would gather many people passionate about movies, whether or not they call themselves “cinephiles” (even I hear that word and think “doesn’t get much sun”), prescribe to a general belief in the auteur theory. The Oscars reinforce it — since 1990, 19 of 25 Best Picture winners also claimed Best Director — and the living legend status of someone like Martin Scorsese shows that we recognize and value the voice behind the camera, especially when it’s as open to caricature as his.
For the longest time, the auteur theory has evaded television. Showrunners like Mad Men’s Matt Weiner claim authorial primacy, with their dual head writer and executive producer credits, though premium networks like HBO and Cinemax have lately challenged that notion by hiring distinctive directors like Fukunaga and Steven Soderbergh for full seasons of True Detective and The Knick, respectively. Networks also retain greater visibility than movie studios because they have commercials, watermarks and password-protected streaming platforms to burn into your brain that, hey, this is an AMC (or NBC or HBO) show. Studios get a trumpet fanfare or roaring lion at the beginning, but they all have to share the same theaters, which have their own pre-movie promos to blast their brands and coax you into buying $8.95 tubs of popcorn. Both studios and theaters, however, tend to shut up once the lights dim and let the movie just be its own immersive thing.
Netflix has capitalized on its unprecedented hybrid status — part viewing platform, part big-money financier, part library — to disrupt these rules. But does it fulfill all those roles satisfactorily, or place too much emphasis on one over the others? As a platform, Netflix’s image quality has improved alongside our wireless routers, so there’s little room to complain there. But why have Netflix’s recent spectacles of checkbook-signing been accompanied by a remarkably inconsistent, waning library? Is all this money really going to Adam Sandler and not to securing Woody Allen’s filmography for more than a few months at a time, to say nothing of classics and hidden gems made before 1980?
Regardless of who “made” a streaming TV show or movie, we watch it “on Netflix.” The move away from physical media, as sad as this Blu-ray fanatic may be to admit it, has created a dependency on streaming platforms for both content and the range and history of that content. Netflix being the most powerful of these platforms, it has grown disinterested with history, instead favoring its capacity to shape the future. Ironically, that future resembles the past, the time when a producer like David O. Selznick claimed authorship behind films like Gone With the Wind and Rebecca, films he didn’t direct. But Selznick was so involved in the movie-making process that he can at least claim credit for one of those two (it’s the one not directed by Hitchcock), while Netflix only chooses and bankrolls original properties and has no hand in their actual production.
As we move through this Golden Age of Digital Content we should be able to recall who is really making it. Netflix does not make it so easy, as it zooms out to wave an arm at its other tantalizing offerings once those pesky credits roll. If you click on the director or star of any given film, it redirects you to DVD.Netflix.com, which is blockier and often useless, given how few filmographies are fully available. Given that Netflix is here to stay, that paucity needs to change if the industry wants its backlog to be viewed legally whatsoever. More than that, however, shining a light on the true authors behind these films directs viewers to engage not just with a single movie but with a varied filmography, epochal movement or entire medium. Auteurists may be an obsessive, idiosyncratic bunch, but our gift for disposing income knows no bounds.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.