When we signed up for Netflix accounts, we signed up for a shift in our relationship with movies. Then we signed up for its price hikes, and then for its streaming service, which confirmed the engagement. It’s not an exclusive thing. We have open relationships with our formats. We split time between movie theaters, videos, DVDs, television broadcasts, Blu-ray discs, and YouTube videos watched on a phone during the commute to work. We pick our partners depending on what feels right on a given night. And when we first picked Netflix, it was hot. I think it was the concept that got us excited. If it reached its potential, the service would be a digital alternative to the video store and a virtual alternative to repertory theaters, all combined into one website with a catchy name. That was the hope. The reality is more like cooking shows and Adam Sandler comedies. Netflix has its fair share of movies—thousands of them. But they feel like they’ve been curated by a dad who’s still reading Entertainment Weekly issues from the early 2000s. Hope you’ve been waiting for an English-language Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel, because that’s what you’re finding at home tonight.
There’s been some recent pushback against the service from the “culture media,” mostly based on the amount of movies it offers. A rash of cross-citing websites recently reported that the amount of programs available on Netflix has gone down by about one-third since 2014. The articles tend to damn Netflix for deliberately short-changing viewers, or applaud it for being innovative enough to focus on “original content.” That latter point, we should note, is the official strategy: Netflix projected that it would spend $5 billion on “content acquisition” this year, and roughly $500 million of that will be dedicated to the production of original programming (shows and movies it either premieres or purchases outright). That’s 10 percent of its budget slated exclusively for movie-studio stuff—and it says it wants to increase that number to 50 percent in the coming years. It would be very wrong to hope that Netflix will combine the video store with the repertory theater. The company has stated outright that what it really wants to do is combine your cable box with the multiplex.
If you like BoJack Horseman as much as I do—season three premieres on July 22!—then you’ll keep paying your fees—just raised!—and accept Netflix for what it is. Every relationship requires compromise. And in this one, we’ve responded by picking up side pieces. It might be Hulu, or Amazon Prime Video, or VUDU, or HBO GO, or a games package from the NBA or the MLB. If you’re more of a cinephile, then it’s probably one of the boutique film-based streaming services: MUBI, Fandor, maybe Shudder. The entertainment media wants to sell “cord-cutting” from regular television packages as being some form of cultural liberation, but by the time you’ve signed up for two or three of these other “services,” you’ve just exchanged one set of monthly bills for another. And it’s a strange game you’ve got to play, if you like to watch movies made before 2013: The selection on each of those apps is determined by the library of the companies who have a licensing deal with the given service. Which means that it really is like cable packages all over again. I used to have the MGM HD television channel. Now I have the Warner Archive Instant application. In marketing speak, that’s liberation. In reality, it’s the house next door.
Each of those options has enough movies to keep you busy, and Netflix offers the same. But if “curation” is what you’re looking for, and at a large scale, know that the people who want to sell it to you are roughly three months away. Back in April, the Criterion Collection (a boutique distributor of Blu-rays and DVDs) reported that it was partnering with Turner Classic Movies (which already operates its own streaming hub, dubbed Watch TCM) to announce FilmStruck, a subscription service expected to launch this fall. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that the service appears custom-built to compete favorably against the recent “advances” made by Netflix: FilmStruck promises to have “nothing but movies in mind,” with guest curators helping to put together “carefully selected” programs of films. If Netflix is a smorgasbord, then FilmStruck is selling itself as gourmet. And you’re likely to be paying handsomely for the privilege: early reports suggest that full access to the FilmStruck library—both its regular offerings and its “Criterion Channel”—will require payment on two separate fees. The smaller curated services, the MUBI’s and the Fandor’s of the world, have attracted subscribers by undercutting the Netflix price point. FilmStruck promises to go in the opposite direction—premium library, premium price—and something tells me that it won’t be the last service to do so.
Unless its next quarterly report comes out looking bad, Netflix has nothing to be jealous about. But a recent move by the company suggests that it’s trying to catch the cinephile eye once again. Netflix adds new films to its service every week, usually based on the distributor. Occasionally you’ll get a grouping of films from the same franchise, or featuring the same actor. But I can’t remember Netflix ever adding the complete works of a filmmaker in one fell swoop. “Netflix is throwing a film festival,” was the lede in Variety when it happened, the guest of honor being writer/director/actor Albert Brooks. This despite the fact that Brooks made his movies at various studios and across three decades, meaning that Netflix’s acquisitions team had to make at least three u-turn’s to get them all—which is all the evidence you need to know that they’re trying to prove a point. The service now offers all seven feature-length movies directed by Mr. Brooks: Real Life , Modern Romance , Lost in America , Defending Your Life , Mother , The Muse , and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World . The company even made a big deal of the uploads—a press release to the media, a promotional video put together by Brooks. It wants you to know that it can do gourmet, too.
These films live up to that metaphor. Brooks’ movies combine an American sense for physical humor with a European sense for formal rigor, resulting in self-lacerating tragicomedies that can’t look away from their own carnage. In Real Life, Brooks plays a would-be documentarian subconsciously infusing his own ego into acts of “observation.” In Modern Romance, he’s an ex-boyfriend trying to justify a breakup he engineered himself. And in Lost in America, he’s a yuppie with delusions of hippie grandeur, trying to road-trip across the country while also protecting his finances. In each of the three, his persona is a contradiction; he’s worrying and confident simultaneously, building relationships and breaking them in the same sentences. He’s always playing a nothing who’s trying to convince himself he’s a something—but being an egotist, he can’t believe he’s a something until everybody else does first. And they never will. These are painful, unsparing movies about all the ways we try to validate ourselves. And each of them is centered around a person who’s trying to be something he’s not, which of course brings us back to Netflix. They’ye clearly hoping this upload will result in some cinephilic validation for their well-tailored brand. I’ll never be convinced that organizing artworks as “content” within a maze of small-screen pillars is something that represents a major advance for cinema distribution. But if they’re going to move past using licensing contracts in place of curation, then I’ll keep paying my fees and accepting the compromise.