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James Oliver: Why Scorsese is only half-right about streaming

Friday 26 February 2021

Cinema is a unique and precious art form. Which doesn’t mean Netflix is all bad

Well, someone had to say it.

Over the last couple of years, it’s become near-universally accepted that the future belongs to streaming services. Business pages and cultural commentators alike agree that the likes of Netflix, Apple TV and Disney+ are “unstoppable” and “inevitable”. Less discussed is whether this is a good thing.

Martin Scorsese has his doubts. He, you will remember, is America’s greatest living filmmaker and a fierce guardian of cinema as an art form. He has also, it should be said, benefitted from the largesse of the streaming companies: his last picture, The Irishman, was funded by Netflix; his next, Killers of the Flower Moon, will be paid for by Apple.

But in an essay published last week by Harper’s Magazine, ostensibly about the Italian director Federico Fellini, Don Scorsese nibbles the hand that feeds him, suggesting that streaming is undermining the medium to which he’s devoted his life. Forget “movies”. Now we have “content” – “a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode”.

This, he argues, is damaging: “the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator”. 

It’s perhaps the most significant criticism the streaming titans have yet faced, but is it fair? An obvious response might be that he’s an old fuddy-duddy unhappy about change, and it’s true that there is an element of nostalgia here. Scorsese opens with a reverie about the glory days of art cinema, where you could wander from cinema to cinema watching the latest films from Godard, Kubrick and, yes, Fellini.

Or at least you could if you lived in Manhattan. He doesn’t acknowledge these things were less easy to see if you lived in, say, rural Ireland. That isn’t so much of an issue with streaming: although broadband connections aren’t equal, everyone has more or less the same access to films on a given platform, whether uptown sophisticate or rustic boob.

And some of those movies are damn good. Netflix especially has been building its library with at least one eye to quality. Most obviously, it has sponsored major filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), David Fincher (Mank) and Spike Lee (Da 5 Bloods). Moreover, its acquisition teams scour festivals for inventive indies – Atlantique by Mati Diop being a prime example. 

Scorsese accepts that streaming has been good to filmmakers (“myself included”), but he doesn’t mention just how good. Netflix has been a generous patron to smaller films that might not otherwise reach fruition (if you haven’t seen I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, you might think about remedying that) and allowed a degree of artistic freedom far greater than you’d find at more venerable production houses.

Most notably, it is investing globally. The Netflix business plan seeks to roll out its service across Asia, Latin America and Africa, investing in “content” from those territories – and heavily. This is significant. African film especially has traditionally been a precarious business at best. Now there is the promise of investment and global distribution, allowing for stable, sustainable film industries to flourish across the continent. That can only be good for film lovers.

All of this in entirely laudable, but there’s something else that must be acknowledged: while the bigger, more expensive films like Mank (or The Irishman…) get the double-page advertisements in newspapers and aggressive Oscar campaigns, others arrive with little fuss and, accordingly, they’re all too easy to overlook.

This, like so much these days, is a function of algorithms. These are the formulae that analyse your viewing history to make suggestions about what you might like to watch next. Which sounds fine in principle, but in practice seems to result in endless recommendations for the Netflix-produced show Sex Education.

It’s algorithms that really get Scorsese’s goat. “If further viewing is ‘suggested’ by algorithms based on what you’ve already seen, and the suggestions are based only on subject matter or genre, then what does that do to the art of cinema?” 

Algorithms, of course, are an easy target. The technology is crude, the results often unsatisfactory. But that can only improve as AI gets more sophisticated. There’s no reason not to imagine that in, say, ten years algorithms will throw up more imaginative and unexpected suggestions, based on a deeper understanding of both the material and the individual viewer.

But here’s the thing: do we really want “imaginative” and “unexpected” suggestions? It’s notoriously difficult to find Netflix viewing data, and what’s available doesn’t always tell the whole picture. Watching 70 per cent of a film or a single episode used to count as “a view”. Now, watching two minutes of something is enough. The platform boasted 26.4 million people watched at least 70 per cent of The Irishman in its first week, but how many of those watched the whole of Scorsese’s masterpiece? How many since have watched more than five minutes?

Netflix doesn’t care what you tune into, just as long as you pay for a subscription. Investing in film is a good way to persuade people they’re getting their money’s worth, even if they don’t actually watch those films – and instead turn to the finger-food comedy shows that seem to make up the majority of an average streamer’s true diet.

So Scorsese isn’t being fair when he says streaming “devalues” cinema. Thus far, Netflix has facilitated some of the best films of our times, and its investments in the global south may yet prove an even bigger boon to cinephiles.

But he’s entirely right to sound a cautious note. Cinema is a unique and beautiful artform. But all those movies counts for nothing if they sit unwatched on someone’s “to watch” list, elbowed aside for another bloody episode of Sex Education. Streaming ought to be liberating, not a trap.