The Industry

Why Netflix Might Want Its Own Movie Theaters

Because it hasn’t disrupted film the way it has TV.

A movie theater marquee with the Netflix logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times reported that Netflix had scrapped plans to purchase Landmark Theatres, the national cinema chain that bills itself as “the largest exhibitor of independent, traditional and specialty film” in the United States. The theater franchise’s owners, Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, evidently believed that Netflix needed Landmark more than Landmark needed Netflix; the deal reportedly fell through because the chain’s asking price was too high. That Netflix even considered the move (obliquely denied to the L.A. Times by “a person close to” the company) suggests the streaming service is still coming to grips with the film industry’s secret weapon in its ongoing struggle for relevance: snobbery.

The Landmark news broke just days after Netflix made trade-publication headlines with a high-profile feud. After the prestigious Cannes Film Festival blocked Netflix films from contending for the Palme d’Or, its highest prize, the digital giant pulled all its films from the fest, including a hotly anticipated “final” film by Orson Welles. Cannes’ first punch came in defense of the French theatrical market, which is protected by a law that mandates an exclusive 36-month exhibition window before a film can be made available for home viewing—a rule Netflix would not abide. Yes, the Cannes–Netflix battle is largely about how glitzy and glamorous the world’s most famous film festival gets to be. But it should matter to ordinary filmgoers, too, because it’s the latest example of Netflix’s likely intention to not only disrupt the movie industry, but as Slate’s Sam Adams’ put it, to destroy it.

A Netflix purchase of Landmark, however, would have gone some way toward appeasing the cultural gatekeepers of the film world by reifying the movie theater as a temple of cinephilia. Netflix appears disinterested in nodding along to that mythology, potentially to its detriment: According to multiple sources, it declined to screen last year’s Oscar-nominated period drama Mudbound, even in theaters that had requested the picture, beyond award-qualifying (that is, box-checking) runs in Los Angeles and New York. (As Netflix’s only narrative feature to be nominated at the 2018 Academy Awards, Mudbound came away empty-handed on Oscar night, losing in all four of its categories.) Acquiring Landmark would have given Netflix dozens of venues to exhibit its movies on whatever its own terms are, while bolstering those works’ prestige status and making directors happy. But it also would have meant revealing its viewership numbers, at least in the movie houses, to the larger world—data that Netflix doesn’t even share with its creators. More pertinently, it would have forced Netflix to subscribe, at least outwardly, to the reigning elitism and increasingly out-of-touch loftiness about how movies are meant to be seen. (Do I love sitting in a dark room, having a film cast its spell on me? Of course. How often do I get to enjoy the Platonic ideal of the moviegoing experience at my local multiplex? Hardly ever.)

Netflix began its ascent when the public still approached movies and TV with vastly different expectations. House of Cards, its first breakout show, garnered the fawning attention that it did in part because of its cinematic sheen—i.e., the involvement of an Oscar-nominated director in David Fincher and an Oscar-winning star in Kevin Spacey. Netflix’s TV lineup has broadened (and coarsened) significantly since, but we tend to think of a “Netflix show” and a “Netflix movie” quite differently. A Netflix show might be superlative, or good enough, or just OK, or not meant for you. A Netflix movie is an arthouse darling you’ll (be honest) never watch, or a blockbuster critics have pilloried, or direct-to-video detritus. The first season of Stranger Things had half the budget of Will Smith’s buddy-cop fantasy spectacle Bright—and approximately 3,000 times the adoration and social-media impact. Those divergent perceptions between Netflix’s TV and film output are bolstered by industry approval (or the lack thereof). For the most recent Emmys (in 2017), Netflix garnered 91 nominations—a total that landed it just behind perennial first-placer HBO. With eight nods for the 2018 Oscars (and one win for the doping documentary Icarus), Netflix wasn’t anyone’s object of pity during awards season, but its seventh-place status among the studios in terms of nominees isn’t super-enviable, either.

Netflix’s greater success in the TV arena makes sense given tech platforms’ general goal of having users stay on a site or an app as long as possible. The binge model is well-served by multi-hour seasons and open-ended stories constructed to accommodate a new chapter next year. Even individual episodes have gotten longer (those 90-minute pilots mean an extra half-hour on the site).
Movies, on the other hand, are less suited to the all-you-can-watch template of Netflix or the you-might-also-like algorithms of YouTube. Movies offer a resolution after two hours. You can start another movie, of course, but the filmic format is inherently less addiction-forming than serialized storytelling or a sequence of recommended web videos.

But the larger issue seems to be that Netflix treats movies as an option, not an event. Studio marketing budgets ensure that its products generally roll out with buzz around, or at least awareness of, a new picture. Smaller prestige films destined for distribution firms with a fraction of the advertising resources of multiplex fare, on the other hand, largely gain clout and awards recognition through the festival circuit, where programmers, critics, and other tastemakers can snowball the reputation of their favorites through a months- or years-long process. It’s a top-down affair, and often an unfair one, since those gatekeepers tend to reinforce the values and perspectives of a single demo that’s overrepresented in the film industry (guess which one). Still, it’s an undeniably valuable system that helps level out the playing field for films without financial muscle behind them, as the imprimatur of those elites trickles down to the general public. (Note that TV lacks this curatorial infrastructure, which may be another reason why Netflix hasn’t been able to replicate its television success in film.)

What Netflix has most effectively disrupted is the prestige-endowing process for its own movies. (Amazon, by contrast, has hewed to the traditional theatrical model, delaying the online availability of its acquisitions for several months so it can show them in theaters first.) The result is an undifferentiated mass, as well as a renunciation of the idea that there’s anything special about the movies themselves or movie-watching as a whole. The new selling points aren’t the magic of cinema, however overblown that idea may be, but abundance of choice and a low bar for entry. In the face of such degradation, it’s no wonder that film snobs, like the ones who run Cannes, are fighting back. Investing in Landmark would have signaled Netflix’s willingness to view cinema the way the rest of the film world does—a gesture the company isn’t ready to make. The question is how long the revenge of the snobs will hold.