Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Moguls v. Netflix

Hollywood executives favor Netflix less and less for these reasons, among others:

There is evidence that Netflix's streaming service discourages users from purchasing newly released DVDs. The studios see indications that for even hit films, which likely won't appear on Netflix's streaming service for years, some Netflix subscribers are satisfied to wait until they do.
Really, Hollywood executives? You wander through life carrying the expectation that large numbers of people are going to purchase DVDs soon after they're released -- and that they'd do so if not for Netflix's meddlesome streaming service? Good for you. Keep reaching for the stars, won't you? You're adorable.

I wouldn't think so, but it would seem Hollywood moguls have failed to notice that most newly-released DVDs were, very recently, available in theaters. At any given time, most of the movies showing in theaters are shit, and I have found that terrible movies do not improve -- in the quality of the screenplay, directing, acting, visual effects, sound mixing, costume design, etc. -- upon being transferred to playable disk. I can't think of a single counterexample, in fact.

Consider the talkies currently playing at Portland's Lloyd Mall theater -- the outdoors Lloyd Mall theater, Portlanders!* Here's that lineup with my ever-helpful [annotations]:
Rango [The best that can be said for it: Jonny Depp is not playing that goddamn pirate this time.]
The Adjustment Bureau [Proposed tagline: where confusing, uninteresting, and profoundly implausible collide for two hours. Granted, that could apply to quite a few movies, but that doesn't make it right.]
Hall Pass [Ha ha! That allegedly funny man said something scatalogical, and that other one said something misogynistic -- but it's, like, satire or something! In short, this is scat dipped in guano.]
Unknown [a.k.a. Taken II: Takin' It Back. Watch as 68-year old Liam Neeson growls and punches his way through dozens of men half his age to win back the love of Don Draper's ex-wife. You could, but why would you?]
I Am Number Four [You are too kind to yourself -- actually, you're shit.]
Take Me Home Tonight [No. No way.]
The King's Speech [English royals, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and did I say English royals? If I am not mistaken, this is one of those priceless talkies where they make sure to keep ladies off the screen almost completely --- which is really for the best, don't you think? If only they'd worked in a Holocaust side-story, it would have won every single Oscar instead of only half of them. That said, I want to see it (English royals!); I will buy it only if it is considerably better than it seems.]
Gnomeo and Juliet [A movie that will disappoint kids and appall adults -- something for everyone!]
Drive Angry 3D [Could someone remind Nicholas Cage he's past due for that delicate stage of his career when he secrets himself away in a 50,000 acre compound in the wilds and stores his own urine in jars for the next 40 years?]
True Grit [Maybe not great, but very good. I'd buy this for a fair price.]
I see precious little on this list I would willingly purchase in disk form. If Hollywood moguls are building their business model on the idea that people will purchase disks soon after release, and at prevailing retail prices for new releases ($15 and up), then their business model deserves to fail with or without Netflix.

The accusations against Netflix go on:
Films offered on Netflix lose value rapidly. Some cable and traditional broadcasters won't go near a title once Netflix begins streaming it ... The prevailing feeling among the studio managers I spoke with is that Netflix's streaming service will be a good outlet for the least-valuable material. If they have their way, Netflix will be the Internet equivalent of a swap meet, where only the most dated and least popular titles are available. The studios are betting that eventually people will get bored with the service. [emphasis mine]
Strange. Strange because, speaking as a Netflix subscriber going way, way back to the days when they etched the movies onto cave walls and then shipped the cave to your house, I was pretty sure that's already the way the streaming service operates -- as an outlet for the least-watchable, least-desirable material. I have never quite understood the version of Netflix subscription that is streaming-only for a little less per month --- do people really want or need a subscription service to watch back episodes of My Name is Earl, My So-Called Life, That 70s Show, third rate movies, and the world's treasury of mediocre documentaries? Don't those kinds of things just come at us unbidden if we have a television? Isn't that the sort of junk that drove us away from just watching broadcast tee-vee in the first place? It was either that or the non-stop commercials, or a combination of both.

Judging from Netflix's "top 100" listing of its most sought-after titles, my impression is correct -- as of this writing, only nine of the films are available via streaming; the other 91 are only available via physical disk through the mail.

All of this confirms what I have always believed about Netflix -- that it is good for one and only one thing, namely, as a means of renting high-quality films of past and present that are basically impossible to find otherwise. That it pushed the likes of Blockbuster over a cliff is not, from that perspective, a bad thing, since Blockbuster's offerings have always been heavily biased toward new releases which are, as we've covered, generally not worth much. (Whereas I would definitely bother to do the brick-and-mortar movie rental thing if the selection were better.)

I have no strong rooting interest in either Hollywood executives or Netflix --- both have their place, and both give plenty of reason to despise the industry of which they're a part, so I am somewhat like a Portland Trailblazers fan watching a game between the Lakers and the Spurs. Go injuries, I say!

* Not the Lloyd Mall theater located inside the mall. We in Puddle-Town are endlessly bedeviled by two Lloyd Mall theaters, separated by the crow-flight distance a strong man could heave a large potato.


Eli said...

"I am somewhat like a Portland Trailblazers fan watching a game between the Lakers and the Spurs. Go injuries, I say!"

Haha! I get it - it's ironic cause the 'blazers are like the most injury-prone team in pro sports history. Speaking of which, congrats on landing Gerald "don't worry, ma, I'm only bleeding from my lung" Wallace. He's a good player and should fit well with their style for at least 8 of the 12 games he'll play before his next major surgery.

But I kid. If he can help them beat LA out of the playoffs, more power to him.

Brian Moon said...

I am probably not in the mainstream, but I have replaced over-the-air TV or even the most basic of cable TV packages with just an internet connection, a TV, and a computer that lets me run Netflix, play the full complement of Hulu offerings (current ABC, NBC and Fox network TV episodes, mostly), and play (legal and paid for if required) downloaded movies and TV episodes via iTunes and Amazon and other sources. I've saved about $50/month by doing this. If I bothered to get a digital TV tuner. So all those back episodes of LOST or Arrested Development (my current re-watch habit) or Babylon 5 in Netflix are of interest to me, along with the second-tier movies and whatnot.

And since I have a neighborhood video store four blocks from home where they know my name and take requests, I can support the local economy by renting anything I can't find legally online.

It may not work for many others, but this suits me fine. If the MPAA and the studios and the networks take their movies out of Netflix, it would just mean I'd spend more time chatting with C.J. at Video Lair and giving him money in exchange for those silly disks.

Ian McCullough said...

A little push back. Netflix offers streaming items with a low popular appeal. Older science fiction/fantasy/horror shows like Stargate Atlantis, Buffy, and Angel or documentaries (rarely a big draw) and many foreign films. Among the latter you will find a fine collection of the world's greatest cinema available on Netflix. The Battle of Algiers, La Strada, Seven Samurai, Fanny & Alexander, and M are all available for instant watch.
So yeah, lots of stuff people are indifferent to because of mediocrity, but mixed with cinema so brilliant it will only ever have a small audience.

Dale said...

Eli, the mention of the Spurs was really just you-bait. And it worked! My hatred of the Lakers swamps every other sports hatred by, um, whatever is "a truckload" in swamping units. And yes, you're right -- Gerald Wallace is a perfect addition to the local team. I only wish they could somehow pull Kevin Johnson, former Suns standout, out of retirement. He'd make a great addition to the Blazers' lineup of forever-on-injury-reserve (alleged) basketball players.

Dale said...

Ian, Brian, valid points. There are some surprisingly watchable talkies available through Netflix streaming -- even sometimes a newer item. I managed to watch "Antichrist" that way. I realize I'm probably one of six people (counting Lars von Triers himself) who "enjoyed" that, but still, the Netflix streaming does come through now and then, and I'm always happy when it does. I'm just saying I would find it truly weird if someone told me that the current lineup of Netflix via streaming titles actually scratched a substantial itch for them. Maybe it's because I've already watched so many things through Netflix, I tend to undercount how much is available.

Anyhoo, I was making the narrower point that Netflix, by its own published metrics, appears to be already (by and large) keeping its own most desirable material out of streaming.

Brian, to your point about the video store -- I genuinely regret that Hollywood video shut down. I wasn't exactly propping them up single-handedly, but I went in there and rented things pretty regularly when they were still going -- a few times a month or more right up until the bitter end. I know no one is going to do it, but I would love to see a Video Lair or equivalent open up somewhere near me. I'd go. Whereas I parted ways with Blockbuster permanently long before Netflix.

Ian, on a final note, "Fanny and Alexander" and "Shine a Light" by the Rolling Stones are the same film. I wish I had seen the film you just described -- but that's not the film. If you don't love "Field of Dreams", you don't love anything.

And so on.

Eli said...

Hey, speaking of movies to "enjoy," have you ever heard of or seen Enter The Void? That was in the local film festival a few months ago and despite being extraordinarily well-made it also left me feeling like I didn't want to live anymore, and not in the good way like The Road did.

Ian McCullough said...

My dad took me to see Fanny & Alexander when it came out. I think I was 11 reading subtitles furiously just trying to keep up.

Dale said...

Eli, as it happens, Enter the Void is (a) available via Netflix streaming (zing!) and (b) the object of groveling, slobbering praise from at least one of the co-hosts of The Film Talk podcast -- I think the American one, but maybe the Irish one. Maybe both.

Their degree of praise has been, really, the only thing holding me back (welllll, really nothing has so much as just not having gotten to it yet). I've not had good experiences rushing out and watching movies that they so effusively praise. The Irish one can't say enough in favor of Shutter Island, for example. I watched Shutter Island and as soon as it became apparent -- spoilers -- that the protagonist would turn out to be inside the asylum rather than outside it, or in other words, 90 seconds after the opening credits concluded, I realized I'd seen this particular script-flip about 1,000 times already and didn't like the first 1,000. I mean, we've all seen the back episodes of the Twilight Zone, right? I like those, not least for their compactness.

Shutter Island didn't do much for me, in other words. Not much at all. But I did enjoy the three or four Twilight Zones's and/or Star Treks that told a roughly similar story.

Of course, E the V is a completely different movie and I do plan to watch -- and perhaps "enjoy?" -- it.

Sheldon said...

I actually am quite satisfied with what is on Netflix streaming as far as backwater films that are quite good, seems there are lots of good documentaries and independent and foriegn films. I still get 2 CDs at a time for what isn't streaming, but overall its still a good deal.

But I agree with you, most films of commercial mainstream value are shit, and that is what they make money with.

And another thing, I really don't get those people that are actually buying those movies. For what, I mean, how many times can you actually watch a movie more than once, and then follow ups of those movies a few times more? I just don't get it. If you want to watch it again some years or months later, why not just rent it again? This has been troubling me for some time.

Dale said...

Eli et. al., I have now seen Enter the Void and found it ... pretty good! I gave it 4 stars out of 5 in the Netflix rating thingy. I think maybe I should have listened more closely to the twaddle toward the beginning about the Tibetan Book of the Dead, because my experience of the film was basically "stuff happening across time and space, characters having spats (and/or sex), but lacking coherence."

It stayed interesting despite my expectations that it would sooner or later stop being so, but I'm not sure what it was trying to say or whatever. (People are always telling me I shouldn't expect that of movies and I keep telling them to STFU.)

Ghosts can travel through time, but rather than, say, drop in and watch the Lincoln assassination, Kennedy assassination, or dinosaur times -- these would be three of my first stops -- they like to hang out and watch people doing it. They also like to re-live traumas from their own lives, and to creep around while people mourn them. In short, ghosts are fucking boring. Boring perverts.

As I said, I probably missed some nuance, but on the whole, I enjoyed it. In particular I thought a lot of the camera angles and such were pretty cool and, in this case, not pointless, but connected to the story, i.e., the camera was floating through 3-D space not because some director got a new gadget but because it was meant to be ghost's eye view.

Eli said...

Right, I think I may have had a similar analysis of the aesthetics, although I felt differently about it: this movie was so amazingly produced that I couldn't help but feel like the story was just the minimum required to justify the amazing things that the (I guess) director could do. I mean, yeah, reincarnation storyline, some minor revelations about the characters this guy thought he knew, etc. etc. etc. - all of that seemed very standard-issue to me.

I have to say, though, this was easily the least pleasant movie I've ever seen. By the end of the first hour or so I sort of wanted to just go do something else, and then it went downhill from there.

Dale said...

Interesting, Eli. I didn't find it nearly as unpleasant as you seem to have found it -- definitely lots more grief, rage, and guilt than any of the sunnier sides o' life, but in terms of sheer unpleasantness, I've sat through worse (e.g., Funny Games, The Seventh Continent, Antichrist, Star Wars Episode 1: Darth Toddler and the Jar Jar, etc.)

Watch any two of those back to back if you decide you don't want to live any more and need a little cinematic push work up the courage to swallow the overdose.