There's a line of thinking that Netflix devalues movies, snatching them up from film festivals with massive offers and then dumping them onto their platform with little to no promotion. Their original programming isn't much different; though many creatives would argue that the company is taking chances on smaller movies a larger studio would pass on in a heartbeat, and that the built-in audience that comes with Netflix's massive subscription base (the exact numerical details of which the streaming giant still refuses to disclose for "competitive reasons") is a far larger audience than their tiny features would find in your local art house.
In 2018, expect this debate to intensify, as CCO Ted Sarandos stated in an investors meeting yesterday that the company plans to release roughly 80 original films:
"They range anywhere from the million-dollar Sundance hit, all the way up to something on a much larger scale."
This "much larger scale" of course means Bright (a/k/a Orc Cop Nation), the Will Smith-starring David Ayer joint that looks like Tolkein magically shat out a Blood In Blood Out sequel (release date: December 22). Or, the Martin Scorsese gangster picture (featuring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci) The Irishman that's currently in production. Between those two films alone, Netflix is spending over $200 million in production costs, crafting tent poles that are going to premiere in your living room. Speaking about Bright, Sarandos said:
"I think people will start seeing the potential of this original movie initiative, that it could be done on the enormous scale we have on the television side."
To put things into perspective somewhat, Netflix released eight original films during their last business quarter. Multiplied out for an entire year, that's still only 24 films. They spent $6 billion on new content in 2017. In 2018, they plan to spend somewhere between $7 to $8 billion.
When asked about their recent increase in subscription costs, CFO David Wells denied that there was any connection between the hike and their upcoming spending on programming:
"There's no timing corrolation between our intent to grow content and the price increases. This has been planned for a long time."
OK. Great. But what about Netflix's ever-increasing debt? According to the LA Times, the content service was warned through the whole of 2017 that it had a negative cash flow as high as $2.5 billion. As of right now, that number hasn't been a concern, as the focus on producing original content (which resulted in hit series House of Cards, Stranger Things, and The Crown) has reportedly tripled its global subscribers over the past four years, topping out at 109 million worldwide through September. Nevertheless, the Times warns that those numbers may drop off if Netflix isn't able to win the programming rights to popular movies and TV series produced outside of their house, now that there are more competitors than ever (Hulu, Amazon, Apple, etc.). Recently, Disney decided that their programming (including Star Wars and Marvel titles) will move exclusively to their own platform as of 2019.
However, Sardanos stuck to his guns, saying:
"We just have to focus on creating content that our members can't live without. Whether or not one of our partners decides to produce for us or compete with us, that's really a choice that they have to make based on their own business."
Still, none of this answers the original question posed above: does Netflix's distribution method devalue cinema on the whole? In a piece published in April (titled "Netflix Keeps Buying Great Movies, So It's a Shame They're Getting Buried") Indiewire critic David Ehrlich said:
"Netflix doesn't help movies find an audience any more than it helps audiences find a movie (not that filmmakers have any idea how many people are watching their work on Netflix - the company refuses to share data with its content suppliers)...The streaming service is a volatile sea of content that likes to measure itself in terms of dimension rather than depth; pull up the homepage, and the first thing you'll see is text boasting about the sheer number of new shows that have been added to the site in the last week. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet that stretches further than the eye can see, and most people are likely to lose their appetite before they discover the good stuff."
Though it's a smidge hyperbolic, there's certainly some truth to Ehrlich's words, and it seems to be demonstrated by this announcement in grand fashion. Netflix doesn't want to be your local video store, supplying suggestions based on what you actually enjoy (admittedly anecdotal evidence: a viewing of The Meyerowitz Stories this past weekend [which is some of the "good stuff" Ehrlich mentions above] prompted the streaming service to suggest this writer watch Sandy Wexler immediately after - no thanks). This isn't a service built on curation, by any means - if you want a great example of that, buy a Shudder subscription and thank me later. But if Shudder (or Exploitation TV) are the niche corner shops, whose clerks know and build on your personal taste, then Netflix is Blockbuster by way of Costco, where you're wandering the aisles, overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it all. But does this actually lower the worth of the movies they buy?
The simple answer is no; a movie is going to be good (and still a movie), no matter where you watch it. But there is the more abstract concept as to whether or not Netflix is damaging the notion of cinema as a whole - treating projects that artists poured their blood, sweat and tears into and simply shoving them off to sea, like a message in a bottle without an intended recipient. To be fair, the search function still exists, and a truly determined viewer can find whatever movie they just read a glowing review of, should they have thumbs and know how to spell. Yet by reducing a film to content, you're intrinsically lowering its worth without possibly even knowing it, signaling to the viewer that all movies, big, small, bad, good, are of equal value, and that's just not fucking true. Cinema should not be treated like some withering crop, rescued from dying theaters and niche fests, only to be delivered to the masses, who might watch the first 15 minutes before switching back to The Big Bang Theory (granted the license doesn't expire and it heads to Hulu).