If you’ve read any of this blog, you probably already know that I’m a Netflix apologist and I’ve decided to detail why. No, don’t do Blockbuster’s thing , don’t jump over to Hulu (unless all you watch is network TV, then it’s a pretty good option) and don’t under any circumstances think that jumping off the Netflix wagon will do anything good for the entertainment market. It won’t. Let me explain.
No, Netflix is not paying me to write this (though they totally should. Call me!), but some things need to be said, and some good sense needs to be talked into consumers. Why can’t I stream the latest rom com starring Gerard Mcconaughey and Cameron Heigl. It doesn’t have enough content! Qwikster? WTF? Why Netflix, friends? Because it’s the only non-studio owned subscription-based entertainment service out there and it has the power to change the market (for the better!) if people will only stick with them.
Okay, okay, Qwikster is weird, I know, but anybody following the market will also realize that DVD-by-mail is just a sideshow to the real circus: streaming. Netflix distancing their name from it is actually a good idea from a branding perspective, and while it will be annoying to keep up two queues at the same time (I won’t be since I quit DVD services months ago), it really won’t be that bad. If anything it should give users even more incentive to drop the whole DVD thing altogether and choose sides in the great streaming war.
What most folk aren’t aware of is that Netflix and all entertainment studios are currently embroiled in a war over how much money they can charge little people like us to watch a movie or stream a TV show. Movie theaters are failing, despite the attempts at breathing life into them through 3D and digital displays (which I think is like feeding poison to a dying man). Many blame Netflix for that, and rightly so, but streaming technology was going to catch up with us sooner or later, and it’s a good thing the folks that got on it first were a company that had a good idea (DVD rental by mail) and forward thinking enough to be a major player in a game that is otherwise entirely dominated by studios.
Why can’t you stream the latest [insert terrible movie here]? Because Sony, Time Warner, Disney and Fox don’t want you to, at least not for $7.99/mo. paid to a distributor. Netflix would love to give you all the content in the world, but the handful of massive media conglomerates that make just about every film and TV show we see want to make you pay more for their movies than Netflix does (even with the much-hated 60% price hike). Way more, in fact.
In the face of this opposition, Netflix has shown remarkable ingenuity by securing secondhand deals with other on-demand distributors and channels like Starz and Showtime. That’s why you can watch Tron: Legacy and Toy Story 3 on Netflix. this kind of deal is only temporary, though as those companies are starting to wise up as streaming tech becomes more prevalent. Starz is pulling out come February, certainly due to pressure from Disney, who doesn’t like that little blue ‘Play’ button under their biggest movies.
Now, it’s important to note that Netflix isn’t exactly a down-home mom and pop establishment. It’s a multi-million dollar corporation to be sure but it’s a company whose success depends upon the consumers’ interests, not those of the media conglomerates. The fact that Netflix is such a major player in the media world (and such a major thorn in the side of media companies) is good for consumers. Netflix is attractive because it gives you a good deal on a good product–Netflix’s customer service dept. is second-to-none. It doesn’t care how much money a movie makes, it just wants to get you that movie as cheaply as possible and ensure that your experience watching it is as high quality as possible. This is a nightmare for huge media companies who are used to their DVDs being on sale for $20.00 on the stands and $5 to rent. The good times are over, fatties. The Napster revolution has come to movies, but this time (cue doom toms) it’s legal!
What about other services? The only other truly subscription-based service out there is Hulu, which is co-owned by NBC Universal and Fox. It’s a reliable service at the same price as Netflix and actually a really good option if you’re into network TV. But it still mostly operates as a handmaid to network television, which is only a slightly more robust version of the movie theater system. Once that starts to crumble, expect to see prices increase and ads multiply like flies to compensate the interests of the studios who own it.
What of Blockbuster’s new service? It’s still fairly nebulous at this point, as it’s only available to Dish subscribers. Last I checked, however, $9.99 > $7.99. Its boasts of having “newer releases faster than Netflix” has just a few too many ‘er’s for me to take them seriously. Dish is also not owned by any studio, so a startup DVD/games by mail service plus the vague promise of “thousands of movies available to watch instantly” priced at $2 higher than its competitor sounds like a recipe for failure.
i.e. Nobody’s really doing it right.
Streaming distribution of films is inevitable. But who will control it? Us or them? Well, ‘them’ (major media companies) is sort of a given, to a point. But by how much? And how will the movie experience change as a result of who controls it? Studios with a direct online route to movie distribution will be a nightmare for us as studios will charge more and also take the opportunity provided by these online venues to make sure we’re consuming as much of their media as we possibly can, not to mention the addition of the dreaded way that these media conglomerates make a good chunk of their money already: ads. High prices, bad service and ads ads ads (probably mostly for their own products) will rule the day. And we’ll lose. Netflix, however, has wedged itself into a very effective position to actually change the market. Products are only worth what people are willing to pay for them, and despite big companies’ efforts to take it down, Netflix has put a sweet taste in our mouths that will be hard to scrub out. Subscribing to Netflix gives consumers the rare opportunity to actually change the definitions of what a movie is worth and so change the industry.
But doesn’t that lower cost devalue movies themselves and isn’t that bad for the industry as a whole? Depends on how you look at it. I personally think movies could do with a good dose of devaluation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no indie snob. I love a good blockbuster with big gooey special effects and lasers and monsters and explosions and stuff. What I do not love is the need studios feel to weave their film into every single nook and cranny of the market to ensure its success. Seeing a Star Wars Burger King cup was bad enough, but we’re living in the dread days of sports/movie combination commercials as if X-Men is somehow inherently related to the contest of the NBA Western Conference Finals–incidentally the only sports/movie combination commercial that I would ever condone was if they’d somehow managed to digitally paint Chris Bosh blue like one of the aliens from Avatar, but I digress. Back in the day, a movie was something you went and saw with your friends, you liked it or disliked it or were inspired by it or it made you cry or cringe and then later you went out with your friends for a drink and talked about it and then it was over. Maybe you’d rent it later or even buy it. Nowadays, movies invade every single part of our the market and the recent wave of Hollywood-inspired TV shows threaten to do the same. Basically, a movie isn’t worth all that hullabaloo, and I fear that the venue of online movie distribution under studio control will become just another extension of that marketing mess. I’d rather have them neatly stacked on a shelf or better, in a queue that I can visit and leave behind as I want to. On Netflix, all films are essentially created equal. There’s no fabricated experience, no false sense of expectation or marketing sheen between it and you. It’s just the blue ‘play’ button and their only merit is based on their ability to entertain a room of people. I think Netflix clears away the marketing haze and lets us see films as films again. From that perspective, perhaps Hollywood will have a fresh incentive to make good ones.
In the midst of the marketing haze, story has suffered terribly. Good scripts are dying, as detailed in this brilliant article by Mark Harris in GQ. He names Netflix as one of the bad guys, devaluing our theater-going experience and thereby increasing the incentives to turn films into theme park rides and product inspired pictures. Though I’ll be the last man to stop going to the theater, I take the opposite opinion. Netflix is, in a way, just like an online movie theater. It’s a 3rd party distributor, its interest is in customer service over the financial performance of a film and it even has the potential to turn home movies into an effective community-building experience similar to theatergoing.
It simply won’t be possible for a single subscription-based service to offer all media ever. Netflix’s continued flourishing will not mean that it will automatically become the dominant media content provider in the world and everyone will be happy. On the contrary. I actually would dislike that very much, because then Netflix would have too much control. But for the time being, a vote for Netflix is a vote for subscription-based streaming services rather than more expensive, a la carte options. Naturally, that model will change the biz, but it could very well be for the better.
Netflix’s limited content choices have resulted in a good deal more community surrounding films as I’ve seen in a good while. The limited streaming options make it a noteworthy happening when a high profile film does actually arrive on Netflix Instant. “Did you see Breaking Bad is on Netflix?” was a common conversation topic last month. This is speculative, but Netflix is poised to make online movie distribution an event-based product similar to the theater system. What if Netflix offered, say, ‘Quentin Tarantino month’ where all Tarantino films were available to stream for one month only? Or perhaps a special “Sci-Fi week”. That would certainly result in a few thousand living room get-togethers around the country. Microwave popcorn sales will skyrocket. Seriously, though, making online streaming a little more fun could help return movie-watching to the communal experience it was always meant to be, if not through gathering 150 people together to watch a film at the same time, then gathering 5-10 people together or at least ensuring that everybody’s watching the same movie that month. Netflix could take a leaf from its online video game service cousin Steam which offers surprise deals on prime products almost weekly. Pleasant surprises are never a bad move. It’s fun to be on Steam and it could be just as fun to be on Netflix if you ‘never know what you’ll find’.
The other thing is that Netflix actually has a ton of great content, it’s just not ‘new’. New doesn’t mean ‘good’. Especially not these days. Check the archive of this blog for a series of Top 5 lists highlighting my favorites by genre. It’s not new stuff, but the wonderful world of film is wide and varied and if you’re open to trying something other than whatever the studios are slinging at you this week, then you’re certain to find more than a few cinematic gems. Its selection of foreign and independent cinema is excellent. Just type ‘Korean’ in and you’ll get a short list of excellent films. Plus, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The (freaking) Wonder Years are no small acquisitions in the TV realm.
Netflix represents the best business model for us, the consumers. It stands in the gap between a deluge of corporate crap that without it, we’d just have to ‘deal with’. Netflix is people-focused and makes streaming movies enjoyable and the hope is that it will inspire studios, other companies and even itself to do the same thing, and do it better.