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30/05/2020 The Communication Science magazine

Why ‘Made for TV’ Films Deserve Recognition Too

What defines a film in the age of Netflix? Recent comments from Steven Spielberg and Cannes stirred a debate on “made for TV” films and their place in the prestigious film industry.


Within the last few years, Netflix produced several smash hits, ranging from the teen rom-com flick To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to the Academy Award-winning drama film Roma. With the awards and prestige that the latter has garnered, several filmmakers, most notably, Steven Spielberg, has spoken out against making films for a “made for TV” format. His reasoning behind this lies in the concept of a film as being a communal experience amongst others in a movie theatre; after all, it’s not the same as casually watching Netflix on a Friday evening. He’s not alone in this reasoning, but Netflix has also offered compelling arguments on why their movies should be recognised within the film industry.

Disrespect towards cinema?

Spielberg isn’t the only one who has spoken out against Netflix’s unconventional presence within the film industry. Last year, the Cannes Film Festival banned Netflix films from competition due to clashes regarding French film distribution laws. Netflix had wanted to screen the films in question for a short time period while simultaneously releasing them online for its subscribers. However, due to their refusal to comply with the French cultural exception law, the festival now bans any streaming site-based film from competing for the main prizes of the festival. In response, no Netflix film was screened at the festival.

In response to Roma’s BAFTA accolades, UK cinema chain Vue has also spoken out against Netflix’s theatrical release policies, writing that “BAFTA has not lived up to its usual high standards this year in choosing to endorse and promote a “made for TV” film that audiences were unable to see on a big screen.” The common point that Netflix’s detractors make is that Netflix simply does not respect the “cinematic experience” that many notable films have undergone to be eligible for prestigious awards such as the Oscars or the Golden Globes. The unique, online-based distribution mechanism Netflix has did not let regular cinemagoers to see the film, much less for extended periods of time.

This can discourage people from going to the cinema as their favourite films would be published by Netflix itself or appear on the streaming site within several months. In an effort to make cinema more accessible to everyone, Netflix has broken what esteemed members of the industry consider a cardinal rule: films are meant, first and foremost, to be shared and enjoyed in a movie theatre; watching it on a screen at home surely cheapens the experience.

Breaking boundaries

On the other hand, Netflix responded to Spielberg’s comments with a tweet:

“We love cinema. Here are some things we also love:

  • Access for people who can’t always afford, or live in towns without, theatres
  • Letting everyone, everywhere enjoy releases at the same time
  • Giving filmmakers more ways to share art”

These things are not mutually exclusive.

Netflix’s response could resonate with a lot of people, I included. Going to the theatre was always something of an indulgence for me; despite numerous subscriptions and discounts, going to the cinema will always be costly for some people. It just didn’t seem reasonable to spend money that you could spend on groceries or things you actually needed. Smaller towns often had to share movie theatres with one another; this made going to the movies even harder. With a Netflix subscription, you could access hundreds or even thousands of films with the price of a single screening. To some people, it wouldn’t be a choice at all: Netflix offered far more for less.

Several critics have also raised the fact that much of film-watching occurs outside the theatre: Twitter user @JOHN_BENNY tweeted in response that “The harsh reality is that on average 80% every movie’s life [the] audience experiences it on video…” whether through Netflix, DVDs, or television, many of the films we see are not through theatrical screenings.

Several filmmakers also noted that no other major production company would produce their pitches: Orson Welles’s reconstructed film, The Other Side of the Wind, was produced by Netflix as other companies had rejected or passed on the project. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was picked up by Netflix as they had agreed to not whitewash the Asian-American lead, author Jenny Han says. Consequently, Netflix has pushed for movies that large companies had refused to produce in fear of failure.

The future is collaboration

The point of this whole debate isn’t to say that Spielberg is right in his quest for preserving cinema’s DNA, or that Netflix is a leading pioneer in pushing new narratives in film. They’re both correct at some points: Netflix does have to give theatrical distribution the respect it deserves, and Netflix does offer a more affordable model for its films compared to a traditional movie theatre. Cinema is supposed to be an industry that welcomes new players; instead of pushing them out, it’s time that leading pioneers work with them.

Cover:

Lynda Sanchez/Unsplash/ Final Editor: Erica Boyce

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