It’s not remotely hyperbolic to say that Netflix has completely redefined viewing habits. Its industry-dominating streaming service only continues to grow, reflecting an irreversible shift in how people consume media at home; instant releases and binge viewing are now an accepted norm for many over weekly TV releases, while 2016 marked the first time streaming beat disc sales.
Where the company has its targets set next is on the cinema itself. With homespun Netflix Originals it’s completely circumventing traditional release methods, breaking down the usual four-month release window, much to the ire of theater chains. Proposals for Day One streaming for big movies are raising the debate further, making the future of the multiplex unclear. And Netflix appears to have no qualms about this.
At a Q&A at Netflix HQ (via Variety), CEO Reed Hastings hit out at traditional distributors, singling out the lack of innovation from all corners of the industry:
“How did distribution innovate in the movie business in the last 30 years? Well, the popcorn tastes better, but that’s about it.”
The big shift in theatres the past 30 years has been the move from traditional 35mm projection to digital; the classic format has been all but phased out, with most movie distributors only releasing films in DCP format. This has several business advantages (movies can be downloaded and no longer need to be spooled). However, in terms of viewer experience the change has been less impactful; it’s easier to get good picture quality, but otherwise the major alteration to the cinemagoing experience is the increased ticket prices to account for the installation of new technology. In terms of tangible development, the most noteworthy change is the rise of 3D, which has already tapered off after its late-2000s explosion.
Hastings honing in on popcorn isn’t just flavorful language either, but a rather targeted dig. It’s well known that cinemas make most of their money from concessions – distributors take a big chunk of the box office – and the comments suggest he feels they’ve only been concerned with increasing financial take, rather than improving the customer experience.
While the comments are rather barbed, it’s not hard to see the contrast Hastings is making. Netflix is always evolving. Just recently there’s been reports of them experimenting with choose-your-own-adventure shows, while on the front-end there are perpetual updates; they’ve enabled the ability to download content and the rating system is currently undergoing an overhaul. Being tech based obviously helps, but there’s a more reactive user focus. Talking about his company’s approach, Hastings backed this sentiment up:
“What Netflix wants to do is to unleash film. It’s fundamentally about growing the movie business.”
He further clarified his comments on cinemas and recent uproar from distributors, saying “We are not anti-theater. We just want things to come out at the same time.” Some would surely disagree and find that statement oxymoronic, saying that the company only benefits from home viewing becoming increasingly the norm. Regardless, whatever the future of cinema, it’s increasingly clear the fate of theaters and Netflix are (somewhat reluctantly) intertwined.