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Can Netflix Save Indie Filmmaking?

Snowpiercer 2013 Chris Evans Jamie Bell

The frequency with which international markets continue to lap up big-budget genre release like Snowpiercer with far more gusto than American audiences leads one to concede that the American moviegoing experience is fading. And if the established Hollywood distributors can’t get the job done in an age where the home video experience is adapting to consumer demands at a rapidly evolving pace, why shouldn’t Netflix step in to solve the problem?

 The big question that still remains is what kind of response Okja will get as Netflix viewers continue to drop in and watch the strange but touching movie. Based on the appeal of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho may still have something of an uphill battle to surmount when it comes to getting his latest production watched by American viewers otherwise bombarded by the latest franchise releases and Netflix's wealth of alternative content. In a sea full of options, it’s often hard to get indie films seen.

At Cannes, the very idea of considering a Netflix-distributed feature film in the same realm as those productions meant to be seen in a crowded theater was ridiculous. Critics who collectively made a stand for the sanctity of the moviegoing experience as it has been understood for decades uniformly booed any productions that bore the iconic red banner of a company that had become ceremoniously noxious - and further controversy over the unorthodox distribution of Okja in South Korea is currently raising further alarm.

Ahn Seo-Hyun in Okja
Ahn Seo-Hyun in Okja

This kind of divide is nothing new when it comes to the evolution of the filmmaking industry at large in the 21st century. With the rise of digital photography, many filmmakers have felt called upon to come out in favor of the continued use of celluloid in major Hollywood productions. Overall, digital is by and large being adapted by many of the biggest and most powerful filmmakers and studios with only a few significant outliers – most notably including Quentin Tarantino, whose 70mm presentation of The Hateful Eight turned a few interested heads back to the physical medium in 2015.

But if Netflix is slated to become a major distributor, then digital film is only one small slice of the pie. The way in which Americans are watching movies in 2017 is drastically distanced from the way Americans were watching movies fifty years ago. The Graduate was engaged by a domestic moviegoing audience accustomed to a more attentive mode of viewing in 1967, whereas Okja will be engaged by a domestic moviegoing audience accustomed to a more distracted mode of viewing in 2017.

In the expanse of fifty years, the distribution of film by Hollywood has had to adapt to a rising demand for more viewing options, outlets, and sources of content in a marketplace that is increasingly multi-faceted. The kind of quiet concentration forced upon moviegoers in the late 20th century is a thing of the past. With Netflix, the moviegoing experience is predicated upon offering more options than any single viewer could possibly process comprehensively.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Going to the movie theater will forever be the ideal way to see movies for the kinds of people who would attend or closely follow the goings on at Cannes once a year. But in the festival’s notorious predilection towards snootily dismissing more populist trends in the larger moviegoing experience like Netflix, there is a definite gap in truly understanding the extent to which the popular online streaming service might rise to meet the demands of a generationally alien commercial marketplace.

If indie filmmaking is going to survive, then even more filmmakers are going to need to consider Netflix as a viable distributor than those that already have. The current theatrical release model long entrenched into the very fabric of Hollywood is quickly becoming outdated and in need of drastic revision. Based on the A-list talent involved in bringing the original dystopian morality tale to life – including lead performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, Giancarlo Esposito, and Paul Dano – Okja could have been a respectable summer hit, had it received a proper theatrical release.

It’s hard to accept that the movie theater is no longer the be-all and end-all when it comes to a major motion picture’s theatrical debut. In light of that, perhaps Netflix can offer a small saving grace in its ability to save indie filmmaking from Hollywood. Americans are going out to see movies in the theater with a steadily decreasing frequency, while online streaming platforms and home video rental services make it easier than ever to bypass the inflation of ticket prices at the domestic box office.

Much like Win It All and I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore from earlier this year, Bong may manage to find a home with American moviegoers on Netflix that he hasn’t previously been afforded by Hollywood. Whether or not indie filmmaking will manage to thrive there, however, remains to be seen.

Next: Netflix’s Okja Boycotted By South Korean Exhibitors

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