The A.V. Club published an interesting article yesterday by writer Sam Adams called “The convenience trap: What the changes at Netflix reveal about an insidious trend”.1 The crux of it is that viewers should not be worried for their wallets in the face of Netflix’s 60% price hike, but instead should be worried of a world where Netflix streaming is considered the gold standard of viewing selection.
In essence, Netflix is gambling that its customers are less concerned about watching the right movie than watching right now. What if it’s right?
In short, Adams argues that we are headed for a future in which the great cinema gets cast aside as technology iterates. The landscape is such, he argues, that if viewers don’t have to seek out good work anymore, then there will be no place for it. The convenience of a bottomless, instant pool of choices ultimately tempers our outlook on the work. If we can watch a film anytime, why watch it now?
It’s an interesting argument about technology, but Adams muddles the whole thing up by laying the blame at Netflix’s (and really its users’) feet. netflix is decidedly the biggest gorilla in the room, but there are alternatives to it, both for discs and for streaming. Adams ruefully points out the holes in Netflix’s streaming library (“Derek Jarman’s Edward II is there, but not his masterful The Last Of England.”) but fails to mention that filling them remains antithetical to his argument. The good stuff isn’t on there, but if it were viewers still wouldn’t watch it.
When I read and reread this article, I can’t help but ask “What’s the problem?” and find that I can’t quite figure one out.
If you’re not inclined to put forth the effort to get yourself in close proximity to a given artwork, will you be willing to expend the mental energy necessary to understand it? How much more likely are you to bail on, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, when with a few clicks of your remote you can be watching a favorite episode of Friday Night Lights?
When you wonder why people find film writers often intolerable, this is why. First off, it’s offensive to compare these two works. He has chosen a dense, cerebral Thai masterwork and butt it up against an American television drama about football. Again, what’s the problem? While it’s true that most would pick the latter, ten years ago Weerasethakul’s film probably wouldn’t have made it into American homes at all. If anything he’s proving the boon that Netflix can be for world cinema.
The trouble is thinking that Netflix is the only option for both viewing and discovery. Before Netflix, how did we decide what to watch? Maybe it was the clerks’ picks at the video store, maybe it was word of mouth from a friend. At one time it was based solely on what was playing at the local theater. There is a lot of room for improvement for how we discover cinema (Jinni is one somewhat maddening attempt at fixing this) but it’s foolhardy to blame streaming technology for our own viewing deficiencies.
Films are available out in the ether on a variety of above (and below) board services. The trick is in deciding that they should be watched. That’s not something Netflix can control, nor should we be so naïve as to think any one company should be in control of that. Adams is right in the sense that we should seek out great art. With that in mind, there’s no reason that we can’t use our computers or our television sets to find great cinema; we just need to look places besides Netflix to promote competition and innovation in this space.
I happened upon this article via [Khoi Vinh’s↩