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Weekend Binge: Netflix or movie theatres? Can there be room for both?

The release of Netflix’s Lust Stories has broken a crucial barrier in India’s relationship with online streaming, and it might be bad news for movie theatres.

weekend binge Updated: Jun 16, 2018 08:55 IST
Rohan Naahar
Rohan Naahar
Hindustan Times
Weekend Binge,Online Streaming,Netflix
Deadpool watches a movie in a special poster for Deadpool 2.

It could be a plot straight out of a dystopian thriller - children who’ve grown up on virtual reality and nutrition pills wondering about a time when humanity used to make collective weekly pilgrimages to large, dark rooms, to watch images being projected onto a blank screen and empathise with fictional strangers. They’d ask their parents if they remembered going to the cinema - the movies, the popcorn and the sight of Salman Khan ripping off his t-shirt through sheer will - and their parents would probably tell them stories of the early 2000s, when things began to change.

The next decade is going to be vital in the history of film - a 100-year-old art form that has withstood dictatorships and wars, Danny Dyer and the Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag. It is going to be seen as the time when an alternative was presented, and choices were made. Whether or not these choices are for the better remains to be seen, but then again, quality is rarely seen as being an indicator of what is ‘better’ these days. In India, we’ve been largely ignorant of the winds of change sweeping across the world of films. But with the release of Lust Stories on Netflix, a crucial barrier has been broken. Online streaming in India is no longer a playground of filmmakers and actors who find it difficult to get theatrical releases; it is in fact the cool kids’ table.

Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Karan Johar are four of Hindi cinema’s most prominent voices - each on occupying their own unique space in the diverse tapestry of Indian film.

Audrey Tautou in a still from Amelie.

This week on Weekend Binge, we’re going to be talking about the future - of movies, of streaming and the end of an era. With web-only films, filmmakers can do away with frivolous lawsuits, they’re no longer hamstrung by tight budgets and the whims of spoilt movie stars, and they’re no longer at the mercy of a Central Board of Film Certification being controlled by the government.

With online streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon (with more on the way), filmmakers with stories to tell have been given unprecedented creative freedom, and faced with the risk of losing the opportunity to release their films in theatres, they’ve decided to make the sacrifice. They’d much rather be able to make the movies they want to make than worry about those movies only being watched on tiny screens.

Movie night at the Shawshank prison.

And it was Adam Sandler, of all people, who was one of the first to make the switch to streaming. He had the foresight to realise that his audience was no longer making trips to the cinema to watch his movies - broad, slapstick films with little cinematic value - so he made a four-picture deal with Netflix. But since then, stars such as Will Smith and Brad Pitt have also signed deals with the streaming giant, and both made their streaming debuts in 2017, with Bright and War Machine - two films budgeted between $50 and $100 million, the sort of budgets that are rarely allotted for theatrical releases these days.

This was the same logic Paramount Pictures applied to Alex Garland’s Annihilation, which, despite starring Oscar-winner Natalie Portman, was abandoned at the last moment because they lost faith in its box office potential. Garland did not hold back in his statement, and said that he was disappointed by the studio’s decision to drop his movie.

Of course, it’s significant for film stars of their level of popularity to explore such a risky new world. Imagine someone like Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan making a film that would never be released in theatres. It just won’t happen, primarily because their core audience still loves going to see them on a big screen – to them Aamir and Shah Rukh are larger-than-life figures. And they’re still relatively more likely to get what they want, so they have no reason to ‘relegate’ themselves to the small screen.

Johnny Depp in a still from Ed Wood.

Just a few years ago, for an established star to do a TV show was considered career suicide, but here we are in 2018, with everyone from Kevin Spacey to Tom Hardy working in episodic television, in shows directed by David Fincher and written by Steven Knight.

And speaking of Fincher - the maverick that he is - he was one of the first to spot the potential of streaming. House of Cards - a show that he produced and directed - was the first original series from Netflix. His partnership with the service continued in 2017, with the release of his psychological thriller, Mindhunter.

While it’s impossible to expect directors such as Christopher Nolan – who has been a vocal critic of streaming, and a louder champion of film and film projection – or Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson to make an online movie anytime soon, we would have said the same for filmmakers such as Bong Joon-ho, Noah Baumbach, and Martin Scorsese a few years ago.

After his projected budget was turned down by studios, Scorsese was left with no choice but to kneel at the altar of the internet for his ambitious new film, The Irishman, which will unite a digitally de-aged Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and a pulled-out-of-retirement Joe Pesci. The studios were correct in their pessimism, however. Early reports suggest that Scorsese underestimated the money that would be needed to make a 74-year-old De Niro look like he was in his 30s again - young enough to actually punch Donald Trump in the face and not just make threats about it.

But unexpected expenses such as this are also less of a problem in the online space. Were this a theatrical release, news of expensive reshoots would have made every film site, but streaming services have deep pockets. Netflix will spend a reported $8 billion on original content in 2018, and Amazon made a record acquisition of The Lord of the Rings for $250 million, before a single dollar had been spent on production.

Robert De Niro in a still from Taxi Driver.

“Online streaming is going to change everything,” Kashyap said when I asked him about it earlier this week. Like Will Smith and Noomi Rapace, whom I had spoken to in 2017, Kashyap also had stories of losing battles with his daughter, who prefers her laptop or phone over going to the cinema.

These kids belong to what is possibly the last generation to know what it is like to make more than five trips a year to the place of worship that raised their parents. Certainly, if anything is to blamed for this mess – and on the flipside, if there’s one solution – it’s money. Good original films are still being made, and they’ll always be made, and we need to support them now, not later. Go out to watch that movie everyone is talking about, and don’t wait for it to come out online, and don’t download it illegally. Support good cinema, it’s a self-sustaining industry - profits are used to fund other projects.

But you have to wonder, now that we’ve all been irrevocably spoiled by the convenience of online streaming, will we ever feel the same excitement we felt on our first trip to the movie theatre? Because no matter who you are, you’re never forgetting your first time. But I’m willing to bet my entire, considerably large DVD library that none of you remembers the first film you streamed.

(Every week, we will curate a collection of titles -- movies, TV, general miscellanea -- for you to watch (and in some cases, read, or listen to), in a series we call Weekend Binge. The selection will be based on a theme which binds the picks - which could be extremely blunt in certain instances, or confusingly abstract in some. No rules apply, other than the end goal being getting some great entertainment to watch.)

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

First Published: Jun 16, 2018 08:54 IST