When Beasts of No Nation failed to receive any Oscar nods, a few sideline commentators swept it up with the rest of that year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Personally, I felt it had less to do with a racial bias than with a Netflix bias. By releasing the movie online day and date with its theatrical run, the online service was raising up a giant “fuck you” to the way movies had traditionally been distributed. They certainly haven’t backed down from that strategy with subsequent releases. For now, any Oscar ambitions they may have seem to be wrapped up in the documentary category, which isn’t too surprising. While documentaries have the same minimum-theatrical-run requirement for eligibility as fiction films, the members of the documentary branch are a bit more forgiving. They don’t necessarily care how you see their work, as long as you’re seeing it at all.
The Academy will slowly have to get used to the fact that audiences don’t see movies the same way they used to. The distribution model for films is in a constant state of evolution and we are inexorably moving away from the traditional pattern of theatrical-home video-television we grew up with. But Beasts of No Nation illustrates a key problem that has yet to be solved in the distribution models of today and tomorrow, a role that has for years been fulfilled by physical media. Namely, how do you keep a movie alive in the public consciousness after the initial burst of awareness generated by its first release?
When Netflix first got into producing and acquiring original content, it was unclear what that would mean for the content itself. Its first original series, House of Cards, debuted in February 2013 and for awhile it didn’t seem like too much would be changing. The first season was released on DVD and Blu-ray four months later in June, a reasonable window for such things, and subsequent seasons have arrived on shelves following a similar pattern. So even if you weren’t a Netflix subscriber, you could still check out the show.
Since then, Netflix has turned into a key player in television but their track record with physical media follow-ups has become much spottier. Orange Is The New Black, Marco Polo and Hemlock Grove have received DVD and Blu-ray releases but comedies like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Grace and Frankie and the fourth season of Arrested Development have been relegated to DVD only status. Stranger Things and Sense8 haven’t been released at all yet. Even a high-profile title like Marvel’s Daredevil only just got a belated first-season release on Blu-ray this past November, over a year and a half after it debuted on Netflix.
But movies operate on a different cycle than television. As long as a TV network is producing new shows, it’s constantly reminding viewers of what it has to offer. Missed the first season of Daredevil? Here comes Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist to remind you about it. Forgot to check out Master of None? Well, it’s trending again thanks to the Emmys. Movies have a much more limited amount of time to make an impression on you. Awards and critics can help extend that a little but once a movie is out of theatres and you’re no longer bombarded with ads for it on a daily basis, it’s remarkable how quickly it fades into the background.
Traditionally, DVD and Blu-ray have helped extend a movie’s shelf life. Literally, by placing them on shelves, in stores, directly in front of you. That role is unfortunately being diminished as video stores fall left and right and digital distribution takes over. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t have an example of a movie they took a chance on solely because of the cover art, whether it was on tape or disc. When that art is reduced to an icon the size of a postage stamp (or smaller if you’re evil enough to watch movies on your phone), it simply doesn’t have the same impact on what you’re deciding to watch. But even though that function is shrinking along with the number of titles brick-and-mortar stores stock, at least there is still a variety of places for you to encounter these movies on disc for the first time, whether it’s at Target or Walmart or Redbox or Barnes & Noble or your local library.
With Beasts of No Nation, there is literally only one place for you to find it. It’s not in stores on disc. It’s not on Amazon, iTunes or Vudu. If you don’t have Netflix, you’re out of luck. And Netflix isn’t exactly making Beasts of No Nation a priority anymore. They’ve released a lot of other stuff in the past 18 months they’d rather you check out first. Beasts of No Nation is still there but it’s kind of on you to think about going to look for it.
Remarkably, the same is true of every single Netflix original movie released to date. From A Very Murray Christmas and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny and Barry to the Netflix joints of Adam Sandler and Kevin James, not a one has been released on disc. Netflix isn’t releasing these movies. They’re holding them hostage.
Compare that to the original films produced so far by Amazon Studios. Their first movie, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, had a limited theatrical release before hitting Amazon’s VOD service. It then debuted on DVD and Blu. Today, you can stream it on Amazon Prime and buy or rent it on disc or digitally anywhere movies are sold. Subsequent releases like Manchester by the Sea, The Neon Demon and Café Society have all followed a similar pattern. Granted, Amazon’s track record with releasing their TV programming like The Man in the High Castle on disc is as sketchy or worse than Netflix’s but with movies at least, they seem to have found a winning formula.
Of course, Amazon has one big advantage over Netflix that makes this pattern work: an existing video-on-demand system. If you wanted to watch an Amazon movie while it was in theatres but before it hit DVD, you could, the same way you watch any other VOD movie: you pay for it. Netflix is still just a subscription-based streaming service. Sure, that subscription gives you access to anything and everything Netflix has to offer but that’s it. You can’t get extra by paying more.
Some might say it’s too early for me to be sounding this alarm. After all, it’s only been just over a year, so Beasts of no Nation is in no danger of becoming a forgotten film. And sure, that Pee-wee’s Playhouse box set Shout! Factory did was awesome, so a loaded special edition of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday with Paul Reubens’ participation in the extras might be pretty cool but the movie’s right there online if you want to see it.
All that is true. But I’ve been uncovering forgotten films not available on DVD for Jahnke’s Electric Theatre for almost a decade now and I am in no danger of running out of candidates. It never ceases to amaze me how many movies have been released, abandoned and forgotten about. So I know a thing or two about movies that don’t get a DVD release and I’d rather address the Netflix issue before it gets out of hand.
The project has taught me that movie audiences have notoriously short memories and they are getting shorter. Physical media does more to extend the lifespan of this art form than anything. Digital downloads and streaming are remarkable technologies that will shape the future of how we consume movies and television. But these programs should not be allowed to be trapped on a single platform. Even if Netflix allowed their content to be purchased digitally from other providers, it still wouldn’t be enough. Only by putting something on disc can you get it in the hands of a library patron who might never have heard of it before or in front of a busy shopper who had forgotten all about it.
Of course, the great irony in all this is that Netflix started as a DVD rental-by-mail company. They wouldn’t even exist if not for DVD. Today, they’ve evolved into something much bigger, attracting extraordinary talent, producing and distributing some terrific films and television. But if they’re serious about creating a lasting legacy of work, they need to take a cue from their original playbook and re-embrace disc-based media. Physical media provides two vital, complimentary functions: preservation and discovery. Without it, Netflix just becomes a bottomless pit of content, with older titles sinking beneath the weight of the new stuff that’s constantly being thrown in on top.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke
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