It’s impossible to be on the fence when it comes to Netflix and its impact on modern film buffs. Some, like Steven Spielberg, see Netflix as a TV-orientated medium designed for the small screen and which, therefore, should be viewed with the small screen in mind.
Others view it as a viable and worthy equal to “traditional” cinema, maybe even its successor in the 21st century where the once mighty artform of film is gradually fading. I won’t rehash the row over Roma, its inclusion in the Academy Awards, its ten Oscar nominations and the back-and-forth arguments over its merits as filmic art. What I’ll do instead is step back in time more than sixty years and attempt to draw a parallel.
In the 1950s television in the UK and the US was emerging as a powerful – even dangerous – rival to the movies. In the UK actors such as Peter Cushing, before he became a horror icon, was a household name in a succession of highbrow dramas often drawn from the classics.
He was such a popular actor – Britain’s first bona fide television star – that people would stay at home to watch him on the box. When Hammer Films hired Cushing to play Baron Frankenstein for the first of their colour shockers in 1956 they did so because they reckoned he’d bring his TV audience with him. They were right. In America another horror star, Boris Karloff, embraced the small screen and the varying opportunities it offered, such as Captain Hook in Peter Pan or Billy Bones in Treasure Island. Television gave him an entirely different career after 20 years playing monsters. And the major studios? They were rattled. If people were staying in to watch the telly they weren’t going to the pictures. It was a massive problem. And as TV became more accessible the issue become ever more worrying.
Flash forward six decades and the Hollywood old guard is similarly shaken. Where once Spielberg and his ilk were the 70s Brat Pack, now they represent the last bastion of what might be described as filmmaking purity.
And as they look back to the faraway “golden age” of Hollywood, when films were shot on film and projected on immense screens in coliseum-like auditoria, something like Netflix must be plain terrifying. It is giving today’s actors some of the best-written roles and characters they’ve ever had with healthy budgets and, crucially, chunky running times. And when, like Roma, these productions find their way onto the cinema circuit, purveyors of regular movies are going to be nervous. Just like Steven Spielberg.
If film is the great artform of the 20th century and television is the mass entertainment medium, what does that make a streaming service such as Netflix?
That’s simple. It’s the future.