In his must-read book published earlier this year, THE BIG PICTURE: THE FIGHT FOR THE FUTURE OF MOVIES, Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Fritz offers a meditation on the current state of the cinema. Of course, “cinema” is probably becoming an anachronistic term now that movies are watchable in multiple formats and locations, from mall multiplexes to the smartphones in our pockets. There are those, like Fritz, who speculate that perhaps only Marvel Universe movies will be able to lure audiences into physical theatres in the near future.. Just how many Avengers sequels will we be able to tolerate? Of course, these kinds of movies constitute our modern-day mythology, contradicting those who believe that myths are relics of a long-vanished ancient world. I was able to dispel this assumption in my Humanities class when we made a list of all the movies we could think of that are based on the archetypes laid down over 4,000 years ago in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, our oldest recorded story. The puzzling questions about Gilgamesh is why no one has ever made a movie based on this timeless story, and who would be ideal cast members for such an epic presentation starring egotistic rulers, seductive deities, civilization-destroying natural calamities, and vicious monsters? Sounds uncomfortably like the headlines I read every morning while gulping down my cereal and almond milk (yes, I have succumbed to this trendy habit of replacing “real” milk with “fake” milk).
Fritz concludes his book with the following observation about the future of movies: “The more digital our entertainment becomes, the more creators are going to discard old ideas about how long a ‘movie’ should be and how many minutes define an ‘episode’ of a television show or how many episodes define a ‘season.’ Movies, as most of us watch them most of the time, will just be one part of a spectrum that also includes mini-series, television shows, digital shorts, and forms that haven’t yet been invented. The lines that divide these types of content will blur to nonexistence.”
Speculation about the future of movies is nothing new. Immediately after the screening of the first cinematic presentation to a paying audience by the Lumiere Brothers in a Parisian cafe (1895), there were those who were certain this type of entertainment would replace live theatre (similar to the debate about how television would replace the movies during the 1950s) and, as Fritz points out above, were also convinced that this experience would bring about a situation where the lines between reality and unreality would be forever blurred. Our modern-day debate about the nature of virtual reality began in that cafe one hundred and twenty-three years ago.
Last month–April 14–marked the twentieth anniversary of a small California company’s website. Netflix.com, like the Lumiere screening, can now been seen as a turning point in the way movies are marketed and experienced. On a timeline of life-altering moments in the history of movies, we should include the Lumiere screening, the creation of the studio system in the 1920s, the advent of the “talkies” in the 1930s, the impact of television in the 1950s, the emergence of independent cinema in the 1970s, the home video revolution of the 1980s, and the appearance of those ubiquitous red and white Netflix envelopes in our mailboxes in the mid-2000s. In a very short time we have gone from a nation of movie-goers who could only experience movies from within a physical and darkened theatre to a nation of movie streamers, consumers, and moviemakers who carry our movie theatres and film production tools around in our pockets.
I am proud to date my first experience with Netflix to November 2004, when I helped host an appearance by Kevin Murphy, “Tom Servo” from Comedy Central’s “Mystery Science Theatre and a walking encyclopedia of movie history, at Northeast State Community College. Kevin convinced me to take out a Netflix subscription, which I did. And I fondly remember receiving those red and white envelopes in the mail on a regular basis. Although I had to put up with occasional cracked discs (with those tell-tale footprints on the envelope), I relished the ability to choose from a very small library (at the time) of movies I would never find on the shelves of my local video store; a video store, by the way, that saved movies for me every Tuesday, like an early precursor of today’s online recommendation lists. We could, of course, argue that those video stores have morphed into clerkless Redboxes.
Although Amazon was also founded in 1998, its primary stock and trade was still books when I took out my Netflix subscription. All this began to change, however, the following year when Amazon Prime was launched. But, in 2007, another milestone was reached when Netflix started its streaming service. Of course, I wasn’t immediately attracted to this because I was just emerging from the dial-up era and my internet provider’s broadband was not very streaming friendly at the time, giving me my earliest introduction to pixelation and that ever-present spinning wheel. But all that has changed, and I have lived without a cable box for several years, relying exclusively on streaming services and titles from my much-too-vast collection of DVD, Blu-Ray, and 4K discs (which will undoubtedly be going the way of the 8-track tape in the very near future).
Netflix, along with most everyone else, is now not just a provider of pre-existing movies, but also a movie studio that rivals the traditional Hollywood ways of doing things (a fact that is well-documented in Fritz’s aforementioned book). The cable network era is now at an end, and who knows where streaming will take us? We certainly won’t have to wait another twenty years to find out.
Here’s hoping you find your own ways this week of commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Netflix. I may get a little teary-eyed knowing I will no longer be able to see that footprint on the red and white envelope in my mailbox.