Changing perspectives on Netflix films

I remember the spectacles of Christopher Nolan’s 70mm print of Dunkirk and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land in IMAX, both homages to the film stock era and the CinemaScope format of the Hollywood golden age.  

But with the emergence of Netflix’s string of critical successes and its ability to attract notable directors, more attention has shifted to the streaming service. While a point can be made about the price of Netflix’s monthly subscriptions ($13.99 per month for standard in Canada) versus the cost of tickets ($14.99 for a standard film at Cineplex Inc. theatres), I believe the most important factors to consider are the film itself, and increasing its exposure and accessibility.   

Commenting on giving films a theatrical release before becoming Netflix exclusive content, Netflix film chief Scott Stuber said, “We also think it is critical that, if you don’t have the means or access or the time to go to a theater, you are still able to see films without a long wait.”  Great films are no longer restricted to the traditional methods of circulation and shelf life in theatres.

Netflix has had a history of original content, but Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming passion project, The Irishman, truly captured the potential of the streaming service. These films are key examples of the closing gap between Netflix and Hollywood in terms of funding, creativity and quality. 

Roma and The Irishman  

The 91st Academy Awards showcased Roma’s 10 Oscar nominations. The film went on to win three Oscars (directing, foreign language and cinematography).  

Roma is a splice of suburban Mexico in the 1970s, displaying the trials and tribulations of a young indigenous live-in maid- this story being one that doesn’t traditionally fit the bill of “Oscar bait” according to Cuarón. But speaking with Variety after his Oscar win for directing, Cuarón said Netflix was completely supportive of the non-traditional methods he took in directing the film: it omits a film score, is shot in black and white and uses almost exclusively non-professional actors and actresses, including lead actress Yalitza Aparicio. Aparicio’s performance was also praised critically and earned her a nomination for best actress at the Academy Awards.

The exploration of a deeply personal story was made possible by the Mexican director’s creative control over the script and shooting schedules, which was facilitated by Netflix. Instead of trying to appeal to a wider audience (which it still did), Cuarón called Netflix “fearless” and praised their willingness “to change their model to accommodate” his vision for the film, even though it did not have the attributes of a traditional, box office success.

Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino in a promotion photo for The Irishman. Courtesy of

Similar to Roma, The Irishman was given the funding and creative freedom for it to be realized, and the film will also be given a theatrical release in order to compete at the Academy Awards.

The Irishman explores a mob hitman’s recollection about the killing of prominent labour union leader, Jimmy Hoffa, in the 1970s. The film brings back several Scorsese collaborators, including actors Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel.

Scorsese is a living legend in the film industry, and his associations with the old guard of cinema makes his decision to join Netflix much more ground breaking. For someone who is a long-time supporter of his work, I found it shocking that he could not find backers in Hollywood for this project.

However, it was clear that Scorsese needed to be more creative with securing funding, after it took him decades to release his previous passion project, Silence– a subtle, meditative film about Christian Jesuit missionaries in Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate era.

When asked about his decision to work with Netflix, Scorsese stated: “Films are being made directly for the digital medium. You can shoot a film on an iPhone, you can do anything, really. It is a complete revolution. The old system is gone.” 

While Scorsese rose through ranks in a film stock era, he does not lament the switch to digital media, and the steps needed to keep the original vision of the film in intact and having a say in how it is being distributed.

A new age for films

In defence of the pure theatre experience, filmmaker Christopher Nolan was hesitant about the monopoly Netflix had on the film industry.

“I think the investment that Netflix is putting into interesting filmmakers and interesting projects would be more admirable if it weren’t being used as some kind of bizarre leverage against shutting down theaters,” he said.

“It’s so pointless. I don’t really get it.

Similarly, director Steven Spielberg said Netflix is producing “TV movies”, referring to pure theatrical releases as the only films that deserve recognition. Spielberg stated that films made by streaming services should not be eligible for Oscar nominations.

Yet it’s surprising that Spielberg’s remarks sharply contrast Cuarón and Scorsese’s approaches. Spielberg and Scorsese made names for themselves as members of the “Movie Brats”- a group of filmmakers who emerged in the 1970s as young innovators of the industry that broke away from the traditions of 1950s and ‘60s Hollywood. While I do admire the works of Nolan and Spielberg, I cannot agree with their emphasis on excluding films that clearly deserve the attention and accolades they are receiving from critics and filmgoers alike.

It is time to acknowledge Netflix’s gains in the market and their influence on the future  of cinema. If Roma and The Irishman are indications of what is to come (an expected 55 films this year alone), Netflix will continue to be relentless in providing a flexible platform for filmmakers and audiences with the ability of attracting the best talent, and producing Oscar worthy films.