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Streaming movies and a glimpse at the future

Idris Elba plays Commandant in Netflix’s ‘Beast of No Nation’

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Regular readers and movie fans throughout the region who catch my Friday morning reviews of the Cincinnati Fox affiliate (WXIX) will undoubtedly recognize that Netflix is my streaming service of choice. I count myself among the overwhelming number of binge watchers out there who adjust their personal and professional schedules around the steady and persistent arrival of new releases. I divide my attentions between mere fandom—with shows like “Stranger Things,” “Easy,” and “Master of None” that I tend to enjoy and reserve comments exclusively for social media—and work-related explorations—the entire Marvel/Netflix universe of street-level heroes like “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage,” “Iron Fist,” and “The Punisher”—which illustrate the platforming potential of the comic book realm.

The Netflix model, over the last 12-18 months, has ventured into new, fascinating territory, bridging a gap of sorts, between truly original content and serialized narratives spun off from feature film properties. Kicking things off with “Dear White People,” an in-depth character study based on Justin Simien’s 2014 debut feature, the series expanded and expounded upon a world fraught with complex racial dynamics, capturing a tension on college campuses that many probably never assumed existed, especially in the progressive, post-racial Obama Age. Here was the perfect opportunity to hold a mirror up to audience members seeking the comfort of their living rooms or the compact screens they retreat into for virtual escape and enjoyment.

Most recently, the Spike Lee adaptation of his 1986 film “She’s Gotta Have It” into a propulsive romantic dramedy (each episode plays like a track from a soul-powered conceptualized mixtape) updated the characters and themes with real social consciousness while revealing just how prescient Lee’s best work has always been. His fevered pastiche of film references, cultural button-pushing, and flair for incorporating music as a signifier of mood and texture was always a filmic expression of the hip hop aesthetic, and 2017 simply proved to be the right time to appreciate his status as one of the greatest of all time. He got game and Netflix earned some extra cred along the way too.

But, for all of the inherent good in the Netflix plan, the company earns this dubious distinction, on my annual worst spotlight, for their tragic mishandling of film acquisitions. Two years ago, I watched in abject horror (slowly developing—which made the situation damned near unbearable) as it bought the distribution rights to Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” during that film’s highly celebrated film festival run. I was among an adoring public audience at the Toronto International Film Festival ready to wage a fierce promotional war for Fukunaga, Idris Elba, and young star-in-waiting Abraham Attah (who won the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice Film Festival among a host of other honors that year) during awards season, only to get effectively cut off at the knees by a release plan that severely limited the number of screens across the country, in favor of the more traditional Netflix streaming model.

I can hear the argument from the acquisition team and company executives about how the goal is to make sure as many people as possible have the chance to watch the film. A sense of urgency gets added into the discussion, offering what seems to be compelling logic as well, but the critical element that gets lost in this debate is the fundamental notion of how buzz (the all-important factor during the awards season) gets generated in the first place.

As a critic, I have attended TIFF for the past decade now, in order to be included in some of the early word-of-mouth about upcoming releases. I sit in press screenings with hundreds of writers from around the globe, so that my voice (and by extension, your regional perspective) has a chance to meld and merge with the building consensus long before a particular film reaches our multiplexes and art houses. Of course, once a film arrives, the debate and discussion continues, swelling over the next few weeks and months. Discerning audiences read and compare the reactions of their favorite critics and watch as ad campaigns present perfectly-timed and easily-digestible sound bites leading up to the onslaught of nominations and the inevitable awards.

Netflix, in its acquisition role, certainly has great taste in films. This year, its team seized the rights to the Dee Rees film “Mudbound,” which I have praised to the high heavens at every available opportunity, and, to be fair, they arranged for the film to play on over a dozen screens (in top markets) across the country. But by not attempting to expand the film’s rollout to other markets over several weeks before streaming it, Netflix stifles the kind of necessary and sustained critical buzz that would all but guarantee nominations for Rees in the directing ranks, Mary J. Blige and Jason Mitchell in the supporting acting categories, and the creative/technical teams.

Such a system ensures filmmakers fair compensation for their efforts and a built-in audience, which is, no doubt, a vital concern for any artist, but what Netflix doesn’t quite grasp is that awards season plays by a different set of rules. The streaming service better learn fast or it will never earn a seat at the table where the real winners hold sway.