Is the definition of a movie only a video presentation of a certain length, or is there more to it than that? Chief Strategy Officer Brad Berens explains.
The June 30th issue of The Economist featured an excellent cover story and short lead article about how Netflix is changing the entertainment industry with one disturbing sentence: “This year its entertainment output will far exceed that of any TV network: its production of over 80 feature films is far larger than any Hollywood studio’s.”
The disturbing bit is “feature films.” This term originated in the glory days of cinema (pre-television) when movies were the world’s most popular entertainment. Viewers would happily enter theaters for hours to watch a newsreel, a short subject, a cartoon, and then the main movie or “feature.” The notion of “feature films” is linked to the movie theater with what I thought was an unbreakable chain, but apparently not.
I should point out that “feature film” is the Economist‘s term: it is not how Netflix describes its non-series, non-comedy special, non-food-documentary video content. Netflix simply calls these things “movies.”
If you click the “Movies” link in the top-level menu on Netflix, then you’ll see that the site combines original Netflix movies with movies that were once only available in a movie theater. So, Set it Up and Tau (both Netflix originals) are right next to Boss Baby (DreamWorks) and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (Disney) on the “Trending” row.
Neither Set it Up nor Tau has ever seen the inside of a multiplex.
Are they really movies?
This begs the question, “what’s the definition of a movie?”
It used to be an easy question: a movie was a video story that took more than an hour to tell and required you to go to a theater and buy a ticket. Genre didn’t matter. Popcorn didn’t matter. Comfort level of the seats didn’t matter. You left your home, you bought a ticket, you sat. That was a movie.
We know that this was a widely accepted definition because other things that were like movies needed modifiers. Movies that were first shown on television were “TV movies” or “made for TV movies.” Movies that were first released on videocassette (remember those?) or DVD or Blu-ray were “direct-to-video” or “straight-to-video” movies.
If we focus only on the content of watching a movie, then a Netflix movie is a movie. But if we focus on the total context of watching a movie, then can the eventful moviegoing experience happen without a theater? I think it can: the moviegoing experience at its heart requires leaving your home, going to a place where there are other people, and watching a show together. This can happen anywhere one can control the lights and sound.
These days, Netflix — which just this month became the country’s most popular source for TV viewing — is doing to the word “movie” what Facebook did to the word “friend” and what Amazon’s Kindle did to the word “book.” The original term becomes bloated, requiring a modifier so that people understand you when you’re talking about a friend in real life versus a Facebook friend (although people can be both). Likewise, we have to say “a movie that was in theaters” or “a book book” (a physical book rather than an e-book).
Why it matters
If Netflix gets its way, then the term “movie” will refer only to internal characteristics of a piece of video content (over an hour and there isn’t another episode either queued up or coming out a week later) rather than to the full context of the moviegoing experience. It’s obvious why this nomenclature change is in Netflix’s business interest.
But if we allow “movie” to shed its theatrical-at-one-point meaning it would be a loss to our culture. Going to the movies in the theater is eventful — or to use the Soviet-era Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin’s term it has sobytiinost or “eventness.”
The simplest test to see if something has eventness is to ask, “is there a pause button?” If there is, then the experience you’re having isn’t eventful.
On-demand experiences are almost by definition uneventful because eventful experiences demand something of you: the experience demands that you be somewhere with other people for a set amount of time and train your attention in a particular direction. This creates the potential for emotional looping (which I discussed in an earlier column).
Other people are required for eventful experiences: is there any experience more disappointing than going to see a movie in a theater and realizing that you’re the only one there? Theaters should refund the ticket price when this happens.
This is not to say that in-theater-movies are the only eventful experiences. All live entertainments (plays, concerts, sports, lectures) are eventful. There’s also DIY eventness or what I call “Minimum Viable Eventness,” which can be as small as two people doing something together (watching a show, playing cards or videogames) without stopping.
In other words, you can make watching a movie on Netflix eventful, but watching Netflix is not inherently eventful the way seeing a movie in the theater is.
The big question
Ultimately, what’s important is not whether or not Netflix movies are movies. They aren’t. The big question is this: in a digital age, does preserving the eventness of movies require traditional movie theaters?
If we focus only on the content of watching a movie, then a Netflix movie is a movie. But if we focus on the total context of watching a movie, then can the eventful moviegoing experience happen without a theater? I think it can: as I described above, the moviegoing experience at its heart requires leaving your home, going to a place where there are other people, and watching a show together. This can happen anywhere one can control the lights and sound.
With digital projection technologies, pop-up movie theaters or turning other sorts of buildings (restaurants, museums, private homes) into movie theaters for one night become possible. With social media, just-in-time audiences can be alerted to pop-up viewing opportunities.
This is good news for the movie studios that can explore innovative modes of distribution and presentation. However, doing so would require the studios to realize that they’re not just in the storytelling business: they’re in the eventful experiences business.
It’s also good news for Netflix, which can do the same thing, as can Amazon, Hulu and future streaming services.
Who is it bad for? Traditional movie theaters. Already threatened by the allure of Netflix and video games, theaters will find their businesses eroding even more.