I Won’t Work With Netflix Because Their Film Strategy is ‘Pointless’
Art and Experience: Christopher Nolan fights for the big screen. He optimizes his movies for the 70mm experience and perhaps none more than “Dunkirk,” his intense recreation of Allied soldiers attempting to evacuate the beaches of Dunkirk, France in 1940. The movie shifts between events on land, in the air, and on the sea over 106 minutes of a throbbing soundtrack and jarring sound effects that reach their fullest effect on the hulking IMAX screen.
With that in mind, it may be unsurprising that Nolan’s not a big fan of Netflix, particularly its deprecation of the theatrical experience.
“Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films,” Nolan said in an interview this week. “They have this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation. So they’re not even getting in the game, and I think they’re missing a huge opportunity.”
He pointed out that Amazon, which releases its movies in theaters before making them available on its platform, shouldn’t be lumped with Netflix for contributing this issue. “You can see that Amazon is very clearly happy to not make that same mistake,” he said. “The theaters have a 90-day window. It’s a perfectly usable model. It’s terrific.”
Netflix enables a larger budget and a degree of creative freedom for major global directors, and two of its productions premiered at Cannes this year, Bong Joon Ho’s sci-fi satire “Okja” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).” Nolan is unimpressed.
“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.”
Nolan tends to speak with the same grave, pointed tone found in his movies, and this isn’t the first time he has lashed out at digital distribution. During a presentation at the exhibitors’ conference CinemaCon in March, he told the industry audience that “Dunkirk” needed to “make you feel like you are there, and the only way to do that is through theatrical distribution.” In the same presentation, on the heels of Warner Bros. worldwide marketing and distribution president Sue Kroll remarking that “customers are telling us they want more choices with how and where they watch content,” Nolan didn’t mince words. “The only platform I’m interested in talking about is theatrical exhibition,” he said.
So it was only natural, when asked if he would ever work with Netflix on a production that studios wouldn’t make, he didn’t hesitate. “No,” he said. “Well, why would you? If you make a theatrical film, it’s to be played in theaters.”
He added that this debate didn’t just materialize with the rise of Netflix. “I grew up in the ‘80s, the birth of home video,” he said. “Your worst nightmare in the ‘90s as a filmmaker was that the studio would turn around and go, ‘You know what? We’re going to put it on video instead of theaters.’ They did that all the time. There’s nothing new in that.”
However, he added, Netflix seems to have capitalized on a Silicon Valley mentality for its current surge of activity in the original content game. “Corporations are able to portray this kind of behavior to Wall Street as ‘disruptive,’” he said. “That kind of became a buzzword a few years ago. So the idea that you’re disrupting the existing distribution mechanism has somehow assigned a kind of futuristic value to something that’s always been about lowest common denominator stuff. If Netflix has made a great film, they should put it in theaters. Why not? Stream it 90 days later.”
Inevitably, the debate surrounding viewing platforms leads to television, which Nolan doesn’t find troubling on its own terms. (His brother, Jonathan, produces the sci-fi western “Westworld” for HBO.)
“Every generation thinks they’re the ones who invented television and that there’s never been any good television before,” he said. “I think when you look at the different supposed golden eras of television, there is a tendency in the television community or the press around it to eulogize about TV. Film tends not to do that about itself. The film industry tends to not sit around and go, ‘Oh, what we do is so much better than what Howard Hawks was doing in ‘50s or whatever. It’s just a stylistic difference.”
He shrugged off the notion that TV was somehow supplanting movies in popular culture. “Ten years ago I’d get asked a lot of questions about the video game industry,” he said. “Like, is that going to kill movies or whatever? It’s a different thing. Now it’s VR. They’re just different things. I love television. It’s great. I love what my brother’s doing in TV, I love watching him work in that format. It’s just a completely different medium.”
For his part, Nolan is content with working in the studio arena, particularly with Warner Bros., his partner since 2002’s “Insomnia.” “Studio filmmaking has always been a high-stakes business because it really is where the art and commerce comes together,” he said. “If you can find a way to work in the system, it’s a very powerful machine, with a lot of resources, and excellent distribution mechanisms.”
Still, he was particular about which projects he brought to that level, noting that he made his 2014 short film “Quay,” about the American stop-motion animators, independently. “I wouldn’t do that at a studio,” he said. “But my interest in cinema is large-scale storytelling, and I think the studios are the best place to do that, if you can find a great working relationship.”