As long as there have been movies, there have been cinemas, born out of necessity more than anything else. In the days of the Lumiere brothers there was no distribution method other than to invite their friends over for a private screening of their latest film. The tradition of going out to the moviehouse has stuck, despite the multiple alternative distribution methods of the film. But is this tradition going to last given the rise of video on demand?
Recently, Amazon announced that their video on demand service, Prime Video, will now be available in more than 200 countries, including South Africa. This news is music to the ears of binge watchers everywhere, but many film fans and critics have expressed their concerns that video on demand services such as Prime Video and Netflix will destroy the cinema experience and stifle the movie industry’s creativity in the process. And these claims are not entirely ungrounded.
Many an individual will seriously question the value of heading out to the cinema where the tickets are expensive, the popcorn is cold, the staff are half-hearted and the fellow movie-goers leave much to be desired. When this is juxtaposed with the comfort of one’s own couch, an equally good – if not quite as recent – film and at a fraction of the price, it seems like a no-brainer to cough up the roughly R150 per month (or less with Prime’s introductory offer) in return for unlimited viewing.
Furthermore, Netflix Original and Amazon Original have marked the dawn of a new era in content production. As corporations with deep pockets, Netflix and Amazon do not have to do nearly as much fundraising as a normal independent filmmaker, or even a production company, meaning that it will be a lot harder for such independents to compete. Netflix especially has delved enthusiastically into the world of original content, and when their financial headstart is combined with their desire to create entertainment for niche demographics, it is plain to see that quantity is abundant without the loss of too much quality.
The reason such niche focuses are possible is in part Netflix’s financial freedom, as it allows them space to experiment without being held accountable to a higher power. In addition to this, the video on demand environment is one that is often experienced by an individual rather than a group, which allows for targeted filmmaking. A movie made for cinema is designed to have elements that appeal to a wide variety of people, so that those people who find themselves viewing the film alongside an insistent friend will actually enjoy it. However, Netflix is not required to pander to such requirements. Each individual’s experience of the service is tailored, meaning that one is unlikely to stumble upon something completely outside one’s interests, so that each person’s experience of the service is entirely different. As a result, the original content created by video on demand services is often able to appeal only to a specific group of people.
And despite the concerns, the advances in film that are being brought on by video on demand have enormous benefits. First, the increased quantity of content allows for more opportunity for talented, fresh faces to enter the industry who would otherwise have been struggling amateurs. Secondly, the wider variety of content allows for greater cultural and racial diversity in film, allowing previously excluded groups to relate better to the entertainment industry. And lastly, the very nature of video on demand means that it is more accessible to the average consumer. Not only is it a great deal cheaper than the cinema, but it is also not constrained by location, the only requirement is a working internet connection.
But does this signal the death of the cinema? Certainly not within the next few years. We will most likely see far fewer films going to circuit before reaching television or video on demand, but such films will not disappear entirely. There is not yet a reliable method to bring 3D to a tablet or smartphone, and there is simply no parallel to the experience of IMAX. There are also many films that can only truly be experienced on the big screen, and whose value will be lost if they are scaled down to be handheld. Ultimately, despite the threat of video on demand, cinema will live on for years, decades and possibly even generations. And after all, who isn’t mesmerised by the irresistible taste of cold popcorn?