The conversation concerning developments in streaming service providers and digital, on-demand distribution has largely revolved around the accessibility of the latest blockbuster, foreign release, or independent, art-house feature, and how said film should or shouldn’t be viewed. Ideally, of course, wide, theatrical exhibition is preferred—the way films were intended to be seen, as the argument goes, existing for all who want to see them. Yet what regularly gets lost in this often-pessimistic debate is the noteworthy availability of classic and more obscure films via these numerous streaming services. From the sadly defunct FilmStruck and its ostensible Criterion Channel replacement, to Netflix, Amazon, Shudder, and even YouTube, today is an exceptional era of considerable access when it comes to cinema’s rich heritage.
While many decry the viewing of such work in anything but a grand theatrical venue, the reality is that most are not so fortunate to live in areas boasting these locations, and this bounty of content otherwise obtainable should not therefore be dismissed or taken for granted. No doubt, those privileged to live where repertory theaters and museums routinely showcase the complete or themed work of cinema’s greatest films and filmmakers should take advantage of the opportunity every chance they can. But many of these individuals, individuals who tend to have the most influential voice when it comes to contemporary cinematic discourse (or at least they have the largest platform to express their opinions), fail to consider just what a luxury that is. The rest of any given country is lucky to get a standard multiplex. For them, if they wish to experience a Hitchcock or Bergman retrospective, home viewing is likely the only option. What is, then, an ideal situation for some, sometimes becomes cause to begrudge those with an alternative—necessary and single—prospect.
Negative implications of streaming film reliance also focus on the perceived limits of such readiness. This similarly seems an outgrowth of those accustomed to having too much, too easily, and as a result, they’ve become too spoiled. In a recent Vanity Fair article by Elisabeth Donnelly1, Dennis Lim, director of programming for Film at Lincoln Center in New York (not exactly middle America), is quoted as saying the content appearing on streaming platforms “barely scratches the surface of what is theoretically available.” “It is,” he says, “a time that does not encourage proactive and curious engagement with the art form.” Sure, no single platform—not even all platforms combined—offers a complete survey of film history. But it’s better than before, and it’s better than nothing. And Donnelly’s argument that in 2019 it’s “getting harder than ever to be a film snob” depends heavily on what one considers a “film snob,” and how hard harder really is.
My own burgeoning cinephilia was limited early on by geographic exclusion, my cinematic imagination painted solely by film texts—savoring and mentally projecting films from their description and analysis—and by whatever titles happened to be shelved at the closest, usually lacking rental store. While it was possible to blind-buy more eclectic fare from certain mail-order sources (on VHS at the time), that was hardly the most cost-effective process. Today, although online retailers have dramatically increased the potential to explore global cinema for a price (on DVD/Blu-ray), diminished rental outlets have yielded more economical viewing options to the proliferation of online possibility. Donnelly correctly observes “the reality of the business means that learning about and finding films that matter requires enough money to subscribe to various services,” but does that suggest one should expect everything for free? Wouldn’t that hamper the funding of those who make and provide these cherished films? Besides, there is still an overwhelming quantity of content for free or for a nominal subscription fee, and with that comes nearly limitless possibilities. It is, on the contrary, difficult to imagine a better time to be a “film snob.”
Donnelly also quotes Midsommar actor and “self-described cinephile” Jack Reynor, who notes how “hard [it is] for people to find interesting films.” Sifting through the dense digital wilderness can admittedly produce empty, sometimes ponderous results, including films of capricious, even depressing condition: incomplete, edited, or blurry beyond recognition. And certainly, no outlet is completely comprehensive, so there are always going to be unattainable, sought-after titles. Discounting these instances, though, or when the occasional release has a streaming shelf life, this seems a small price to pay for the wealth of titles variously existing. Moreover, multiple streaming platforms fill pronounced gaps in the complete appreciation of diverse film histories. A quick Google search of a favored actor, actress, or director can produce a vast realm of associated work, and certain sites, like the Criterion Channel, regularly categorize their offerings by theme, filmmaker, time period, and star, easing the search for similar content and, almost as a by-product, placing the films within a historical context.
Taking it a step further, online communities have formed around these sites and their offerings, where social media campaigns promote the ability to communicate with others, sharing these films and engaging in an automatic conversation. Subscription-based digital access also fosters the positive potential to return to a film over and over again, without paying repeated admission or single rental fees, allowing for multiple viewings of a particular work at a pace conducive to the individual viewer. It lessens the financial strain of stopping a film midway through for reasons of late fees, peripheral interruption, or simple disinterest, and it relieves the burden from viewers unwilling or unable to travel for reasons of family, distance, or social disposition, all conditions that may, in fact, be detrimental to a film’s full enjoyment in the first place.
As streaming platforms remove films from obscurity and take their admirers out of localized isolation, this digital abundance can only favor a glorious addiction to cinema, where one movie leads to another, then another, and so on. It’s a process with never-before-seen potential: instant, unending discovery with the click of a button.
- Donnelly, Elisabeth. “The Film Snob’s Dilemma,” Vanity Fair. Aug. 2, 2019 < https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/08/netflix-hulu-amazon-streaming-film-snob> ↩