Christopher Nolan is no fan of Netflix, or, at least, he’s no fan of how Netflix distributes movies. On the PR trail for Dunkirk, Nolan’s said he won’t work with the company because they don’t give movies time to screen in theaters. But while Nolan has a point, it may only be one that applies to movies like Dunkirk.
Nolan sums it up pretty well in his discussion with IndieWire:
“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.”
And, to be fair, for a movie like Dunkirk, he’s got a point. Shot in 70mm, Dunkirk is clearly made with a theatrical experience in mind. It’s a movie Nolan built, from the ground up, to be seen in the theater. But the reality of the matter is the vast majority of the people who wind up seeing it, even loving it, won’t do so in a theater.
It’s simple math. The average American, out of the 235 million Americans who go to movies, saw about five movies a year in 2015. That year, 155 movies hit theaters in wide release, on 500 screens or more. That’s not including movies like, say, The Big Sick, which open small and have to do well on a handful of screens in major urban centers before opening in more theaters. Some succeed. Others never get seen on the big screen outside of a few cities, and once a movie goes off the big screen, it’s up to an increasingly tiny number of repertory theaters to bring them back.
Compare that with Netflix, which on an average day streams 125 million hours of video and can easily go above twice that if there’s a weather event trapping enough of the country indoors. More to the point, Netflix is everywhere, on our TVs, in our pockets, on our computers, with us wherever there’s a WiFi signal fast enough. Is your phone the ideal viewing experience? Probably not. But for a lot of people, it’s the viewing experience they have for most movies, and in some cases, it’s the only one they have.
Going to see a movie is becoming harder in America. It has become steadily more expensive just for a ticket, let alone concessions, and over the last two decades, the number of theaters in America has dropped. To see a specific movie, you generally have to catch it within two weeks of release, or you may be out of luck. Some movies just will never return to the big screen after their theatrical run.
And that’s just from a filmgoer’s perspective. Any filmmaker can tell you the biggest struggle with any movie is just getting anybody, anybody at all, to give up two hours of their lives to watch it. For some in Hollywood, Netflix is the only way to get their movie made, let alone seen. Does every filmmaker want their movie to open on 4,000 screens across the country? Absolutely. But that’s a Herculean, expensive task that’s beyond most filmmakers’ budgets and emotional capabilities.
It would be nice if movie theaters were in every town in America. There’s a magic to seeing a movie on the big screen, in a darkened theater with a packed house. But it’s also one that’s becoming harder to reach. Christopher Nolan undeniably has a point: Every movie should have a shot to be seen in a theater with an audience. But unless you’re a filmmaker with the clout of, well, Christopher Nolan, that’s becoming a harder goal to reach.