What TV Streaming is Doing to Our Cinematic Culture

By Magda Olchawska, Impakter.com. Published July 3, 2021.

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TV streaming on platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple TV, Disney+, etc., offer everything and anything: Reality shows, cooking shows, TV shows, shorts, and of course, feature films. All of that somehow goes under an unfavorable umbrella term, “content” – as masterfully explained by Martin Scorsese in a nostalgic essay about the grand maestro of cinema, Federico Fellini. Or as Nicholas Russell commented in an Op-ed piece on the UK Guardian when Amazon purchased MGM a month ago, this is “a reminder that movies and shows are just commodities to be traded and hoarded.”

Yet to produce all the films and shows, TV streaming on those platforms, the so-called “disturbers of the natural order”, need creative talents to fulfill their production goals. That need offers opportunities for filmmakers like never before. And this translates into opportunities to launch careers, discover new talents, and fulfill dreams of telling stories that haven’t been told before.

Young filmmakers are taught to make films for the big screen, films that would be screened in cinemas and festivals around the world. We all dream that dream. However, even before the pandemic, filmmakers knew that the process of getting a film distributed on the big screen wasn’t entirely as simple as it might have once seemed.

Pre-pandemic, the cinematic calendar was packed with hundreds of weekly premieres, which was challenging to keep track of. Most of those titles, premiering in cinemas, were lost in the sea of other media coverage and content, all fighting for the viewers’ attention.

Only the titles with mega movie stars and/or lots of marketing and promotional money behind were able to grab the audience’s attention for long enough to splash on the tickets and popcorn.

In such a highly competitive environment, small films had rather tiny chances of surviving, not to mention thriving financially.

TV Streaming: A Lifeline for Aspiring and Indie Filmmakers

With the arrival of the streaming platforms, the accessibility scale has slightly been tipped over and has thrown the indie folks such as myself a lifeline. Streaming platforms look for a variety of films and specifically for genre films. Every filmmaker knows that making films for everyone is a myth, and audiences like to watch a specific genre or want to see actors they like.

For an indie film to be noticed, the filmmakers have to target their niche audience from the moment the pre-production begins. This isn’t an easy task, but if specific creative distribution tactics are implemented ahead of the release date, it’s possible to succeed.

Luckily, the Internet allows us to find that niche audience much more easily and with fewer financial resources. Cinematic distribution is a costly venture, and independent films cannot compete with Hollywood productions when it comes to such expenses.

In the reality of the film business, the odds of unknown filmmakers getting a multimillion budget to make their projects are slim. So, they need to prove themselves first, which is a catch 22 because how can you prove your talent if you don’t have enough resources to tell the story in the first place.

And this is where the Internet and streaming TV platforms come in.

I’m a firm believer that the Internet has democratized the filmmaking scene; a lot of middle people, who were gatekeepers, have been cut out, allowing people without connections or financial backing to make films and become essential voices in the changing social and cultural landscape.

Of course, there are other gatekeepers now or the original ones act in a different capacity, but at least nowadays filmmakers have a choice and, most importantly, can keep the rights to their work and distribute their films any way they choose, without having someone else decide to shelve their film for the next 20 years.

Independent filmmakers and content creators push the creative change forward, giving creators opportunities never seen before, such as connecting filmmakers directly with the audience, diversifying earning possibilities and opportunities (that has always been a massive problem in the creative sector), etc.

In the past, the cinema was disrupted by the arrival of television on the scene, pulling audiences away from movie theaters. Likewise, the TV streaming services have recently disturbed the existing order. I believe that most stories translate perfectly well to a small screen. Those grand titles that are too big to watch on a small screen get cinematic treatment alright, and the Hollywood marketing machine always makes sure that everyone knows when those grand films open (those big-budget productions have enough money to target everyone with their marketing messages).

As I’ve already mentioned, it’s really tough for indie films to break in. Even if the film is directed by an A-lister or has known actors in it, it’s often impossible to compete with the buzz Hollywood stirs up for its eagerly anticipated premieres. Hence Hollywood isn’t overly keen on investing in independent films, which are considered riskier since it’s particularly challenging to reach the right audience in the traditional way (interviews, paid adverts on TV, traditional press, festival awards).

The TV streaming platforms are a sound alternative for all those films that would never have seen daylight because a big figure in the marketing department thinks the story isn’t marketable enough. Regardless of the amount of content on streaming platforms, it’s possible to be successful there. However, a lot of groundwork needs to be done before the release date, and a team of specialists could make that happen. Such a team doesn’t have to be large but it is an indispensable support for a solo filmmaker who cannot do much beyond the actual film production at the risk of burning out from work overload.

With TV Streaming, Cultural Offerings are Broadened and Richer than Ever

There have already been many inspiring indie campaigns that involved hybrid distribution (theatrical + streamers), which were not only able to recoup their budgets but also to make some profit. In the indie crowd that is considered a success story. “Columbus” was one of the films with a $700,000 and $1.1 million box office. “Thunder Road” is another example of an ultra-small film made on $200,000, whose filmmakers cleverly utilized the hybrid distribution model to make $446,423 in box office revenue.

TV Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have already revived documentaries, which are blossoming at the moment. Cinemas largely dropped documentaries from their repertoire a long time ago; even award-winning documentaries had a hard time getting distributed.

Nowadays, if you want to watch a specific documentary, there will always be at least one streaming platform that has it available. For example, we are now seeing unusual documentaries emerge and even gaining unexpected traction, like My Octopus Teacher or Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things.

The streaming platforms are bringing back to life other genres too. Genres that cannot make it to the big screen or tiny budget indie projects without backing from the big guys can beautifully thrive in the online space, opening the doors for the filmmakers to future big-screen projects. For example, LGBTQ “The Half Of It” illustrates the kind of hurdles faced by independent films.

They always need more exposure regardless of how well known the director is or if any A-list actors are in it or not. Just to name a couple of titles: “Sorry We Missed You”, “Blue Jay”.

In fact, Netflix invests heavily in local products: Typical is the “Lupin” series, a mega international hit and it’s French (and in French). That only proves that people don’t mind subtitles as long as the story is interesting and the characters intriguing.

In my opinion, streaming platforms can only help cinematic culture reinvent itself and find new ways of communicating with the audience through storytelling. I think the time of multiplexes is gone.

This said it doesn’t mean that the era of watching films with strangers or your friends when the lights go down is over. And the times ahead of us are going to be full of amazing stories, diverse stories that audiences across the world will have a much easier time accessing than ever before.