In 2015, Tom McCarthy made the journalism drama “Spotlight,” which won the Oscar for best picture. This year his follow-up feature, “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” skipped theaters and headed directly to Disney Plus. Best picture it won’t be. As the streaming landscape expands and more movies bypass a theatrical release to land on your welcome screen, we wondered: do these movies have a quality issue? Or should we accept that most streaming-only movies are “good enough”? We put these questions to critics who regularly review these movies for The Times.
Should we have lower expectations for the quality of streaming-only movies? Should they be considered the modern equivalent of straight-to-video, or are they headed in a different direction?
JASON BAILEY It’s tempting to put straight-to-streaming movies in the same box as straight-to-video, and a fair number of them achieve the same function; streaming-service home pages need “filler,” new content to feed an ever-widening maw, as much as video stores once did. But I think it’s more accurate to think of the streaming platforms in terms of the old studio system. MGM, Fox, Paramount, et al., much like Netflix, controlled not only the means of production, but also their own distribution networks (in the form of studio-owned theaters). So they had to create a lot of product. And thus, some of their films were A-list, with big stars and high production values, and sometimes they made B-movies, with lower budgets, lesser performers and less attention. Netflix is doing roughly the same thing, and it’s not hard to sniff out the difference between, say, “The Irishman” and “Sextuplets.”
ELISABETH VINCENTELLI I agree that Netflix, Amazon et al. have become the new studios — at least in terms of putting movies in front of eyeballs, since they don’t always participate in the production process and just pick up distribution rights. And they’re better at it than legacies like Warner Bros. or Universal or Sony Pictures, which have little interest in “Okja” or “The Land of Steady Habits.”
Streaming has also made it easier to find two categories that have long been undervalued in the U.S. The first is foreign films, from prestige entries like “Roma” to smart fluff like the candy-colored French comedy-thriller “The World Is Yours” — it’s great to see how other countries tackle genre. The second category is B movies: tight actioners (“Gerald’s Game”), surprisingly fun star vehicles (yes, “Bright” is awesome), anything Steven Soderbergh feels like making on his phone.
Now, how to find the good stuff?
KYLE TURNER While I am inclined to agree with the points that Jason and Elisabeth have made about streaming platforms playing the role of new studios, it is hard for me not to think of these platforms as tech companies in the guise of studios. It’s a similar kind of factory churning out the same kind of product that the old studios did, but with an added element of data mining.
What is frustrating is that, as opposed to browsing a video store or even walking into one of these B-movies blindly at the theater, it’s much easier for the gems (particularly films that have been picked up for distribution, as opposed to produced by one of the platforms) to get buried beneath something that the platform wants to push harder. To Elisabeth’s point, the question is how to find the gems? I think the rhetoric of egalitarianism is insidiously misleading.
NATALIA WINKELMAN Oh man, lowering expectations for movies feels depressing. Like Jason said, distinguishing between “Marriage Story” and “The Kissing Booth” is easy, and it’s our job to take each on its own terms, as the saying goes. Yet my favorite streaming originals tend to be outside of the A or B-list categories: the smaller, indie titles that might have trouble jockeying for attention among the hundreds of others featured. As Kyle pointed out, many of these are being purchased out of film festivals — “The Incredible Jessica James,” “Tramps” — and there’s clearly a learning curve for the platforms when it comes to promoting them later on. These movies are surely appearing on my streaming home pages, but the Big Brother algorithms might do them dirty for others. I think we can, and should, encourage the platforms to balance data mining with curation. We should expect more of them rather than less.
CANDICE FREDERICK I think straight to-video and streaming-only are different entities, and the former does have the reputation of being of lesser quality. I consider streaming-only contributions along the same bar as TV movies. But the last 10 years or so have taught us that the small screen often has more progressive and compelling content than the big screen. So, I don’t think we should lower our standards because of an outdated perception of TV content. This is complicated by the fact that there is limitless content on streaming platforms, creating more opportunities for poor-quality movies to find a home. That’s just math. But that doesn’t negate the fact that streaming-only options are viable players in the game and should be treated with as much integrity as you would anything else.
While awards aren’t everything, the current setup of industry accolades leaves most streaming-only movies out of the party. We’ll only be seeing more of these movies as the industry shifts. Should they get their own category of awards consideration?
WINKELMAN As of late, streaming platforms have sometimes gotten around the Oscars’ pesky theatrical requirement by “four-walling” — or renting out temporary theater space — for any movies they deem worth betting on. That allows their prestige releases to play in the same game, and at least partially preserves the tradition of a theatrical release in the process. Adding streaming-only awards categories might seem like a way to confer importance — and encourage improved quality — but I don’t think that’s how it would work in practice. Segregating streaming movies could have an opposite effect, suggesting that they are fundamentally different or less artful. It’s also a little patronizing, given that deserving streaming titles are already being recognized — both at the Oscars and the Emmys, where HBO Films pushed for the fantastic “The Tale.” The idea reminds me of the academy’s accursed popular films award, which was promptly backpedaled after it was met with resounding scorn.
TURNER Natalia’s point resonates with me, particularly in the sense that a category for streaming-based movies would suggest that these movies were inherently different; that something in their making was crucially unlike other movies that could be in contention. A streaming category would only be about the format, not about content, like the way the Golden Globes recognize, say, comedies that would otherwise get sidelined during awards season.
But the theatrical-screening practices of Netflix suggests the bizarre priorities and flaws within both streaming and awards: what Netflix will release theatrically is extremely selective in the grand scheme of their original content library, and awards are similarly selective in what they’ll even consider, even with the industry’s political pushing. Including festival pickups, these platforms already have a library of fascinating titles whose visibility is flattened; a new awards category would just encourage both streaming platforms’ and awards givers’ bad habits of neglect.
FREDERICK I think that adding a special category for streaming-only films would not only suggest that they’re different, but that they’re also of lesser quality than other nominated films. And a lot of times that’s just not true.
I do think that streaming platforms will have a lot to sift through in terms of what they think is a viable contender for, say, an Academy Award (if they choose to put the film in theaters to qualify it). To combat that, they might become more selective about acquiring content. Still, even if a movie isn’t considered to have a good shot at a nomination, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good movie. Viewers deserve a variety of films, including ones (like the comedy “Someone Great”) that aren’t considered “prestige” by an extremely finite group.
BAILEY It’s tempting to resist framing awards as affirmation, since we all know how flawed that thinking is (and everyone has their own list of unjustly ignored and/or unduly rewarded films to make that case). But it’s very clear that this is a goal for the streamers, and probably a frustration. Is there any doubt that if a traditional studio released “Marriage Story” or “The Irishman,” they would have taken home far more Oscars than they did?
But to my thinking, this sort of recognition, this confirmation of legitimacy, is inevitable — because the shifting of the industry is inevitable (indeed, already well underway). The film business may be liberal in politics, but it’s conservative in practice; there is, undeniably, resistance to changes in the basic business model. But eventually, films will come along that are simply too good to be stigmatized, and that’ll be that. Until then, to borrow a phrase from an aforementioned film, it’s what it is.
VINCENTELLI I agree with Jason that streaming originals will inevitably become legitimate contenders for awards, with or without a theatrical run. This means that streaming platforms will have to be more selective, as Candice said — though not about what they acquire, which will remain a lot, but in terms of what they decide to market and how. In that way they will be even more like the studios of yore, which would make prestige films, middlebrow fare and drive-in fodder. That comparison is reinforced by Netflix making public a “Top 10 in the U.S. Today” list — we’re getting a little closer to something akin to box-office figures for streaming, minus actual numbers. If we ever get cross-platform figures, then we’ll be even closer to a certain old-school model of tallying commercial success. And so now we have circled back to the idea of curation: awards and indicators of popularity are a form of that after all. Perhaps there is also a future for us critics!
Orignially published in NYT.