What, if anything, has Netflix changed?

Perhaps it’s been more dramatic in disrupting its own business model than the culture of American film and television. There’s no question that what began in 1997 as a humble CD-in-the-mail experiment at the Santa Cruz, California Post Office with has morphed into the world’s first self-declared “global internet TV network.” The company’s terms of self-identity narrate this shift: from “the world’s largest online DVD rental service” in 2002 to “the world’s largest online movie rental service” in 2009 to “the world’s leading Internet subscription service for enjoying TV shows and movies” in 2011. Setting aside the abiding sentiment of the “world’s largest” or “world-leading,” the company receives deserved attention for its mercurial process of reinvention, all the while retaining the black-and-red visual identity which began circulating American living-rooms in the late 1990s.

These disruptions have left scholars uncertain about how to approach the so-called “Netflix effect.” Should the firm be placed in the history of direct mail marketers? After-market retailers? Silicon Valley start-ups? It claims to be a television network. Is it, really?

Meanwhile, its location at the southern end of Silicon Valley has caused some to note its silver screen ambitions, as if it’s reaching out 300 miles downstate, toward Hollywood. Gone are the days of competing with Blockbuster; now it’s for Oscars. Every now and again the Academy, or a big-name director like Christopher Nolan, will issue a rebuke, encircling the definition of cinema as a “theatrical experience.”

Eager to move from an online video library to a renowned studio, Netflix has enticed consequential directors like Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuarón to make branded originals, theatrical releases and all. Cuarón’s fantastic 2018 film Roma made evident the company’s desire for broader artistic recognition, but as long as it refuses to capitulate to Cannes Film Festival rules around French theatrical distribution, European cinematic prestige will elude Netflix. Beyond all these struggles and tensions with the old guard lies a deep mutual dependence, an awkward marriage between movies and the internet.

The Netflix/Hollywood intersection deserves a critical investigation that goes beyond squabbles over award eligibility, market-capitalisation strategies, and debates about cinema’s identity. While internet entertainment has folded together television and film in convoluted ways, the distinction between the two industrial forms remains as relevant as ever. A quick glance at any video-on-demand library informs you whether something is a series or a feature. Strangely, the exigencies of an old medium like the size of a film canister or the commercial schedule of broadcast television still inform the norms and styles of internet-based production. Netflix is not really a TV network, since it lacks the constitutive “flow” that famed academic and media critic Raymond Williams identified in broadcast culture. The company’s “after-play” feature cues a trailer rather than a commercial or the next program. And yet, the end credits of any film on Netflix are interrupted by one of those trailers, so we’re not really in the realm of cinema either. Despite the surface level blur of TV and film, Netflix depends deeply on extant film culture.

Its original TV content reflects this. Take the popular Stranger Things series as a prime example. The show combines the 80s neo-noir of Blade Runner with the dewy Spielbergian innocence of E.T. and Back to the Future. In doing so it harnesses a nostalgia for the very home-video culture Netflix helped eradicate and replace. Despite this reliance on past modes of film aesthetics, Netflix Australia resigns the history of film and television to something of a dustbin. Any Aussie searching out the gritty masculinism of the 1970s New Hollywood or the soft glamour studio era will be sorely disappointed, delivered over to the rental market of Amazon or Google. In this respect, Netflix is something of an inverted pyramid, with newly minted content smattered daily across its algorithmic marquee, but less and less below. It marginalises the very structure of film history on which it depends.

Many critics and scholars, as well as the broader public, presume internet-based screen culture mounts a challenge to traditional media industries like television networks and film studios. But why has the growth of internet television had such little appreciable impact on film form? In a digital ecosystem where it needn’t exist, Netflix has reasserted all the recognisable differences between a serial sitcom and Hollywood rom-com, between a four-part television documentary and three-act action flick. Perhaps, to know how the advent of the internet changed movie culture, this is the wrong place to look. Netflix, after all, is just a convenient avatar for the internet, a unique version of it that archives the cinematic culture it supposedly threatens.

The problem of what the web changed would best be answered by considering the films that were produced during the collapse of its first popular phase, just before its transition to a platform-based ecology.

One genre of loosely affiliated metaphysical comedies appears particularly well suited to answer this demand: Being John Malkovich (1999), Memento (2000), Donnie Darko (2001), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). I am inclined to read these films as technological parables that, by responding to the increased human involvement with computers, register the impact of web 1.0 on the genres and styles of film making.

More research on this problem is to come, and the broader topic of the internet’s relationship to the history of American movies is the subject of a new postgraduate unit of study at the University of Sydney, offered by the United States Studies Centre. Stay tuned!