Nolan’s issue, however, is not really with the very existence of streaming services. In the same IndieWire interview, he praised the model of Amazon Studios, which buys the rights to small indie films like The Big Sick and finances larger efforts like James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, releases them wide in theaters, and then later presents them exclusively on the Prime streaming platform. “You can see that Amazon is very clearly happy to not make that same mistake,” Nolan said. “The theaters have a 90-day window. It’s a perfectly usable model. It’s terrific.”
Amazon has had serious success with its approach, which has drawn more big-name filmmakers because of the commitment to the theatrical-release window, and nabbed two Oscar wins for Manchester by the Sea last year (along with an impressive $48 million domestic gross). Netflix’s margins of success are harder to gauge because the company releases no consistent data on how many people watch its movies. The company does release potential Oscar players like War Machine and Okja in a few theaters, and has a deal with the high-end iPic chain, because the Academy demands a theatrical release to qualify films for its awards. But none of these Netflix movies has ever made any money—in fact, box-office data for Okja, one of the best films of 2017, is completely unavailable.
I was blown away by Okja when I saw it at a critics screening; anecdotally, I’ve been surprised at how many people I know were underwhelmed by it when viewing it at home. It may just be a matter of taste, of course, but a Bong Joon-ho film is certainly the kind of heightened, intense experience that benefits from shutting out the outside world for two hours. At the same time, it’s a movie about a super-pig that had an English and Korean script and cost $50 million to make: It’s hard to imagine Okja’s existence without Netflix, which threw down a budget twice that size to lure Martin Scorsese to make his next gangster epic The Irishman (coming in 2018).
It’s a strange conundrum: Netflix is at once supporting fascinating movies and exciting artists but discounting the essential theater experience. Nolan himself is certainly unmoved: “I think the investment that Netflix is putting into interesting filmmakers and interesting projects would be more admirable if it weren’t being used as some kind of bizarre leverage against shutting down theaters,” he told IndieWire. “Your worst nightmare in the ’90s as a filmmaker was that the studio would turn around and go, ‘You know what? We’re going to put it on video instead of theaters.’ They did that all the time. There’s nothing new in that.”
It’s naïve to look at multi-billion-dollar companies like Netflix and Amazon as serene benefactors of the cinematic arts; they’re ultimately businesses interested in propagating the streaming model (especially Netflix). But it’s also too simple to dismiss their power to bring films like 13th to a wider audience. Nolan’s main argument—for a streaming company that still commits in some way to the cinema experience—is not some elitist claptrap, but a reasonable plea from an artist who believes that movies are best enjoyed, if possible, in movie theaters. There are, of course, plenty of ways to appreciate cinema—and Nolan understands that Amazon’s embrace of multiple formats, rather than Netflix’s allegiance to one, is a more effective way to keep the industry thriving for future generations.