Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is not what you’d call a typical summer blockbuster in 2017. It’s a sober, intense World War II epic, starring a total unknown (Fionn Whitehead), with no potential as a franchise. It’s not a story of triumph, but rather an edgy chronicle of soldiers surviving by the skin of their teeth (it also features only British troops; at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation, America hadn’t even entered the war). In the current Hollywood landscape, which shunts such “prestige” pictures to the fall or winter to try and curry Oscar favor, Dunkirk’s July 21 release was extremely unusual, and its broad success (a $50 million opening weekend, well above tracking numbers) was a relative surprise.
So it’s no wonder that Nolan, who reportedly insisted on the summer release and believed in Dunkirk’s ability to garner wide appeal, has acquired an outsized status within the film industry. He’s one of the only directors working who can launch a movie on the strength of his name, and he’s a loud advocate for shooting on celluloid and embracing cinema’s potential as a uniquely overwhelming viewing experience. He’s criticized Hollywood for moving toward digital projection, and on the press tour for Dunkirk he supposedly began a public war with Netflix, the company that pushes for its original films to be released online the same day they hit theaters.
In an interview with IndieWire, Nolan criticized Netflix’s “day-and-date release” strategy, which has kept its original movies from playing in most major theater chains. “Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films,” he said. “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.” That outlook, strongly in favor of going to theaters rather than watching movies at home, has been critiqued by some as elitist. But Nolan’s outlook is fairly simple: He’s arguing for a model that’s inclusive of both experiences, rather than biased toward one.
Ava DuVernay, the director of movies such as Selma and the upcoming A Wrinkle in Time, who worked with Netflix to make the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, notably objected to Nolan’s comments on Twitter, asking, “But, what if there’s no movie theater in your neighborhood?” A film like 13th, one of last year’s most vital and important works, would have been much harder for most people to see before the arrival of Netflix. Instead, it’s available to anyone with a subscription (typically $10 a month), meaning anyone’s home can double as an arthouse cinema. Big-city dwellers might not have to think about it, but plenty of Americans have to drive for hours to see films in limited release. Streaming services remove that barrier.
There are plenty of downsides to the home-viewing experience, of course. I personally find myself much more prone to distraction when watching a film on my couch, hardly unusual in the smartphone age. The picture quality, even as 4K TVs become the norm and internet streaming quality continues to improve, is obviously not as impressive on a 50-inch TV as it is on a 50-foot-wide movie screen. But beyond that, Netflix does represent a more aggressive threat to theaters than any other home-viewing experience simply because of its release strategy.
Netflix’s CEO, Reed Hastings, has long contended that his company and theater chains can complement each other. The communal experience of a theater, he told Recode, is something viewers will always seek out even as TVs get more powerful, “Just like you go out to dinner even though you know how to cook,” he said. But that comparison is facile at best: Cooking is a complex multi-stage activity, while watching a film at home is the purest convenience. The better argument is one that’s been frequently noted for Dunkirk: Audiences will seek out the theater for more epic movies but may choose to stay home for smaller fare. The recent Hollywood favor for superhero franchises and big-budget action films has followed that trend, though the breakout success of comedies like Girls Trip tends to disprove it.
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.