Film is still dodging bullets despite being under heavy fire

From the dominance of Netflix and Disney to the rise of #MeToo and the downfall of Weinstein , there have been huge upheavals in the world of cinema, but through it all, people are still making and watching quality films

Ten years ago, writing in this place, I congratulated the seventh art on another decade of dodging bullets. Cinema had been evading annihilation for much of its busy history, skipping gingerly past television, VHS and the computer game. In late 2009, we still thought the threat would come from piracy. 

Meanwhile one trigger for the greatest series of paradigm shifts since the arrival of sound was forming itself from electronic mulch. The silly business of arranging human activity into decadal lumps has its occasional synchronistic miracles – Margaret Thatcher bookending British politics in the 1980s for instance – and, yes, Netflix really did start streaming in 2010. As we close the decade, the company, which began by sending punters DVDs in little white envelopes, looks set to boss the Academy Awards with The Irishman and Marriage Story. 

The 2010s also saw Walt Disney rise to unprecedented dominance as a set of franchises – most run by the Mouse House – carved up the multiplexes like the Allies sharing out post-war Berlin.

Everyone knew that women had been habitually mistreated in Hollywood, but the defenestration of that producer set off a movement that really does seem to have shifted attitudes

Some future histories may, however, treat those revolutions as less significant than the seizures that followed the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Everyone knew that women had been habitually mistreated in Hollywood, but the defenestration of that producer set off a movement that really does seem to have shifted attitudes. Excuses are no longer enough.

It took a few years for the film world to register the significance of the streaming upheaval. Not so long ago the wisest digital boffins argued no punters would pay for video when they (or their teenage children) could find the same stuff for free with a few illegal clicks. By delivering a large amount of easily accessible “content” for a relatively small fee, Netflix, like audial rivals such as Spotify, proved that there was a way to make the impossible possible. The video store was a goner. Cinemas worried. The studios did not, however, start quaking until, anticipated by few, Netflix expanded from exhibition to production.

Eight years after Netflix delivered its first original content with the TV series Lilyhammer, theatrical exhibitors, awards bodies and film festivals are still uncertain about what to do with the company’s “cinema” (we wouldn’t put those scare quotes around “films”, but they seem justified here). The debate came to its head at the Cannes festival in 2017 when Thierry Frémaux, director of the event, admitted two Netflix films – Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – into the competition for the Palme d’Or.

He later admitted that the decision almost cost him his job and, before the event even began, it was announced that from the following year Cannes would accept no films for competition without a commitment to release in French cinemas before streaming. None have appeared on the Croisette since. The festival dearly wanted Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma last year, but, aware that absurdly strict regulations would then keep the film from French Netflix for years, the streamer refused to commit to a theatrical release and Roma went to the more flexible Venice Film Festival.

Outside of awards season, Netflix’s commitment to theatrical exhibition is still sketchy

The company has since yielded in other territories. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story recently played in Irish cinemas (the former doing spectacular business), but, outside of awards season, Netflix’s commitment to theatrical exhibition is still sketchy. “Keep in mind; they are Coke to cinema’s Pepsi,” director Duncan Jones, who made Mute for Netflix, said of the streamer’s relationship with theatrical distribution. “Why should they support their rival? Their business relies on exclusive content now.”

For many punters this seems a theological debate to compare with medieval controversy about angels on pinheads. The Irishman is a movie in the same way that Goodfellas is a movie. Who cares if there’s a narrower window between its arrival in cinemas and its appearance on Netflix? The Other Side of the Wind, the abandoned Orson Welles project the company helped refurbish last year, may never have screened in Irish cinemas, but it is still recognisably a movie. Again, who cares?

As Scorsese highlighted in an incendiary interview this year, the multiplexes are increasingly dominated by superhero flicks, remakes of cartoons and other noisy franchises. Photograph: David Mercado/Reuters
As Scorsese highlighted in an incendiary interview this year, the multiplexes are increasingly dominated by superhero flicks, remakes of cartoons and other noisy franchises. Photograph: David Mercado/Reuters

The people who run cinemas care. Folk who want variety in those places care. As Scorsese highlighted in an incendiary interview this year, the multiplexes are increasingly dominated by superhero flicks, remakes of cartoons and other noisy franchises. More than anything else, they are dominated by Walt Disney. In 2010, two of the top-10 highest grossing films were released by that company. At time of writing, the company has six in the 2019 top 10: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Captain Marvel, Toy Story 4, Aladdin and Frozen II, but Star Wars Episode IX is certain to take a seventh place. (Include Spider-Man: Far From Home, produced by Disney’s Marvel Studios, but distributed by Sony, and you’re up to an eye-watering 8/10).

None of the films listed above came Disney’s way in its startling acquisition of 21st Century Fox. The House of Mouse owns Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and now one of the original “big six” studios. Following a cynical re-release, Avengers: Endgame passed out Avatar – which, thanks to the Fox deal, Disney also owns – to become the highest grossing film in history. No studio has come close to dominating in that fashion. They are to commercial cinema what Tampax once was to sanitary towels. 

Yet, for all the complaints and worries above, the miracle is that great films are still emerging and still playing in more adventurous cinemas. In terms of variety and quality, the 2010s was at least as fecund a period as the 2000s. Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster and The Favourite – both Irish productions for Element Pictures – broke different hunks of weird ground. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is among the most chilling and unsettling of alien infiltration movies. Space precludes even a sketch of the delights out there, but we anyway mention Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, László Nemes’s Son of Saul, Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage and Jordan Peele’s Get Out.

Irish film, necessarily modest of budget and exotic overseas, contributed to the new waves of diverting cinema

Such is the surge in high-quality independent features – and, it must be admitted, slump in mid-budget, middle-brow fare – that the Oscars have become more interesting (if less watched) than they have for 40 years. A film like Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, eventual victor over La La Land, would never have won best picture in the era of prestige sedatives such as Out of Africa and The Last Emperor.

Irish film, necessarily modest of budget and exotic overseas, contributed to the new waves of diverting cinema. We may still not have found that elusive “national cinema” in so far as anyone is looking for such a thing – but, by the middle of the decade, the lessons learnt since the reconstitution of the Irish Film Board in 1993 paid off in spectacular form. It still defies belief, but, at the 2016 Oscars, profiting from the success of John Crowley’s Brooklyn and Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, the board scored more nominations than Paramount and Universal combined.

Ben Cleary’s self-financed Stutterer won best live action short in a veritable annus mirabilis for domestic cinema. Abrahamson and Crowley now join forerunners such as Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan on the larger international stage. Meanwhile Pat Collins makes brilliant folk cinema, The Young Offenders brings Cork comedy to the world and Carmel Winters wows Toronto with Float Like a Butterfly. The board was recently renamed Irish Screen to recognise differing destinations for the moving image. There are few reliable maps for the territory ahead.

Of the convulsions mentioned here, the Weinstein Affair (“everybody knew” we kept hearing) should have been the most predictable but, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seemed to come out of a clear blue sky. Photograph:Justin Lane/EPA
Of the convulsions mentioned here, the Weinstein Affair (“everybody knew” we kept hearing) should have been the most predictable but, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seemed to come out of a clear blue sky. Photograph:Justin Lane/EPA

Of the convulsions mentioned here, the Weinstein Affair (“everybody knew” we kept hearing) should have been the most predictable but, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seemed to come out of a clear blue sky. Anybody who attended the BFI London Film Festival in 2017 will remember how dramatically the atmosphere changed between the opening and closing films.

At the beginning movie stars were still being asked about shoes and girlfriends. Then confirmation of Weinstein’s abusive behaviour towards women emerged. By the close, the only topic on the table was gender imbalance in an industry that had long lived in a state of denial. “I thought: yeah, everyone knew that about Harvey Weinstein,” the actor Mia Wasikowska told me recently. “It will blow over. He’ll be back making movies in five minutes. I was surprised to see it unravel. It’s not going to turn back again.”

Nobody should be complacent about the subsequent developments, but the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns ensured the struggle for equity could no longer be elbowed away. A year earlier #OscarsSoWhite made related arguments for racial diversity. (In passing, let us nod to the increasing influence of social media over the 2010s.)

As we move into the first Oscar season of the roaring twenties, we are, for all these judders, aware that many things remain the same. Netflix has rewritten some rules. Older audiences are less keen in attending cinemas. YouTube and other online services have pioneered new shorter forms of video entertainment. Yet this century-old thing called “the feature film” still exists.

We know one we see one. In 2017, upmarket periodicals such as Sight & Sound and Cahiers du Cinema shocked purists by including the most recent series of Twin Peaks among their films of the year. This proved an aberration. David Lynch’s show is conspicuous by its absence from the ongoing decadal polls. 

Our pal The Movie is still dodging those bullets. But the incoming fire is heavier than ever before.