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'Defining' Battle

At the recently held 91st Academy Awards, odds-on favourite Roma missed out on taking home the coveted ‘Best Picture’ trophy but did have the consolation of winning the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ award along with twin Oscars – ‘Best Achievement in Directing’ and ‘Best Achievement in Cinematography’ – for its acclaimed creator, Alfonso Cuarón.

However, that is hardly the sole reason that the film has been making news (read: controversy) well before, and after, this particular awards function.

The heat-and-fury surrounding Roma essentially stems from the fact that this is a film backed by global streaming giant Netflix whose business model revolves around delivering compelling video content (including full-length motion pictures) to consumers on their personal devices – tablets, mobile phones, home entertainment systems et al. A key driver of the service’s competitive pitch is that much of this content is exclusively available only on its platform as ‘Netflix Originals’.

This ‘digital first’ mantra of Netflix – particularly with regard to films – has put it on a collision course with the traditional construct and hierarchy of the film ecosystem, especially in the world’s biggest film market, North America. This is a market which views theatrical exhibition as the primary outlet for film releases before they are made available on other, ‘home entertainment’, media like television broadcasts, DVDs and digital streaming.

While its primary global competitor, Amazon’s Prime Video, has been diligently playing by the rule book by honouring the 90-day North American window of theatrical exclusivity for films that it produces or acquires, Netflix has always been upfront about its intent to launch its film productions and acquisitions on its own platform first.

It is this ongoing, high-stakes tug-of-war that provides the backdrop for the often extreme reactions that Netflix evokes, with Roma itself being a mere pawn in a much larger and older battle at play.

One of the first salvos to be fired in this tussle between the old order and the disruptive upstart was at the 2017 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, when two Netflix films, The Meyerowitz Stories and Okja, were added to the festival line-up. The resulting outcry by the National Federation of French Cinemas and even the festival’s board members led to the quick reinstatement of an old rule necessitating a French theatrical release for entries in the competition section. Netflix retaliated by boycotting Cannes’ 2018 edition, even though Roma was considered a strong contender for the prestigious Palme d’Or, the festival’s top honour.

While Netflix may have passed on Cannes, the lure of the Oscars – and the resultant bump in prestige not only for the film but also its backer – proved harder to resist. The eligibility criteria for the Oscars, however, mandate a theatrical release in North America (Los Angeles county, to be specific) and expressly disqualify films that debut on platforms other than in theatres.

Netflix therefore relaxed its ‘streaming first’ rule for Roma and had a limited theatrical release in November 2018 before making the film available on its app just three weeks later. It was a move that paid off, as the film bagged 10 Academy Award nominations (the most this year along with The Favourite) and went on, as noted earlier, to win in three of those categories.

While the curtain may have come down on this year’s Oscars, the same cannot be said of the controversy surrounding Netflix, and among the many influential voices weighing in on this issue is that of the legendary Steven Spielberg.

Mr Spielberg has publically expressed his displeasure at non-theatrical films being eligible for Oscar consideration, suggesting that television awards like the Emmys may be a more appropriate forum to honour such fare. The highly-regarded filmmaker is reportedly going to recommend a minimum four-week theatrical run as a prerequisite for Oscar nominations at the next meeting of the Academy’s Board of Governors in April.

While we will soon find out what changes, if any, the Academy makes to its eligibility criteria, the issues at play here go way beyond the future of just an awards property or indeed, just a digital platform. What is really being contested here is the very foundation of the filmmaking business by posing to us a very simple yet hugely significant question: what constitutes a ‘film’?

Put differently: is the true essence of a film intrinsically linked to where and how it is consumed i.e. in a cinema hall in the same way that, say, the physicality and infrastructure of an amusement park is central to one’s experience there or a race track is integral to staging a horse race derby?

The Cinematograph Act, 1952, which governs film certification in India, does not provide much help in answering this question, merely stating that ‘film’ means a cinematograph film and defining ‘cinematograph’ as including any apparatus for the representation of moving pictures or series of pictures.

Most Indian film contracts also are silent on the centrality of theatrical exhibition, typically defining a film as ‘the full-length colour cinematograph film/motion picture in [] language tentatively titled []with the Key Cast [] and directed by the Director [].

Here’s how some of the world’s leading dictionaries define the noun ‘film’:

Oxford:
A story or event recorded by a camera as a set of moving images and shown in a cinema or on television.

Macmillan:
A series of moving pictures with sound that you can watch at the cinema or at home.

Cambridge:
A series of moving pictures, usually shown in a cinema or on television and often telling a story.

Collins:
A film consists of moving pictures that have been recorded so that they can be shown at the cinema or on television.

Merriam-Webster:
A recording of moving images that tells a story and that people watch on a screen or television.

It is perhaps telling that none of the above definitions singles out theatrical consumption as an essential qualification for a content piece to be called a ‘film’ and though cinemas are uniformly mentioned as places where films are watched, so is the television.

It would seem, therefore, that the raging Netflix-inspired debate on what qualifies as a film is not really about semantics or differing legal interpretations but represents a much broader contest with ideological, philosophical and, needless to say, commercial considerations fuelling it.

One suspects that this is a discussion in which, where you stand depends on where you sit! Our exhibitor friends would passionately espouse the communality of the big-screen theatrical experience as what differentiates cinema from a television soap opera or a mobile phone video clip, while our producer brethren will probably advocate that a film is a film, irrespective of which platform pays…err… plays it!

 

- Nitin Tej Ahuja

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