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Streaming in the time of Coronavirus 6 min read

Streaming in the time of Coronavirus

COVID-19 has us all homebound. Or at least it should, at this point. For most of us, that means streaming content, and today's newsletter considers Netflix's impact on the industry.

By Cary Littlejohn
Streaming in the time of Coronavirus Post image

It’s COVID-19, 24/7 these days. And also the watchwords of social distancing and self-quarantine.

In the wake of cancellations and closures across all categories of life, I can’t stop thinking about what a lucky thing it was that True/False Film Fest made it under the wire and went off without a hitch a week before the University of Missouri was reduced to remote classes conducted via the Internet. For Columbia, a quintessential college town, I can’t really imagine a March and April that look like June and July; they’re decidedly different times in such a city, as students are a vital component of the city’s makeup and when they’re not bustling about, it’s definitely noticeable. More than that, Columbia’s mayor is calling for a ban on gatherings of more than 25 people, which is unimaginable to anyone walking the streets of downtown last weekend amid the festivities.

Just a week ago, Columbia was home to one of the most original and unique film festivals in the country. Despite the universal praise for the festival, I can’t help but think that the fear of the virus depressed the turnout of critics at the nation’s biggest outlets. Here’s a recap of a handful of films and distribution information from Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson, a True/False regular. Also check out the tireless work of Vox magazine in Columbia for a full recap of all the films that you should see when they release or stream.

Thinking about True/False has my mind focused on documentaries, so I was excited to see the trailer for a film that people of my generation (and older) will certainly appreciate. It’s called The Last Blockbuster, and it’s all about the world’s last remaining Blockbuster video store, which just happens to reside in Bend, Oregon.

I remember the mixed feelings about Blockbuster’s arrival in my small hometown of Selmer, Tennessee, as many were loyal to the mom-and-pop video store called Movie World. Blockbuster came in, and eventually, Movie World couldn’t compete. Blockbuster felt solid, like it had permanence nearly on par with the Walmart that sat across the street. As the world continued to change so quickly, there was a moment when Blockbuster was bestowed something akin to that mom-and-pop charm, not completely dissimilar to how Barnes & Noble would love to be seen as independent booksellers in the Age of Amazon. How quaint that notion seems now, as the documentary shows, that it’s the only one left in the entire world.

I’m excited about this film not just because it’s subject matter — home movie rentals – defined a huge portion of my early life, but the demise of an American institution such as Blockbuster was a tipping point that I can remember. After Blockbuster shut down hundreds of corporately owned locations, there were only 51 franchise locations that remained open. One of which sat just a mile from my parents’ house. Another, just 20 minutes away, was in Corinth, Mississippi. We saw the closures nation-wide, but somehow our stores remained open. Until they couldn’t. It was fun even five years ago to marvel at this relic of a bygone era that still operated in these small Southern towns, places that hadn’t seemed to be able to keep up with the world around them.

All of this reminded me of a great line from a great story in The Ringer from a Mizzou alum, Justin Heckert. He chronicles the final days of the three remaining Blockbuster stores in Alaska. In it, he writes: “The joke about Anchorage was that it was 10 years behind the Lower 48, like that’s how long it took for time to breach the barrier of the mountains.” It’s a piece full of quirky characters and nostalgia and simple, touching anecdotes, especially for those of us old enough to remember similar stories from our own lives.

It was hard to remember exactly what it had been like to rent a movie. What it felt like on a Friday or Saturday night, hoping all the copies in the NEW RELEASE section weren’t already gone. What it felt like to run into people, the serendipity of movie store as gathering spot, what it felt like to stand around the counter and listen to the banter of the staff, who knew each other’s tastes, and peccadillos. The slogans that were everywhere — MAKE IT A BLOCKBUSTER NIGHT! — on walls and the desks and dangling on string from the overhead tiles. It was hard to remember exactly how /bright/ it was in Blockbuster, and just how big the stores were, and the gray-blue carpeting and that the walls were yellow-dull and they all looked pretty much the same. And that its membership cost nothing at all, that going there and getting a movie didn’t require an entry fee, like the internet.

Read it here:

The Last Days of Blockbuster Video | The Ringer

It’s interesting to think about what replaced Blockbuster, especially after hearing the line in the trailer for the documentary:

Did you know that Blockbuster had a chance to buy Netflix, but they didn’t.

Netflix has become the hum in the background, the ever-present force in our lives that we rarely think about in terms of its mechanics. I revisited this enterprising piece of data journalism from The Atlantic all the way back in 2014. It provides an incredible peek into the data collection and categorization that makes Netflix’s vaunted “algorithm” so effective (and somewhat scary).

What emerged from the work is this conclusion: Netflix has meticulously analyzed and tagged every movie and TV show imaginable. They possess a stockpile of data about Hollywood entertainment that is absolutely unprecedented. The genres that I scraped and that we caricature above are just the surface manifestation of this deeper database.

Read it here:

How Netflix Reverse-Engineered Hollywood | The Atlantic

I catch myself, at times, referring to Netflix as a stand-in for the entire ecosystem known as “streaming services,” like how some Southerners use the word “Coke” as a stand-in for all soft drinks. But it’s clearly not the only player in the field; even back in 2016, we pondered the question: Can Netflix survive  in the world it created?

Read it here:

Can Netflix Survive in the New World It Created? | The New York Times

It’s interesting to consider how Netflix produces so much content. Just how do so many projects get the green light? Especially when some of it is objectively bad. But this New York Magazine story paints a picture of a company “oriented at saying ‘Yes’ in a town that’s built to say ’No.’”

“Two layers beneath Cindy have full greenlight” authority, Sarandos says. “The only way that we can do what we do at the quality and volume we’re doing it is to give power to my executives to make those choices.” One agent I spoke to told me that translates to at least “five or six” scripted-development executives he can pitch knowing they have the authority to make a project a reality. The heads of Netflix’s other big divisions — international, unscripted, documentary, stand-up comedy — are similarly able to give an idea the go-ahead. “Most of my team have more buying power than anyone has selling power in Hollywood. My direct-report team can greenlight any project without my approval. They can greenlight it /against/ my approval!” says Sarandos

Read it here:

How Netflix Swallowed the TV Industry | Vulture

One has to wonder if the explosion of streaming services is a good thing? Or, looking back at Blockbuster as a cautionary tale, whether it portends something ominous for the entertainment industry. Consider a New York Times story from last year, as it grapples with the ongoing bid for domination of the streaming market:

When I brought up the tension between quality and quantity to Holland, she rejected the premise. “That’s a paradigm set by our competitors,” she argued, “who have much smaller budgets and less ability to provide a large volume of content to their viewers.” But budgets are only one part of the equation. Someone who works in series development framed this matter for me using the benchmark example of “The Sopranos”: When HBO broadcast that series, beginning in 1999, it boasted a roster of not just top-tier actors, writers and directors but also of cinematographers, casting directors, location scouts and so on. This was possible because its creator, David Chase, enjoyed his pick of talent in an industry that had done a pretty good job till that point of squandering it on far less ambitious shows (if not outright junk). Twenty years later, it’s harder to picture that kind of concentration of talent in a single project, because the proliferation of shows has splintered and scattered those writers, actors and scouts — leading the medium from its early-aughts “golden age” to what some critics have called the era of “good-enough” TV.

Read it here:

The Great Race to Rule Streaming TV | The New York Times

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