Amazon and Netflix need to decide if they’re in the TV or movie business

Netflix

Each spent big bucks on films at this year’s Sundance – but can they be taken seriously as film distributors when they’re so firmly associated with TV shows?

The deal-making news out of Sundance is confounding for many reasons. It’s not just the amount of money getting paid for festival hits, but who’s buying them. Amazon shelled out $10m for indie drama Manchester by the Sea. Netflix ponied up $7m for road-trip movie The Fundamentals of Caring and is on a bit of a spending spree this year, picking up a host of narrative films. That’s great news for independent cinema, but, um, aren’t Amazon and Netflix actually TV?

Taking Park City by storm and throwing around a lot of cash is obviously these two streaming giants’ bid to be taken seriously as distributors and possibly win themselves some awards, preferably an Oscar. (And if Casey Affleck doesn’t win for Manchester by the Sea, there is nothing just and holy in this world.) This strategy has been incredibly successful for both of them before – but on the small screen. I have a sneaking suspicion it might not work as well the second time around.

Netflix came out of the gate with political drama House of Cards, which has been nominated for multiple Emmys for each of its three seasons and won a Golden Globe for each of its leads, Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey. They followed it up with prison dramedy Orange is the New Black, which has won several Emmys for its outstanding and diverse cast. Amazon has fewer original series but one of its first, transgender comedy Transparent, won both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for star Jeffrey Tambor and was the top Emmy nominee in last year’s awards. Both companies have also been on a huge acquisition push for classic TV shows. Netflix paid dearly for the Friends catalogue and Amazon was eventually outbid by Hulu for all of Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom misadventures.

These tactics, the same they’re using now at film festivals, are what got critics, awards voters, and – most importantly – the American public to classify both of them as television, even if more people watch the services on their laptops, tablets, or gigantic phones instead of actual TV sets. I don’t know about you, but when I go to Netflix it’s almost entirely to watch one TV program or another; but when I want to see a movie I, well, go to the movies.

The Birth Of A Nation

It’s exactly this conception that seems to be hurting them in the film world. According to the Hollywood reporter, Netflix bid $20m on breakout slave revolt drama The Birth of a Nation, but the film-maker chose to go with the $17.5m Fox Searchlight offered him. It’s still the biggest deal in Sundance history, but why take $2.5m less? Apparently Netflix insisted on releasing the movie in theaters the same day it was available on their streaming service, which isn’t what Birth of a Nation writer/director/star Nate Parker wanted – he wanted a big theatrical release. Essentially he wanted to be a movie, not a television movie.

Netflix had some trouble with the strategy of putting a film online and in theaters on the same day. The first time it tried it with the Idris Elba vehicle Beasts of No Nation, many theaters refused to carry the film because it wouldn’t be available exclusively in theaters. It earned a paltry $90,777 and didn’t manage to net one Oscar nomination (though it probably deserved one for Elba but #OscarsSoWhite). Why didn’t people show up at the cineplex to watch this well-regarded drama? Because they could sit at home and watch it on television.

(Also, as Netflix released the movie in theaters, the world has a box office figure that translates to the amount of interest in the film. It still refuses to release any viewership data on how its shows or movies do online.)

Even during this Golden Age of Television that we hear so much about, the film world is still incredibly snobby about being better than television – and now that Netflix and Amazon are regarded as TV, they’re going to have a very difficult time breaking out of it. Right now it seems like they’re less like movie studios and more like HBO, another huge presence at Sundance every year, where it gobbles up every tasty documentary like a bear waking up after hibernation.

HBO is definitely TV (despite its “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” slogan), and the documentaries it buys are seen as such. HBO offers subscribers a mix of the best original programs and older theatrical releases and has a streaming service people pay a monthly subscription fee for. Who else does that sound like? That’s right: Amazon and Netflix. Sorry, Silicon Valley newcomers, but that makes you television too.

Even the definition for television becomes murkier as we rush toward an all-on-demand-all-the-time future where there is little designation between what “content” is or where it’s presented. But until then, we’re dealing with the legacies of old media, and it’s going to be a much harder fight for Netflix and Amazon to be taken seriously in the film world, especially considering their inroads into television.

Speaking of which, congratulations go out to both services for their original works that debuted at Sundance. Netflix gave the world a sneak peak of Chelsea Does and Amazon will unveil The New Yorker Presents at the festival later this week. Yup, they’re both TV shows.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Brian Moylan, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 27th January 2016 20.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010