by Coop Cooper
I often praise the virtues of online Film/TV providers such as Netflix and Amazon Prime in this column, and while I feel the web is the future of film distribution, I am starting to see some problems with it. While it might seem like a jackpot for a filmmaker to get their films distributed on a streaming site like Netflix, it doesn’t always add up to positive results for the filmmakers or viewers. What that could mean for us: We might miss out on some great films – or tricked into watching bad ones – because they aren’t being promoted ethically, have misleading ratings or they might be tampered with in such a way that ruins it for the rest of us.
I recently talked to a producer/director who received offers from more than one online distribution site for his completed documentary. He declined because of the power such entities would have over his material once he sold it to them. After checking the contracts, he realized they could alter his content, add additional footage and completely change the entire purpose behind his documentary. Through talks with one of these entities, he discovered that they did indeed want to change the focus of his documentary from a historical piece – which was his original intent – into a muckraking exposé of an organization covered in the film. Once he learned this, he decided that he was shopping in the wrong market. Although these media companies offered him large sums to buy the film, he knew that he would be selling out his vision, possibly betraying the trust of those he interviewed and not providing the audience with an honest product. Because of this, he decided integrity was more important than money and decided to go another distribution route. While this practice isn’t new in Hollywood, these online services have a one-size-fits-all approach to most of their acquisitions that could put filmmakers at a disadvantage.
Another example of how things could be changing towards the negative is exemplified in Netflix’s new rating system. While their previous ‘star rating’ system was far from perfect, it did help viewers avoid some turkeys while highlighting some of the more obvious hits, indie darlings and blockbusters. What it didn’t help was the mid-range films that weren’t perfect but had decent entertainment value. Trolls were giving low ratings to good films, bringing their ratings down to the level of legitimately mediocre or outright films. Netflix probably also noticed this was potentially hurting their original content, so they changed the rating to a very confusing – and unhelpful – ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ system. This will probably stack the deck in favor of bigger-budgeted films, while smaller films would be more easily ignored. Netflix has been putting all of their effort into promoting their own ‘originals’ while the majority of the other films on the site get no fanfare. This has lead some film journalists to point out that really great films could get completely lost in the stacks of content that the service provides while Netflix’s own releases get big, fat promos on the home screen.
There is also theNetflix ‘match’ rating that tells you how likely you are to like a film based on your viewing history. After searching through these match ratings for awhile on my personal account, they seem to be largely inaccurate and arbitrary. This rating may tie into the thumbs up/down system, but so far this is unclear. Netflix also hides the ratings of its original content unless you go hunting for it in the title’s dropdown menu. This seems pretty shady considering you get immediate ratings from hovering your cursor over the other non-original titles. Netflix might be attempting to shield their own films from negative reviews and this seems believable after the star-rating of their highly-publicized Amy Schumer’s stand-up comedy film “The Leather Special” quickly downgraded after overwhelmingly negative reviews.
Since this is uncharted territory, I would hope these online services would be ethical in the handling of their content for the sake of both the producers and consumers. If these online services are indeed tampering with content or creating dishonest rating systems, I am glad we at least have Film/TV journalists keeping an eye on these things and pointing out the problems as they arise. Otherwise we could end up with sites peddling a bunch of unqualified junk more so than we already do now.