There is no doubt that Netflix is a behemoth in the world of cinema. Despite being a platform that showcases movies from a wide range of genres, filmmakers, and budgets, Netflix has dipped its toes into the production world to capture the attention of its subscribers for a little bit longer.
Despite the recent loss of followers and revenue in this post-pandemic world, Netflix still stands at the top of the streaming hill, looking down at the cinematic world with an iron fist. With original films and shows that range from excellent to questionable, it seems like there is a never-ending supply of Netflix shows and films to watch. The thing is, all of these films and shows feel the same. Why?
It feels like the death of true artistic cinema is at our doorstep, but why? Wisecrack breaks down why the production of cinema is changing, how Netflix is influencing this change with its billion-dollar algorithm that is constantly keeping us stuck in a cycle of our own creation, and if we can escape the impending doom of cinema as an art.
The Sameness of Netflix Originals
Netflix is not only dominating as a streaming platform but as a movie production studio as well. In 2021 alone, Netflix produced 129 films that spanned multiple genres from Ramin Barani’s foreign language prestige film The White Tiger to action westerns like The Harder They Fallto the disturbing thriller genre with films like Gerald’s Game.
Despite the wide range of genre films, each Netflix-produced film has a unique aesthetic that is quintessentially Netflix. If you look closely at Netflix’s films, you will start to notice that the cinematography tends to feel very slick, manufactured, and smooth. Barani, who made a name for himself with his gritty, realistically styled dramas, essentially succumbed to the clean and polished Netflix aesthetic.
While there are a few expectations for the Netflix aesthetic, those are films reserved for Oscar-bait films directed by big named directors like Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, and the Coen Brothers.
Besides these exceptions, Netflix has found that low contrast and a glamourizing soft focus are pleasant on the eyes and will make the viewer feel comfortable choosing any Netflix original. Everything begins to look the same despite the stories ranging from good to bad to completely awful, so why does Netflix keep pumping out original movies that all feel interchangeable to some degree?
'Red Notice'Credit: Netflix
The Effects of the Algorithm in a Post-Modern World
Netflix hinges on a very specific viewing experience—one that never ends.
Netflix wants people to watch as many films as possible, and one way it does this is by making each film look the same so you believe that you will like any film that Netflix recommends because it looks like the film you just watched. There is no risk of surprising your taste, and Netflix knows this.
The algorithm tracks your passively and actively given data, sorting your recommended movies into one of its 2,000 taste groups to keep you watching.
It is nice to receive movie recommendations that remind you of your favorite movie, but it can ultimately lead to a feedback loop that you are ultimately trapped in. If you want to watch something that falls outside of your normal taste in films, you have to actively search for the film on Netflix because the algorithm won’t let you explore, therefore, limiting your horizons and cinematic experiences.
The limitations of the algorithm ultimately affect new works of art and cinema. Back in 2018, Netflix was green-lighting projects based on 70% human analysis and 30% data collected from users’ algorithms. This data included what you watched and how long you watched any given film. Instead of following film tropes that were naturally evolving through pop culture, a computer has started playing storyteller, interpreting what we want rather than concerning itself with creative stories that evoke an emotional response from the viewer.
The AI is out of touch, yet we can’t resist it. It holds our attention rather than existing to be art. There is no risk factor when the algorithm creates a story, and this type of commercial filmmaking is preoccupied with holding your attention via high-voltage special effects, laser-fast editing cuts, and assuming that we are only interested in watching what we’ve already watched.
Most filmmakers who are creating new art are evoking old styles of art in their work, fundamentally ripping off established works that the cultural collective has decided is good and making truly groundbreaking work that pushes the original ideas beyond their boundaries. Filmmaking, and creative minds in general, are always inspired by each other, to make good work in this post-modern world, but the supreme value of the new end of innovation can produce a lot of similar styles.
Aesthetic production today has become integrated into a commodity that can be sold, consumed, regurgitated, and sold again. The economic urgency of producing fresh waves of the same thing at a greater turnover rate is the culturally logical move of late-stage capitalism as art—with no intentions of being either good or bad—is now a product to be sold and consumed.
'The Woman in the Window'Credit: Netflix
Are We Entering a Cinematic Hell?
Demand for the production of new films has skyrocketed. We, as viewers, want more and more media to consume, and Netflix is here to provide it.
While it has always been the case that some cinema is classified as art and some is nonsense that we passively enjoy, Netflix has become a platform of quantity over quality. Netflix’s CEO Ted Sarandos has stated that when critics speak to specific audiences who care about the quality of how objectively good or bad a movie is, these critics are not speaking to the masses. To Sarandos, the masses don’t care about quality, so why would Netflix bother?
Sarandos’ reasoning highlights a change in how people are engaging with content, which is to say that they are not engaging critically with the art of cinema at all. People watch without engaging with the experience, mindlessly consuming to the point that we become less autonomous, more pliable, more obedient, suggestible, and easier to coerce.
If we are afraid to discover anything new or become critical about the media we consume, we are trapped in a rotating cycle of safe cinema that isn’t safe—it's limiting.
I’m not saying that easy and passive watching is all-around terrible. I have my comfort movies and shows that I love to rewatch or put on in the background while I’m doing other things. But passive watching cannot be all we want. When we do stop actively watching, we are telling studios and production companies that mindless entertainment is what we want and desire. Creative filmmaking is stunted, and the cinema we get is the same film over and over and over again.
Are we getting the cinema we want, or is the algorithm deciding what we watch? Are we trapped in a cinematic hell of our creation, and if so, how do we escape it?
What are your favorite methods of escaping the algorithm monster on streaming services like Netflix? Let us know in the comments!