Who Is Killing Cinema?: A Murder Mystery Identifies the Cultural & Economic Culprits


Net­flix once deliv­ered movies not by stream­ing them over the inter­net, but by lit­er­al­ly deliv­er­ing them: on DVDs, that is, shipped through the postal ser­vice. This tends to come as a sur­prise to the ser­vice’s many users under the age of about 35, or in coun­tries oth­er than the Unit­ed States. What’s more, Net­flix end­ed its DVD ser­vice only this past Sep­tem­ber, after 25 years, occa­sion­ing quite a few trib­utes from the gen­er­a­tion of cinephiles for whom it played a major part in their film edu­ca­tion. In this moment of reflec­tion, many of us have looked around and noticed that some­thing else seems to have gone away: cin­e­ma itself, if not as a medi­um, then at least as a major force in the cul­ture. Who, or what, did away with it?

That’s the ques­tion movie Youtu­ber Patrick Willems inves­ti­gates in his recent video “Who Is Killing Cin­e­ma? — A Mur­der Mys­tery.” Today, he says, “every major hit movie is a $200 mil­lion fran­chise install­ment aimed at thir­teen-year-old boys, but a cou­ple decades ago, right along­side those block­busters were dra­mas and come­dies aimed at dif­fer­ent audi­ences, includ­ing adults, star­ring major movie stars.” Even if a dra­ma like Rain Man — not just the win­ner of Oscars for Best Pic­ture, Best Direc­tor, Best Actor, and Best Orig­i­nal Screen­play, but also the high­est-gross­ing film of the year — got the green light today, “it would be made for a frac­tion of the bud­get it had in the eight­ies, and would prob­a­bly go straight to a stream­ing plat­form with a one-week lim­it­ed the­atri­cal run to qual­i­fy for awards”.

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From behind this sor­ry state of affairs Willems turns up a vari­ety of sus­pects. These include Mar­vel, a synec­doche for the sys­tem of inter­na­tion­al­ly mar­ket­ed fran­chis­es based on known intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty that “put pleas­ing the fans as their top pri­or­i­ty”; “the death of the movie star,” the pres­ence of whom once got audi­ences into the the­aters to see movies for adults; Warn­er Bros. Dis­cov­ery CEO David Zaslav and oth­er high-pow­ered exec­u­tives with no appar­ent inter­est in cin­e­ma per se; and atten­tion-frac­tur­ing enter­tain­ment apps like Tik­tok. Willems’ line­up even includes Net­flix itself, which — despite its fund­ing the work of auteurs up to and includ­ing Orson Welles — he calls “large­ly respon­si­ble for bring­ing the idea of ‘con­tent’ to tra­di­tion­al media, of tak­ing movies and TV and flat­ten­ing them all into an end­less sea of gray sludge they just dump more and more into every day.”

“Have you ever tried to take a moment and reflect on some­thing you’ve just watched on Net­flix, only to have the end cred­its instant­ly min­i­mized in favor of some obnox­ious ad for what to watch next?” Willems asks in the ear­li­er video just above. “That’s con­tent, baby.” The rel­e­vant shift in mind­set occurred as ser­vices like Willems’ own plat­form, Youtube, “start­ed pri­or­i­tiz­ing the steady stream of con­tent over indi­vid­ual videos,” and “when Net­flix start­ed pro­duc­ing their own shows” in a man­ner geared toward binge-watch­ers. Once, “indi­vid­ual movies or TV shows mat­tered”; now, “the con­tent mind­set just drags tra­di­tion­al media down into a giant ugly pit, and it all becomes this homo­ge­neous goop just wait­ing to be half­heart­ed­ly con­sumed and dis­card­ed.” (Wit­ness the now-shab­by rep­u­ta­tion of “Net­flix movies,” no mat­ter how big-bud­get­ed.)

Both of these videos include quotes from no less a cin­e­mat­ic icon than Mar­tin Scors­ese, a high-pro­file crit­ic of the debase­ment of cin­e­ma into “con­tent.” Though he’s been able to do seri­ous work in the stream­ing era, Scors­ese was forged well before, hav­ing emerged in the late six­ties when, as Willems reminds us, “audi­ences had grown tired of overblown big-bud­get stu­dio movies like Doc­tor Doolit­tle” and “a new breed of small­er movies made by younger, inno­v­a­tive, inde­pen­dent artists arrived, led by Bon­nie and Clyde, The Grad­u­ate, and Easy Rid­er,” with the likes of The God­fa­therThe Deer Hunter, and Scors­ese’s own Taxi Dri­ver to come. “Audi­ences went nuts for them, and they ush­ered in this new gold­en age of Amer­i­can film­mak­ing.” That was the direc­tor-led “new Hol­ly­wood”; dare we twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry cinephiles, now that fran­chise block­busters are show­ing signs of com­mer­cial frailty, hope for a new new Hol­ly­wood?

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Decay of Cin­e­ma: Susan Son­tag, Mar­tin Scors­ese & Their Lamen­ta­tions on the Decline of Cin­e­ma Explored in a New Video Essay

Peter Green­away Looks at the Day Cin­e­ma Died — and What Comes Next

When Andy Warhol Made a Bat­man Super­hero Movie (1964)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.