If Netflix Is Serious about Original Films, It Should Get Serious about Physical Media

     July 26, 2018

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Netflix has been disrupting the entertainment industry in a variety of ways for over a decade now. After shaking up the original series realm with a bevy of offerings—including the smash hit Stranger Things—they’ve really started to dig into original films over the last couple of years. The studio’s first original feature was actually an acquisition, not a Netflix production: Beasts of No Nation. The Cary Fukunaga-directed drama was pegged as a potential awards contender, but failed to pick up any nominations back in 2015. As it turns out, Netflix was just getting started.

While Netflix continues to churn out a diverse slate of original films that range from the excellent (Set It Up) to the forgettable (Bright), 2017 marked a major change of pace with the Sundance acquisition Mudbound, and 2018 looks to be a watershed moment. This fall, Netflix will release no less than three major awards contenders from towering filmmakers: Alfonso Cuaron’s long-awaited Gravity follow-up ROMA, Paul Greengrass’ true-story drama 22 July, and The Coen Brothers’ surprise Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. And this is no one-off—Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic The Irishman is on tap for Netflix’s 2019 slate.

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Image via Warner Bros.

The streaming service is offering a platform for prestige filmmakers that other studios apparently are not, even despite Netflix’s minimal theatrical distribution strategy. But as they assemble more and more of today’s greatest filmmakers in their ranks, one glaring blind-spot for Netflix is going to become more of a problem: Their refusal to release their original films on physical media formats.

Indeed, while Netflix releases some of its original series like House of Cards and Daredevil on Blu-ray, the streaming service has thus far refused to put any of its original films out either on Blu-ray or DVD. Presumably Netflix sees the physical release of TV shows as ways to promote upcoming seasons and thus entice a subscription, but if they release one of their original films on Blu-ray or DVD, it ceases to be something that can only be seen with a Netflix subscription.

And from subscriber-centric business standpoint I get it, but Netflix now threatens to deny cinephiles and collectors the chance to own a physical copy of their favorite filmmakers’ latest feature. If Netflix wants to be the home for true film fans, the way it positioned itself as the destination for TV obsessives (though less-so as of late as Netflix has opted to let licenses for library titles expire in favor of pushing their own original TV content), it should do it right. Put The Irishman out in a pristine 4K transfer; let Coen Brothers fanatics add Buster Scruggs to their Blu-ray collection; release ROMA with an insightful audio commentary from Alfonso Cuaron.

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Image via Netflix

Speaking of which, Netflix is not just making collections incomplete by refusing to release  original films on physical media, they’re also denying burgeoning filmmakers and cinephiles the chance to pore over fascinating bonus features and factoid-filled audio commentary tracks. Many film fanatics grew up listening to DVD and eventually Blu-ray audio commentaries as an invaluable way to further understand the filmmaking process. These tracks allowed anyone from anywhere to hear an established director like David Fincher talk in detail about how, exactly, he made something as iconic as Fight Club.

When Netflix launched House of Cards, one of its first original series, it allowed Fincher to record an audio commentary track for the first two episodes and put those up on Netflix as well (which have now apparently disappeared). This made both Fincher and his fans happy, and kept the filmmaker’s trend of hilarious and must-listen commentary tracks going. But it was a one and done. There was no commentary released for Fincher’s follow-up series Mindhunter, nor any other series or feature. Netflix doesn’t even put audio commentaries on the Blu-ray releases of the TV shows it actually makes.

Perhaps I’m screaming into the void here. The world has gone digital, and with it physical media is getting lost in the shuffle. But I have to believe there’s not only still a market for Blu-rays (as evidenced by the launch of 4K Blu-rays), but an entire generation that would eagerly consume carefully curated bonus features. The Criterion Collection has a pristine reputation for a reason, and if Netflix really wants to appease cinephiles, they could curate a Criterion-esque collection of their own, releasing handpicked original titles on Blu-ray packed with bonus content.

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Image via Netflix

If they’re worried about hindering the entire idea of a “Netflix original movie” as a subscriber-exclusive, put a one-year window on it. Hold the Blu-ray for 12 months, then release it. I’ll wait. Plenty of cinephiles would gladly buy Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic a full year after it was released if it meant they could add it to their physical collection and enjoy some insightful bonus material, and if someone wants to see The Irishman as soon as possible, they’ll get a Netflix subscription to watch the film in the meantime.

This is all not to mention the various imaging issues that come with watching a film streamed over wireless internet. Which for something like Game Over, Man!, fine. I’ll deal with a buffer or two. But when you know that Alfonso Cuaron went to the trouble of shooting ROMA on 65mm film, carefully composing and crafting each shot himself and mixing the sound with Dolby Atmos, it’s infuriating to then consume that film over a less-than-ideal internet connection when the ability to simply print a physical 4K transfer—which could then be packed with insightful behind-the-scenes bonus features—is right there.

Netflix has made clear that in the realm of producing and distributing original features, they’re playing for keeps. They’ve got Scorsese, Cuaron, Greengrass, the Coens, Bong Joon-ho, Noah Baumbach, and plenty more in their ranks. But with serious filmmakers and serious films also comes serious film fans, and cinephiles like their physical media. So come on. Put some of that $5 billion towards releasing proper Blu-rays of some of select original films. Shut up and take my money.

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