Revaluing Cinema in the Age of Streaming Services

In a recent essay for Harper’s Magazine, Martin Scorsese delivered a scathing critique of the movie streaming industry, charging that the rise of streaming has “devalued, sidelined, [and] demeaned” the “art of cinema.” While Scorsese readily admits that he has personally benefited from streaming platforms (his 2019 film “The Irishman” was released on Netflix and his next film “Killers of the Flower Moon” is set to premiere on Apple TV), he argues that by generalizing “all moving pictures” to just “content,” and feeding consumers constant streams of new material via algorithms, streaming platforms have cheapened the experience of movie watching. 

Widely considered one of the most important and influential figures in the history of cinema, Scorsese’s comments reinforce a common sentiment among cinephiles that will likely only intensify if more studios continue to send their films directly to streaming services simultaneously with their theatrical releases. But what are the actual implications of streaming’s growing dominance on filmmakers and consumers? Are streaming platforms really destroying the cinematic experience? 

Certainly, there is a level of excitement that comes with watching a film in theaters that simply cannot be replicated at home, viewing on a smartphone, laptop or even a large flatscreen TV. This is largely due to the mindfulness and focus that comes with physically being in a theater. By sitting in a dark room, completely silent and not distracted by phone notifications (ideally), we are forced to give films our full attention. This cinematic immersion allows us to find and appreciate the small details of a film, such as the true meaning behind seemingly trivial moments of dialogue, unique camera shots or memorable needledrops. The level of detail in which Scorsese analyzes Federico Fellini’s films in his Harper’s article, for example, can only be reached through this method of consumption. 

It could then logically follow that theaters, more so than streaming platforms, incentivize filmmakers to develop carefully crafted films. However, this argument ignores the number of creative films (including “The Irishman”) that have been financed by streaming services that likely wouldn’t have been picked up by traditional Hollywood studios — not to mention the fact that Netflix productions are notably more diverse than studio productions. Traditional studios are also not known for funding particularly experimental films. In particular, the constant franchise repackaging done by studios such as Disney and Marvel strips their films of any imagination. Scorsese himself called attention to this in 2019, making a more extreme argument that because they eliminate risk and “the unifying vision of an individual artist,” Marvel movies are in fact “not cinema.” 

Furthermore, the evidence does not actually support the argument that streaming services are fueling cinema’s demise. Notably, a study by EY’s Quantitative Economics and Statistics group found that people who watched “nine or more movies at the cinema averaged 11 hours of weekly streaming compared to the seven hours of streaming reported on average by those who saw one to two movies at the multiplexes.” This suggests that streaming and cinema may actually be complementary rather than competitive. Instead of blaming streaming, perhaps theaters should look inward (especially at their exorbitant prices) to diagnose the cause of their decline and attempt to make cinema more accessible. 

Still, I have to accept Scorsese’s argument that streaming platforms provide an inherently more passive experience than cinemas. This extends beyond the viewing experience — it has an even more significant effect on consumers’ selection processes. Instead of actively deciding what program to watch based on trailers and the recommendations of friends and professional critics, each viewer passively receives endless recommendations calculated by streaming services’ intricate algorithms to match their taste. While successfully keeping many hooked to their screens, this process prevents them from finding hidden gems outside their typical comfort zone. Also, movie streaming platforms’ prioritization of maximizing users’ screen times (similar to music streamers and social media apps) adds to the prevalence of passive consumption. Instead of watching a film with undivided attention, “content” is now often just an hours-long backdrop for activities like doing homework and scrolling through social media. 

While I generally agree with Scorsese about algorithmic blindspots and the unique experience that cinemas provide, I do not fully accept that the “art of cinema” is dying. While disposable content is certainly prevalent, the past few years have featured a number of unique and memorable films, produced by both streaming services and traditional studios. Although far from perfect, we should appreciate the easy access to films that streaming services provide as a compliment to the more immersive environments of cinemas.