Netflix is so much in the news these days that it is giving our daily dose of Donald Trump a run for its money. There’s its latest price hike, the move toward releasing metrics about key programs, spikes in subscriber growth, major award nominations and wins and so much more. Remember when it was just a relatively modest company that for a fixed monthly fee offered unlimited DVD "rentals" by mail to subscribers? (It still does, and its collection of movies is second to none.) Or when it was known simply for offering original content comparable to the best of cable television? It made binge-watching a thing. Then it began saving broadcast and cable series that had been put to death (or were close). The most recent example is You, which began as a series on Lifetime and recently moved to Netflix, home of the network rescues (Lucifer, Longmire, The Killing), reboots (Lost in Space, Queer Eye) and revivals (Arrested Development, Fuller House, Gilmore Girls). It has also picked up a series or two that were passed on by broadcasters when their pilots were completed (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina).
Just when you thought it had nowhere to go but down, Netflix caught fire in a way it never had before. Consider it's out-of-nowhere achievements in recent weeks.
First came Roma, which debuted in August at the Venice International Film Festival. Netflix acquired distribution rights. A limited theatrical release followed in November. It had little impact. Then Netflix began streaming it in December and now it is the first out of the many movies Netflix has produced or acquired (200 and growing) to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. (The Oscars are certainly going to be good to Roma after its many wins at the Golden Globe Awards and the Critics’ Choice Awards.) Yes, Amazon beat Netflix to it, landing a Best Picture nomination in 2017 for Manchester By the Sea, not to mention two wins for the film (Lead Actor and Original Screenplay). But given the big love for Roma by the industry and the audience alike, it certainly looks as though Netflix is poised to become the new Miramax (in all the right ways).
Then along came Bird Box, the movie with the crazy title that cannot be understood without watching the film or dropping a spoiler about a cinematic sensation that one must enter into – ahem, blind – in order to be fully entertained. Another Netflix treasure, this unassuming horror flick, which stars one of the most popular actresses of this or any other generation, Sandra Bullock, opened in theaters on December 13 (it is still playing in some) and dropped on Netflix just seven days later. A phenomenon was born, and that title quickly became a household word.
According to Netflix Bird Box has been viewed in 80 million-plus subscriber households, and it is still building. Netflix rarely releases such information, but why not brag? This is the most talked about movie of any kind since Black Panther.
It wasn’t enough for Netflix to simultaneously score the buzziest prestige and popcorn movies of 2018. At the very end of the year (on December 28, to be exact) while the world was talking about Roma and Bird Box the streamer released Bandersnatch (pictured at top and above), an installment of Black Mirror, its acclaimed sci-fi anthology series (or, as Netflix categorizes it, its acclaimed series of sci-fi movies). It's by far the best Mirror "movie" since U.S.S. Callister. Netflix had already been bludgeoning basic assertions about television content by identifying each episode of Mirror as a standalone movie for Emmy, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice consideration. Nevertheless, it showed the media “what for” with Bandersnatch – a thrilling interactive television experience unlike any other that instantly raised the bar for interactive TV with such brash assurance Netflix can call it whatever it likes.
I’ve been watching and at times writing about the development of interactive television since the mid-‘90s, when the most popular goal was for viewers to be able to buy the sweaters Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) was wearing on various episodes of Friends (during its first run) simply by pushing a button on their remotes. I don’t think anything like that ever came about (though there were several regional tests for grocery shopping and other activities). Somewhere people were (and still are) able to order pizza through their television, which strikes me as an awful lot of work when I have a phone right in my pocket.
Regardless, Netflix shot out ahead of the rest by producing an hour of highly entertaining interactive television, during which viewers with the occasional push of a button determine how characters react to each other and where the story will go. It’s like a video game but with much more control over the narrative and far less mindless action (the violence in Bandersnatch is cleverly focused and plot-critical when the viewer chooses to activate it). The Hollywood Reporter recently published the mother of all spoilers – a complete list of every outcome that can be brought about by patient viewers, though the path to each is filled with more choices than I could calculate.
What’s next in terms of what television can give us, and how it does so? It's safe to say we should look to Netflix for the answers. I suspect they’ll be soon in coming.
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