Netflix is revolutionizing the business of the film industry, at a time of a beautiful Cinematography Renaissance and powerful Series Cinema.
This post offers a snapshot of the state of cinema in 2018, and reflects on key trends and challenges that may shape its future. Cinema is a both a global industry and a technological art, so it's only natural that the trends and challenges I see are interweaved in business, technology and culture.
1. The Netflix Revolution
2. Series Cinema
3. Full Frame Look
5. TVs and Theaters
6. Theater Attendance
7. Cinematography Renaissance
8. Franchise Fatigue
1. The Netflix Revolution
TREND: There will be a battle of media titans for the exploding streaming video market.
The shift from television, cable and DVDs to the internet is changing cinema both inside and outside the theaters. Netflix has led the way, dominating the internet streaming business by investing heavily in the making of series and features (through production and acquisition).
Some noteworthy figures:
-- Netflix invested 6 billion dollars in video content in 2017
-- Netflix reached 117 million subscribers, split about 50/50 between the US and the rest of the world.
-- Netflix grew its revenues by a phenomenal 36% in 2017, and there is every indication for continued growth.
-- Netflix worldwide revenues of 11 billion in 2017 is about the same as the total US Box Office.
-- Netflix has announced that it plans to spend 8 billion in 2018, on some 700 series and 80 feature films.
Amazon is the elephant in the streaming room, and is catching up to Netflix, investing 4.5 billion in series and movies in 2017. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sees quality movies as helping to build his brand, and has remarked: "we get to monetize that content in a very unusual way, when we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes”.
Note that Netflix and Amazon are also buying quality content by some of the most innovative filmmakers around: the Coen brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, Ildikó Enyedi, Todd Haynes, Bong Joon-Ho and Dee Rees, to name some recent directors.
The business of streaming films and series looks to become more crowded. The traditional studios, led by Disney (155 Billion market cap), are destined to compete with Netflix (130 B) and Amazon (722 B). Disney is set to launch its own streaming service in 2019.
There are also two giant newcomers who may join the content business, Apple (888 B) and Facebook (511 B). There are a lot of fish in the "video content" tank, and some big fish will probably eat smaller ones. Indeed, Apple is rumored to have considered buying Netflix.
2. Series Cinema
TREND: Series have developed a new form of cinema that rivals theatrical films.
For the past decade, much of the best of American cinema has been offered in remarkable series, watched on televisions and laptops. (There have also been some superb European series). Series Cinema has been enabled by the high quality of small screen cinematography, which is giving a cinematic feel and form to episodic content.
In an age where superhero franchises dominate the box office, many independent American filmmakers have turned to series to tell different kinds of stories, and, in doing so, are defining new kinds of multi-hour movies.
To me, contemporary series are like the serial literature of the nineteenth century, when great writers like Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Dumas published some of their masterpiece novels, one or more chapters at a time in periodicals.
Binge watching is a way of experiencing movies differently. The longer time length makes the series psychological experience more immersive. And the episodic nature makes this lengthy movie more about character than story. Series are creating a new kind of Cinema.
3. Full Frame Look
TREND: Many filmmakers will explore using Large Format cameras, and the different perspective and depth of field they offer.
After the recent introductions of the Sony Venice and the Arri Alexa LF, there are presently five leading cameras with Large Format sensors: Arri Alexa 65, Arri Alexa LF, Panavision DXL, Red Monstro and Sony Venice. Their relative sizes and pixel counts are depicted below:
As discussed in previous blogs, shooting large format creates a different look:
-- Large format sensors imply longer focal lengths, and therefore less depth of field than standard Super 35.
-- This means that filmmakers will create images with more out of focus areas, or be required to add more light in order to close down the iris, especially in interiors and night exteriors.
-- Many filmmakers feel that longer lenses used in large format create a perspective and look that is closer to our perception than Super 35, and therefore feels more natural.
In the short term, many directors will want to explore the Large Format look. It will be fascinating to see the impact of this optical perspective and depth of field on the stories they will tell. However, I do not believe that Large Format will replace Super 35, as not every filmmaker will want to have that look for every project. In the long term, Large Format will become one more filmmaking option, or perhaps, a genre.
TREND: Due in part to Netflix, 4K is becoming the feature production and postproduction standard, and will be the upcoming feature projection standard.
One measure of the importance of Netflix is the impact of its strict "4K rule" for its own productions. Netflix has declared that it will not produce any content shot with less resolution than UHD (3840 pixels or about 4K). One Arri representative told me of pointing out to Netflix that their policy implied that they would produce movies shot with an iPhone, but wouldn’t produce movies shot with a standard Alexa! Fortunately the new Alexa LF camera allows Arri filmmakers to meet the Netflix criterion.
I feel that the Netflix policy is the tail wagging the dog: You can't determine artistic quality based on a technical measurement. Nevertheless, the handwriting is on the wall, and 4K is clearly emerging as the current production standard, and upcoming projection standard for feature films. I believe that 4K was inevitable, but Netflix certainly accelerated the trend.
As noted above, the current crop of large format cameras offers resolutions of 6K and 8K. It's unclear whether that implies greater resolutions in post-production and projection. Some technologists, like Michael Cioni and Dan Sasaki from Panavision, have pointed out the benefits of oversampling in terms of finesse — for example shooting 8K for a final image in 4K.
5. TVs vs Theaters
CHALLENGE: The latest home televisions are technically superior to theater screens. While theaters offer unique scale and community, they will need new image technology to keep their audience.
The situation of movie theaters today evokes the 1950s, when the studios introduced anamorphic lenses to offer wider spectacles than what people could see on their televisions.
The difference is that today, the televisions are technically better than the theaters:
-- The UHD television standard is equivalent to 4K resolution in theaters, but most screens are 2K at present.
-- Televisions are presently capable of higher frame rates than movie theaters.
-- The television 2020 standard color space is more extensive than the current theatrical DCI-P3 standard.
-- Televisions have higher dynamic range capability than theaters, and it's a lot easier to get true black values in a darkened living room than it is in a movie theater.
Of course, movie theaters can create a unique experience of community, as the amazing response to Black Panther has shown us recently. Also, teenagers will always need to leave their parents at home, and go out with their friends. And many of us adults will go to theaters to watch movies like Black Panther, which has become a milestone cultural event.
In addition, so called "premium theaters," like the IMAX or Dolby Cinema chains, offer high picture and sound quality at a price. To me, the main benefit of the proposed HDR — High Dynamic Range — systems is deeper blacks, but that won't be enough to keep people in theaters.
The long-term future of the movie theater depends on technological change, and I believe that the most promising image technology is the LED screen. If television screens are better than projectors, perhaps they should replace them! I have seen very intriguing examples of large LED screens from Samsung and Sony, that offer a promising finesse to the image, along with perfect geometry, high frame rates, better blacks and vibrant colors, although the present cost is prohibitive.
6. Theater Attendance
TREND: North American attendance has been going down since 2002 and is at a 25-year low.
Cinema in theaters is currently a $40 billion business. Last year, the top 20 features accounted for 41% of the global box office — $16 billion. Worldwide theatrical box office revenue continued to grow moderately by 3% in 2017, but much of that growth is due to ticket price increases and the growing Chinese market.
The 2017 box office shows the continued domination of huge action movie franchises made by Hollywood studios, led by Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In the top 20, there are six comic-book superhero movies, led by the latest Spider-Man, and five animated films, led by Beauty and the Beast.
Outside the US, the box office leader was Fast and Furious 8. It's important to note the presence of a Chinese production, Wolf Warrior 2, at number 6 in the top 20, which illustrates the importance of the Chinese market for future theatrical releases. The horror movie It, shows that the right story can make 700 million, even with a production budget of 34 million.
The reign of repetitive franchises may be one explanation for the downturn of North American attendance since 2002, along with the growth of streaming video. 2017 attendance represents a 25-year low, which should be a source of alarm for the studios. There is also a growing disconnect between the North American and foreign box office -- to date, six of the top ten films abroad are Chinese.
7. Cinematography Renaissance
TREND: A widening variety of tools and approaches is creating a Cinematography Renaissance.
I have saluted the Oscar nominees in a previous post, but the top 20 movies are also shot by an impressive group of talented cinematographers, including ASC members Javier Aguirresarobe, Paul Cameron, Larry Fong, Hoyte van Hoytema, Matthew Jensen, Salvatore Totino, Fabian Wagner, Stephen F. Windon and Steve Yedlin. The distinguished list also includes BSC members Henry Braham, John Mathieson and Michael Seresin, and South Korean master Chung-Hoon Chung.
It’s noteworthy that these filmmakers worked with a tremendous variety of formats, including negative film and anamorphic, as well as spherical digital. There are also 4 films shot in large formats with Alexa 65, Imax, Panavision 65mm, and Red 8K.
Contemporary filmmakers are choosing freely from a growing number of tools to tell their stories, and they also feel free to combine different technologies on the same project. For example, for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Steve Yedlin combined 35mm, Alexa, and 65mm cameras and both anamorphic and spherical lenses.
Cinematographers have never had such a wide range of available cameras, lenses and formats: film and digital, spherical and anamorphic, Super 16, Super 35, Full Frame, 65. At the same time, current directors and cinematographers show a desire and willingness to be playful and innovative with the imagery and textures of their films.
8. Franchise Fatigue
CHALLENGE: In an age of Series Cinema and declining American attendance, the challenge for the studios is to produce more original content that will bring people back into the theaters.
There is far less variety in the genres and subject matter of the top twenty films than there is in their cinematography. And this is worrisome. American live action films are creating a global culture that has a formulaic sameness to it. To me, many of the superhero stories resemble each other, mechanically building up to similar third-act battles and explosions, in lieu of catharsis.
Thankfully there are some original films that reach the global audience. I was particularly taken by the sweep and originality of Dunkirk, which grossed half a billion. War for the Planet of the Apes offered some strong dramatic moments and Guardians of the Galaxy has its refreshing humor. Here's hoping the studios can renew their stories...
TREND: The industry is changing and will enable more women and people of color in positions of power.
One of the most important cultural trends is the growing diversity of the characters on screen. Wonder Woman is the first female superhero protagonist, and Gal Gadot's charisma and strength sends a great message to young audiences. Similarly, the wonderful cast of African-Americans in Ryan Coogler's Black Panther marks a milestone in the genre, sending a clear message to the studio heads, as it raced to a billion-dollar gross in record time.
Of course, it's just as important to see diversity behind the camera. Rachel Morrison, ASC, is a wonderful role model, the first woman cinematographer nominated for an Oscar for Dee Rees' Mudbound, and the first woman cinematographer to shoot a huge action movie, the aformentioned Black Panther. It's been a very good year for Rachel!
It's also heartening to see that an African-American, Bradford Young, ASC, shot the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story. And it's just as important to see one female director, Patty Jenkins, break into the box office top 20. Ava DuVernay is the first African-American woman to direct a movie with a 100-million plus budget, A Wrinkle in Time. And it's wonderful to see Greta Gerwig get an Oscar nomination for directing Lady Bird.
Let's hope that having more diverse people making blockbusters will help evolve the themes and stories of the big studio films.
recode.net: Media Landscape chart
theguardian.com: Aesthetic excellence: how cinematography transformed TV
wikipedia.org: Serial Literature
Full Frame Look
thefilmbook: Practical Optics 1 - Testing Different Sensor Sizes
thefilmbook: Practical Optics 2 - Notes on Lenses & Elastic Formats
thefilmbook: Venice Camera - Speaking with Sony Experts
backlothelp.netflix.com: Can I shoot on the Arri Alexa / Amira?
vimeo.com: The Beauty of Large Format 8K
TVs vs Theaters
thefilmbook: 4K and Better Pixels
samsung.com: Cinema LED Screen
bloomberg.com: Hollywood had a terrible 2017
thefilmbook: Hollywood 3.0: China
thefilmbook: 2017 in Review - Films and Themes
thefilmbook: Cannes 2012 -Women Warriors and Sexual Emancipators
uscannenberg.org: Inclusion in the Director's Chair?
Gender, Race & Age of Directors across 1,100 Films from 2007-2017 (PDF)
womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu: The Celluloid Ceiling
Behind the Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250 and 500 Films of 2017 (PDF)