Banerjee: Netflix vs. movie theaters: the importance of seeing movies

With Netflix’s newest films garnering major award-season buzz, people wonder whether the sanctity of the conventional theater will be giving way to the convenience of the home theater.

Anna Banerjee, Opinions Columnist

Starting Dec. 14, the highly anticipated film Roma, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is slated for a limited release. Locally, FilmScene plans on picking up the film for a week. What makes this release unique is that the film will also release on the streaming website of its distributor, Netflix, on the same date.

This year, with Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (directed by the Coen brothers), Netflix has finally been able to strike a deal with theaters across the country on a larger scale than before. In the past, theaters avoided screening Netflix-distributed movies, but it has managed to secure limited theatrical releases with these.

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People have disputed the merit of seeing films in theaters versus online streaming services. Last year, the acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, of Dunkirk fame, famously denounced Netflix in an IndieWire interview, saying, “I think the investment that Netflix is putting into interesting filmmakers and interesting projects would be more admirable if it weren’t being used as some kind of bizarre leverage against shutting down theaters.”

While Nolan’s contention that Netflix is ruining the sanctity of theaters feels hyperbolic, there is some truth to his statement concerning the importance of theaters. Both streaming sites and movie theaters have their merits and downfalls, but seeing films in theaters — especially foreign or independent films — is still important.

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There is an undeniable magic inside a theater. The community of viewers, the smell of movie theater popcorn, the mere act of buying a ticket — everything is deeply cultivated toward creating the atmosphere associated with theaters. Also, the scope of a theater set-up overpowers even the nicest of home theaters. There are big differences in seeing a film such as Roma on a large versus small screen.

Examining the pros and cons for streaming versus theater release leads to murky conclusions. The Netflix model is based on packaging films, offering a large (usually) but fixed sum to those involved in the film, as opposed to conventional theater models that include the potential for large payouts with theater profits into their packages. The difference in earnings is not huge for those already walking away with millions of dollars. But for the independent art-house film, streaming deals could mean survival as the film can enter the houses of hundreds of more viewers.

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The short answer to the conundrum of streaming versus theaters? Do both. It would be sad to miss seeing amazing films such as Roma in theaters if you have the financial means and time to do so, but even if you can’t, streaming the film is just as valid — it can be cheaper, time-efficient, and comfortable.

Few would argue against seeing movies through streaming services, but if you have the option to see films in theaters, especially, say, Iowa City’s FilmScene, please do. Supporting local cinemas is important because regardless of whether you have the ability to see something at home now, the theater provides a safe space for people of all ages and backgrounds. It is often the first place people are introduced to film and where they fall in love with it, and depriving communities of theaters by never seeing anything on the large screen is damaging.

There shouldn’t be a black or white answer to how to correctly view movies — as long as you get a chance to view important art, you should take the opportunity to do so. But if you have the means to, consider seeing it on the big screen, both for your enjoyment and to support your local community theaters.