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The Rise of Netflix

orange is the new black

Ahead of this week’s Netflix Original special edition of the Failed Critics Podcast, Owen Hughes guides us through why exactly Netflix is becoming such a dominant force.

In 1997, I don’t think I even had a computer at home. I, like most people back then, rented films that I wanted to watch from Blockbuster or another local video store. Nostalgia alert: At about 11 years old, my mates and I would ride our bikes the 15 minutes down the road to the big Tesco superstore and rent VHS tapes of (usually) WWF main events from the Blockbuster outside. Old Wrestlemania’s, Royal Rumble’s, Summerslam’s etc, that sort of thing. If we could sneak in a Predator or a Terminator amongst the collection, we would. But they were rarities.

In 1997, a company in the US called Netflix probably quite cannily recognised that not everyone had a Blockbuster within a quarter-of-an-hour bike ride from their home, so instead decided to set up a Blockbuster-by-post type affair. Taking advantage of the new Digital Versatile Disc, much lighter and smaller than a VHS tape, you could rent a movie from them and the shiny new DVD would land the other side of your letterbox within days. Similar to LOVEFilM here in the UK.

Much earlier than pretty much any of its competitors, it expanded to launch a streaming service two years later in 1999. I don’t know about whatever internet connection you had back then, but we had a 56k modem in 1999. It would not have taken too kindly to streaming a 90 minute movie.

After years of operating under this model, expanding its streaming service into other regions around the world (including the UK) they basically took a step back and realised that rather than keep paying a license to other studios for their productions, they actually owned the means and the platform to create their own content. Financially, it was pretty savvy. Now that they had a reputation, people would soon start joining Netflix for their shows, and not other people’s. Their brand was to become renowned.

Looking at it purely from an advertising or marketing perspective; Netflix knew exactly who was watching what content, when they were watching it and where. To paraphrase Nick Bailey, the chief executive and executive creative director of Isobar UK, who gave a talk at the University I’m studying at last week, Netflix knew which dramas that their audience viewed most. Thus, taking a model already in place from an older British show – chiefly the story and setting – they created House of Cards, just over 3 years ago, in February 2013 because apparently their audience liked political dramas and Kevin Spacey.

What was immediately different about House of Cards from Network shows, was that Netflix made all of the episodes available in one go, advert free. Can you imagine just how mind-blowing that must’ve been, particularly for Americans, who don’t have the BBC the way that we do? Just a brand new show that you haven’t got to sit through 15 minutes worth of adverts to enjoy? This wasn’t a box-set released 12 months after airing. It was there, all of it, for you to watch as much of whenever you liked. Current subscribers didn’t even need to pay extra to watch this original content. All you needed was an account and an internet connection.

One of the other innovations that has let Netflix flourish so spectacularly is how they have embraced technological advances. Even moving from tapes to DVDs because they were cheaper to post was pretty innovative. Amazon are arguably their main competitor for streaming content on a subscription basis, particularly over here in the UK, yet they lagged behind quite tremendously when it came to streaming on mobile devices, tablets, TVs, computer consoles etc. Amazon previously used their streaming service to drive sales of their Kindle devices, making it exclusive content. Whereas Netflix were at the forefront of this revolution, setting the market-standard that audiences have come to expect from any provider they now use.

Whether reviving shows from the cold, dark, lonely pit of TV hell, such as Arrested Development, The Killing or Trailer Park Boys, or creating brand new stuff like Sense8, Narcos or Master of None, or even collaborating with other studios for shows such as Lilyhammer, or Marvel’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones, they just seem to be unstoppable at the moment. Free from the same level of restrictions from sponsors, prime-time slots or watersheds, they have been able to create whatever shows they think their audience want.

The Netflix of today are a far cry from the “bargain bin” label they were tarnished with when they first arrived this side of the Atlantic. Hundreds of films, hardly any of which you would want to spend 90 minutes of your life on, was not that alluring. Securing deals to distribute shows in the UK like Breaking Bad is where they mainly earned their crust.

In fact, the most fun you could have had with Netflix back in 2012 was flicking through their endless catalogue of crap looking for the one gem hidden within – but by the point that you found it, you’d be too tired and bored to even bother watching it, as Kate explained a few years back.

Compare that to now… ok, the selection is certainly not always overwhelmingly positive! But comparably they have upped their game on all fronts from what they used to be. Producing their own documentaries, stand-up shows, on top of their Netflix Original TV shows; and now creating movies – award-winning movies, no less, in the case of Beasts of No Nation – it’s no wonder that studios like NBC are getting extremely defensive, trying to exert pressure on them.

It’s not that NBC are entirely wrong. Netflix does not hand out viewing figures, subscription numbers or other statistics (such as how long people spend trawling through their site before giving up entirely) willy-nilly. You can’t even find the overall star-rating for a film on Netflix that isn’t in some way tailored to match your expectations based on whatever algorithm they use; and that’s no surprise. They are under no obligation to share this with anybody. After all, this data mining is exactly why Netflix are getting things so right. This is their audience who they are creating content for. You can understand why they would be apprehensive about publicly sharing this information with the competition.

But the fact that traditional television networks are frightened by the competition that streaming provides just shows how big and influential Netflix are becoming.

They may make blunders occasionally, like Adam Sandler’s unfathomable four-picture deal – critically speaking, I mean, I’d consider it a blunder. The Ridiculous 6 was dire and quite deservingly panned by critics, yet it still became an instant hit and the most watched film across all regions somehow straight after release.

The only way that Netflix could lose grace with their fans would be to, say, I don’t know…? Allow them to see the catalogue of movies and shows available on much larger regions such as Canada and the US, and then to step up their attempts to block people from other regions gaining access to said content. That would just be foolish, right? Regardless of the quality of the product they’re putting out in the UK, for example, no matter how much better it is now than it was four years ago, it would be crazy to start telling people to pay the same amount of money for their subscription when clearly other countries have it better? The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but when you’ve already spent the afternoon barbecuing at your neighbour’s garden picnic and come back home to your regular brown, patchy, dried-out lawn…

It remains to be seen how the long-term future of Netflix will pan out. However, already this year, the engrossing true-crime story, Making a Murderer, has become a huge phenomenon after its Christmas holiday release induced binge-watching hysteria around the world. Judd Apatow’s series, LOVE, has been an immediate success amongst fans and critics alike. With a new series of Daredevil imminent, plus more movies like the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel starring Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh, as well as the fourth season of their most watched drama (formerly comedy), the multiple award-winning series Orange Is The New Black – not to mention the dozens of other original content on its way in 2016 – it certainly seems as though there’s a lot to look forward to for the customers who stick around once their DNS-changing service of choice is finally shut down.

Owen will be talking about his favourite Netflix Originals with Steve Norman, Phil Sharman and Chris Haigh on the podcast due out later this week.

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Into ‘stellar?

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

Ever since man has first looked up at the stars, the question has been asked: What do you do when you see a space man? Yes, of course the correct answer is “you park in it, man” (please, please, hold your applause, you’re too kind).

However, for thousands of years, man has written Christmas cracker jokes looked up and wondered what lies beyond the blue skies of our planet’s atmosphere. For most people, it’s only led to further questions. How can “space” exist? Why does it exist? Why do we exist? From religion and faith, to science and theory, everyone seems to have their own opinion on what they like to imagine fills the vast expanse of the Universe and beyond. It takes people way smarter than this bozo to fully comprehend the question, never mind the answer. Luckily, it’s not just people cleverer than me who have thought about this question. There have been people with far more imagination who have been able to put their thoughts and ideas into film and literature.

Most recently Christopher Nolan did so with the terrific Interstellar. Which prompted me to create this article. What other movies are out there that deal with man’s exploration of space and time that are worth watching? Well, here are ten films that I would recommend you start with if you too are into ‘stellar (geddit?!) This list is by no means comprehensive, by the way. I’m fully aware big names such as the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises are missing, as well as this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy. This is just 10 films I’d suggest watching if you enjoyed the adventure into space that was Interstellar!


event horizonEvent Horizon (1997) Paul W.S. Anderson’s best film, it tells the story of a crew comprising of captain Laurence Fishburne, doctor Sam Neill, (plus others) who investigate of a spaceship that went missing some years ago called the Event Horizon. It miraculously returned with no crew left on board. It transpires that what happened was not quite as simple as they might’ve first thought. Next to Alien, it’s the perfect example of how to create an intelligent, atmospheric, space-horror. Quotes seemed to be almost directly lifted from Event Horizon in Interstellar (particularly the discussion around wormholes). It also raises interesting questions around what Hell is (or could be?) Complete with great performances, especially those of Fishburne and Neill around the descent into madness. Think of it as Hellraiser meets Alien. A real gem of a movie.


Contact (1997)contact In 1994, Robert Zemeckis released what will probably be the film he is remembered for, Forrest Gump. Well, with the exception of Back To The Future, perhaps. But one film of his that seems to have directly inspired the story of Interstellar is Contact, with its daughter grieving for her father and potential contact with another as yet unidentified life form. Using the relationship between father and daughter, it tries to bridge a gap between science and religion, life and death, between hope and reality. The concept behind Contact and how / what that will be like with other dimensions or lifeforms is handled with grace, whilst Jodie Foster gives a performance worthy of a movie such as this. The cast also features Matthew McConaughey, the star of Nolan’s epic! It’s a shame the ending lets the film down a little, but the rest of Contact is well worth a watch.


europa reportEuropa Report (2013) After a crew are sent on a fact-finding mission to one of Jupiter’s moons (that would be the one called Europa…) they end up finding a bit more than they bargained for. I almost feel like I should disclaimer this movie to people as besides being a sci-fi set mainly in space, it’s also a found footage movie. If you can name another found footage movie set in space that’s better than this (Apollo 18 shouts will not be recognised) then congratulations, but I probably won’t believe you. It takes its time to find its feet, as the crew (Sharlto Copley, Karolina Wydra, Michael Nyqvist etc) slowly grow into their roles, but for a film that takes place mostly inside a tin can, there’s a fair amount of tension and drama to be found. The structure is slightly unsatisfactory and non-linear, but the ending will be what determines whether or not you’ll like this movie. Personally, I found the slightly existential journey surprisingly entertaining.


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)2001 I couldn’t really let the opportunity to recommend one of the greatest ever movies – not just sci-fi movies – pass me by without at least name-checking it. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, shot one year before the actual moon landings (that if you believe some conspiracy-nuts, the man himself shot in a studio) is more of an exploration of life and being than it is about space travel, but if there’s a sci-fi movie released post 1968 that isn’t at least in some minor way influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’d be very surprised. Cerebral, contemplative and exceedingly beautiful. If you want to hear me rave about this film yet again, check out our Stanley Kubrick Corridor of Praise podcast.


solarisSolaris (1972) For the more cultured film fan, Tarkovsky’s very – very – art-house science fiction film about a living planets attempts to contact a man orbiting it will be one of your favourite sci-fi movies. The problem is, of course, how do you communicate with something that you have no way of understanding? In my Decade In Film article for 1972, I mention Ludwig Wittgenstein who proposed that “if a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand it”. If our frames of reference are so far apart, so completely different, how could we possibly hope to even know when an alien species is attempting to communicate, never mind actually understand what it’s trying to say? The Fermi Paradox suggests that if aliens exist, why haven’t we heard from them yet? Well, perhaps they do try to contact us, but we don’t realise it. This is one of the driving principles behind Solaris, and beyond its 167 minute run time including lingering shots of ponds and motorways, and absolutely astonishing cinematography, it tries to answer some of these philosophical quandaries.


Moon (2009)moon A breakthrough semi-indie production in 2009, Moon stars Sam Rockwell as a worker on a lunar station coming to the end of his three-year stint. I suppose he has what can be described as a crisis of personality as his shift draws closer to an end. Atmospheric and remarkably well written, if at times a little bit silly, Moon is a very entertaining movie. Similar to one aspect of Interstellar, it deals with being in space and having no reliable means of contact with Earth. Whilst there’s a heck of a lot more to Duncan Jones‘ relatively low budget British BAFTA nominated movie than simply isolation, it would seem almost rude not to suggest fans of Interstellar give it a go. 


this island earthThis Island Earth (1955) The 1950’s heralded a new age in sci-fi movies. The likes of Don Siegel and Jack Arnold probably led the pack with films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space (in 3D no less!) However, This Island Earth by Joseph Newman was an incredibly ambitious project. It had a somewhat turbulent production history, which resulted in Jack Arnold himself being brought on board as an uncredited director. The sections of the film set on distant worlds and intergalactic battles became a bit too expensive and was shorter than planned, but it’s still admirable for the intention behind the film as well as its anti-war messages. It’s also a lot of fun in that cult-50’s sci-fi movie kind of way.


A Trip to the Moon (1902)trip to the moon There’s a huge amount of things one could say about this wondrous, imaginative, inventive and wholly original fantasy story made over 110 years ago by the inspirational Georges Méliès. From a technical point of view, Le voyage dans la lune is splendid. Suffice to say, it’s very impressive; from the special effects of the exploding moon people, to the incredible! science!-exclamation!-mark! The illusions Méliès crafted required true imagination and creativity. He was one of the first to create a movie such as this, of course! Even now, this short film is fantastic – in every sense of the word.


loveLove (2011) After writing my car off in February this year, I began the long commute to and from work via bus. During this time, BBC iPlayer kept me from grinding my teeth to stubs on my journey. I downloaded a lot of movies and documentaries to my tablet from iPlayer, some I’d heard of, some that were completely new to me, such as this mixed bag. I read the premise via the app, thought it sounded like it could be a really neat little indie sci-fi… and in part, it was. There’s strands that run throughout about isolation, human connection and indeed love, that are thought provoking and unique as an astronaut finds himself stranded on a spaceship. But, at the same time, it comes across as a meandering, dull, bewildering mess. You will either love or hate the soundtrack by Angels & Airwaves. It may have worked better as a short film as it does feel like a pop video, but it is atmospheric and definitely unlike a lot of other movies on this list.


Gravity (2013)gravity I’ve purposefully left Gravity until the end of this list for a couple of reasons. One, you’re probably sick of seeing comparisons between Gravity and Interstellar by now. They were after all released by the same studio (Warner Bros) on the same date (7 November) and are both about space and gravity. The other reason is, just about everybody interested in seeing Gravity has by now seen it. However, the second best film of 2013 (according to Sight & Sound’s readers poll) in many ways laid the foundations for Interstellar. A sci-fi story that was taken seriously by critics, particularly at the big award ceremonies, and features some mind-boggling special effects. The story may be pretty simple, threatening to hold back what has the potential to be an all-time classic, but it is one of the best modern sci-fi’s and if you get a kick out of Interstellar, then Alfonso Cuarón’s film (clocking in at just ever so slightly over half the run time of Nolan’s blockbuster) should tick a few boxes for you. Oh, and watch it on as big a screen as possible. In 3D if at all possible. Honestly. 3D.


And that’s that! If you have any suggestions of your own or think I’ve missed some vital inclusions, or even if you have any recommendations for me, just post them below. You can find Owen’s Interstellar review here, and he will also be talking about it with Carole and Steve on the upcoming Failed Critics Podcast!