Streaming: Bounty or Big Brother

Left to right: Dan Schoenbrun, Jeffrey Bowers, Matthew O'Neill, and David Nugent Mark Segal

“Navigating the Streaming Era,” the first of this year’s Winick Talks at Rowdy Hall, addressed a phenomenon that ten years ago “was a strange new thing nobody was quite taking seriously,” according to Dan Schoenbrun, a filmmaker, programmer, and writer who moderated Friday’s panel discussion.

Jeffrey Bowers, a senior curator at Vimeo, Matthew O’Neill, a documentary filmmaker, David Nugent, the festival’s artistic director, and Mr. Schoenbrun discussed the vastly changed landscape of film production, distribution, programming, and consumption, one which, they and members of the audience agreed, is still very much in flux.

On the festival side, Mr. Nugent recalled that 11 years ago, “we would get thousands of DVDs mailed to us. Now we watch probably 90 per cent of our submissions on video.”

Mr. Schoenbrun made a feature film last year called “Collective Unconscious,” whose production team decided to release it for free on Vimeo. “We posted it, and within one day 150,000 people had watched the film.”

Mr. Bowers, who used to help program several festivals, added that while festivals continue to offer unique and rich viewing experiences, the breadth and diversity of viewers reachable via streaming is “amazing.”

A key point of the panel was that both Netflix and Amazon have not only changed the way films are seen but also how they are produced and marketed. Mr. Nugent pointed out that Netflix spent $7 billion last year on producing original content.

“Major filmmakers are not finding the support they want from the traditional studio structure,” he said. “Martin Scorsese’s new film is a Netflix film. The three key films at this year’s New York Film Festival—directed by Richard Linklater, Todd Haynes, and Woody Allen—are all Amazon films.”

Several panelists discussed the importance, and potential pitfalls, of recommendation engines or algorithms, those tools by which Netflix and other providers suggest what its viewers watch based on their previous choices.

Eighty percent of customers’ viewing time on Netflix is based on those recommendations. “What are these algorithms doing culturally for people, as opposed to, say, a museum curator or film critic who might encourage a viewer to venture outside his or her comfort zone?” asked Mr. Schoenbrun.

Mr. Bowers noted that Netflix’s program “House of Cards” was “hashed out of an algorithm. Algorithms not only help close the window on what people are watching, the films we watch then help determine what companies will produce in the future. It’s a cycle.”   

An hour was barely enough to scratch the surface of the subject, especially with a knowledgeable audience that had much to contribute to the discussion. One can’t help but wonder what effect the march of technology and the profit imperative will have on how—or if—we make and look at films a few years down the road.