Deaditorial: Streaming Services are Killing Horror (And What They Can Do To Save It)Fearful Features,Home,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
It’s a bit hard to imagine, but I’ve been a paying Netflix subscriber for over ten years now. At first, what appealed to me wasn’t the convenience of never going to the local video store, which was a ritual I cherished then and miss dearly now, but rather the impossibly huge selection. As much as Blockbuster or Merchant Square Video could have the coolest new releases, the interesting video fare and a nice chunk of old & obscure films, they didn’t quite have everything I had been recommended via friend’s older brothers and society’s younger brother, the internet. And so I partook in the 3-at-a-time disc service to rent films such as MEET THE FEEBLES, KING OF THE ANTS and UHF, plus many various foreign, art and shlock films I couldn’t find elsewhere.
At the time, and for many ensuing years to come, I was an unfaltering Netflix supporter; I recommended the service to every film fan who would listen, and the service was more than kind to me as a subscriber, never charging me once for any lost disc and offering bonus discs occasionally just because I was a loyal customer. And since I also frequented my local video store for the latest titles, if I didn’t outright buy them, I had maintained a peaceful balance of my film fandom and my economic needs. And when the streaming service was introduced, I turned a blind eye to the harsh, doom-and-gloom predictions that the internet said about home media because as far as I was concerned, this “instant streaming” thing was merely for archival titles like Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR.
Yet now, a decade later, I’m here with sorrow in my soul for the state of the film industry, especially the horror genre, and if I said Netflix wasn’t at least partially responsible, I’d be a stonefaced liar. I had first noticed the tectonic shift when I read that Magnet Releasing was enthusiastically signing a licensing agreement with Netflix to bring a lot of their strange, independent genre fare to Netflix Instant… and most of it, believe it or not, was essentially new. This meant tons of the films who I’d otherwise have to travel into New York City and sit in a 60-seat theater to see would be on Netflix mere weeks after they hit home video. This was much different than, say, a back catalog from Paramount or old episodes of animated series, and again, I looked at the decision with naiive optimism, as there was nothing that appealed to me than having these eclectic and eccentric titles shown to an audience of millions.
Then, suddenly, Netflix Instant started popping up with television titles from Starz, Showtime and AMC, while more and more independent studios began signing these lucrative licensing deals. Soon, what was once considered a flavor of the month was here to stay, and suddenly, I noticed the video store stock was lightening up as their sales methods became agonizingly desperate. Then, some of the bigger studios refused to play ball, yet accidentally help start an incidentally depressing culture of chasing films as they are about to leave the streaming service, which grew as more and more methods of watching Netflix were developed.
But then, the bottom dropped out, and hard. Video stores closed by the hundreds, retail outlets cut their video sections by 80% and Netflix began even phasing out their own DVD program, eschewing the model that had built them from the bottom up. After that, the licensing deals became more and more treacherous, with some titles now debuting almost immediately after a 60-day VOD window, destroying any viable chance for independent titles to make money. And the theaters? Forget about it; these days, films are either made as high risk blockbuster gambles with marketing budgets that nearly match the production budget or as low risk gambles produced on the cheap and always being made to go cheaper, whether it be by scrapping a marketing campaign or even scrapping a theatrical release altogether. You can probably figure out where horror lands on that map.
And as much as piracy hurts the film industry, especially independent film, the fact is that it doesn’t quite hurt streaming services nearly as much because, 7 times out of 10, it’s not their content at risk. Hell, GAME OF THRONES is consistently the most pirated television show in the world from a channel that’s entirely based on subscriptions and cable contracts, and how does HBO react? By setting up more streaming services to watch GAME OF THRONES legally!
Yet this model wouldn’t bother me quite as much if Netflix, and all streaming services for that matter, had a bit more… appreciation towards the horror genre. To be honest, Netflix and similar streaming services could likely exist without a vast majority of their newer horror titles, as the sheer abundance of television series each service hosts would keep subscribers occupied for months upon months. However, whenever this writer talks to horror fans of all ages and backgrounds, they mostly find their frights from Netflix, sometimes almost exclusively so.
However, despite having a bona fide legion of horror fans returning day after day, perusing the thriller and horror sections of their streaming site, Netflix doesn’t quite feel the need to aim towards that audience. HEMLOCK GROVE, once lauded by Netflix as a success even greater than HOUSE OF CARDS, is coming to an end in its third season with no immediate horror successor currently in development. And when Netflix has the budget to bring original content to the table in feature films, they spend millions upon millions of dollars developing high-budgeted drama and comedy fare as opposed to anything horror.
While putting $60 million down to fund a Brad Pitt WWII movie might be a smart move come 2017 Oscar Season, or even more money to develop myriad Adam Sandler movies, the fact is that horror movies made at a literal fraction of those costs are a strong reason as to why Netflix remains a buzzworthy service. You know what $60 million dollars could make Netflix? Six $10 million horror films, with the budgets that could allow for excellent independent filmmakers to work without the constraints of time and studio interference. Or ten $6 million horror films, which would essentially replicate the Blumhouse model with similar effects. Or thirty $2 million horror films and still produce the likes of every single day-and-date film that Netflix offers currently!
And the sad fact is that horror really, really needs a big time streaming supporter right now. While the high profile of THE INTERVIEW opened the VOD landscape to thousands of otherwise ignorant people, most people don’t know how to navigate VOD, or if they’re really a piece of shit, will outright just pirate the material. With a higher demand and a saturated marketplace, the VOD window is rapidly closing as profit margins become lower and lower. And it’s not like these Netflix deals are benefiting the VOD windows; after all, Magnet Releasing went from esteemed genre purveyor to a virtual non-entity in a matter of months. Meanwhile, the only fright fare getting into the theaters nowadays is mostly microbudgeted Blumhouse affairs with the occasional mid-budget Legendary affair or New Line Cinema joint clawing into theaters, and fans are getting tired of seeing the same lazy shit, especially at $13 a ticket.
Of course, this is why horror is finding itself so successful on cable television, mostly on channels that work in conjunction with streaming services to catch viewers up with past seasons before their next premiere. Horror television has the bigger production values we used to expect from movies, with character actors we wished we would see in horror movies and suspenseful or gruesome content that makes us rush to social media to discuss. And better yet, most of these shows are bought and sold from advertising cash long before they make it to air, making them essentially unaffected by piracy or even the occasional low-rating.
But with more people waiting even for these shows to get to Netflix, horror is hurting in the meantime. Genuinely great and creative international productions with a miniscule production cost in comparison to the HANNIBALs and WALKING DEADs of the world are getting the cold shoulder from the streaming services that gladly showcase their work for millions, including Vincenzo Natali’s DARKNET or John Harrison’s RESIDUE. Sure, Netflix took a huge step in a good direction by greenlighting BLACK MIRROR, but that’s more-or-less because if they didn’t, someone would have as soon as Netflix’s exclusivity window expired.
However, perhaps the biggest slight streaming has had on horror, and content in general, is by making these films disposable. If a horror flick that plays incredible at a film festival doesn’t strike a chord with the fans of Freddy and Jason in Middle America, that consumer is going to be angry that they spent the miniscule VOD rental fee to see something that they could have immediately forgotten on their Netflix queue. By consuming so many movies and TV series for $8 a month, we get this illusion of free content that we see on the likes of Youtube; for heaven’s sake, how many people do you know use the term “free on Netflix” believing that the service is communal?
And so now, horror sites try harder and harder to convince horror fans to support horror films in theaters, on VOD, on Blu-ray and, yes, even on Netflix (which, admittedly, will always bring in traffic). But if horror fans refuse to rent these films, or go to the theater, or pick up the Blu-ray as to wait for the title to eventually come to a streaming service, as if all content will eventually make its way there, then producers will stop making them. Even at the tiny budgets horror movies are being made for now, the economic model is just not going to work; either all of these indie horror distributors are going to go bankrupt, studios will release all horror direct-to-VOD or the filmmakers we so enjoy and are excited by will forever be reduced to making a segment in an anthology film once every ten years. Meanwhile, multiplexes will only play megabudget fare like THE MARTIAN, Marvel/DC movies and sequels/reboots that you all supposedly hate but will watch on Netflix anyways.
Hell, even if Netflix took a fraction of the $5.5 billion dollars of yearly income, or even a fraction of their $400+ million of their operating income, and applied it to the horror genre, they could single-handedly save the genre. Their model is low-risk, as there will be subscribers anyways, and with that kind of money, there wouldn’t be any fright filmmaker in the world who would turn them down. In fact, if Netflix took $52 million from their budget and spent it on 52 horror films budgeted at $1 million apiece, they could have a new movie every week for an entire year exclusive to their service and meanwhile employ 52 horror filmmakers with 52 casts, crews, FX artists, and businesses. And even if $1 million is low by most standards, remember: INSIDIOUS was made for $1.5 million, and most independent films are made for a third of that budget or less.
And for Netflix, why wouldn’t they make that choice other than a stubborn lack of interest? How many hundreds of thousands of horror fans discovered the likes of STARRY EYES, THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN, CONTRACTED or the V/H/S series from Netflix? Are you telling me those very same directors wouldn’t jump at the chance to make a $1 million dollar movie for Netflix? Are these licensing deals really that lucrative for Netflix that such a proposition wouldn’t even make it past the idea stage? Or is Netflix afraid that original horror content would harm their chances at getting an Emmy, Oscar or Golden Globe?
And let’s say in the off chance that you read this fucking thing that you would like to see Netflix make more original horror content but don’t know how to express yourself, then let me make it easier. You can call or chat with a Netflix representative HERE, you can tweet to Netflix or Amazon or Hulu, or you can contact Netflix CEO Reed Hastings via his publicly available email with your two cents HERE, although please don’t solicit him with your own goddamn ideas because I guarantee it will only be read by the trash can. Otherwise, if social anxiety prevents you from calling, chatting, tweeting or email, just go to your nearest streaming queue and just find the horror titles you liked or loved and rate ‘em high; if there’s enough demand, usually someone will provide a supply.
Think about it, streamers. Think about it the next time you pass up picking up a Blu-ray or skipping the theater or ignore a VOD release to watch something on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or the like. Remember: the world spun just fine without a film culture, and though it’ll never go completely away, the pleasant, scary surprises that so many find few and far between will become much fewer and very, very fucking far between.