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Netflix looms large at the Telluride Film Festival

Along with fellow tech giant Amazon, Netflix has radically and permanently altered the landscape of film exhibition in the 21st century.

In 2007 they introduced online video streaming. By 2010, they expanded to international markets in Canada and Latin America. In 2013, they began producing original content (with the TV series "House of Cards"). And by 2016, finally cornered the streaming markets in Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The same year, they began production of kid-targeted and non-English language content, solidifying control over the most profitable avenues of production, distribution and exhibition of small-screen format content.

Recently, Netflix has turned its vast financial resources toward market control of foreign and indie film production and distribution -- a move that has been stirring up controversy on the art-house and festival circuit over the past few months. However, in an effort to establish its niche, Netflix has taken to promoting less traditional, more diverse modes of storytelling -- potentially attracting audiences for films that would normally have limited to no theatrical release.

Both Netflix and Amazon have been attending the major film festivals (Sundance, Cannes, Venice, Telluride) for the past few years. But this year, the decision by Netflix to pull out of the Cannes Film Festival -- due to the festival's refusal to screen any film in competition that did not have a theatrical release in France -- created a high-profile rift between the business of distribution and the art of cinema.

Luckily for myself and the select group of film studies co-majors who took part in my annual workshop at the Telluride Film Festival this year, the two most high-profile Netflix-backed films pulled from Cannes (Orson Welles' "The Other Side of the Wind" and Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma") premiered at Telluride instead, and we had the chance to see them on the big screen, with Cuaron and Welles' collaborators in attendance. (Netflix has promised both of these films will have theatrical releases, though it's unclear for how long.)

Netflix was also the main festival sponsor at Telluride this year for the first time, which lent the festival a different atmosphere than previous years. Besides the two narrative front-runners, there were other Netflix-produced documentaries and a general program that was more doc-heavy than usual. There were also various fiction films lacking in cinematic vibrancy -- Jason Reitman's "The Front Runner," for one, about the Gary Hart affair, whose small-screen aesthetics made it feel a bit like watching the television show "Scandal" on the big screen.

There are definite pros to the distribution of festival films via online streaming: access to wider audiences, support for more diverse and less commercial storytelling and, of course, more money for filmmakers. Since Netflix and Amazon don't have to worry about ticket sales, they have the freedom to acquire riskier films -- Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" was turned down by every major studio before it was produced by Amazon. Given that distribution in Hollywood has historically been the domain of white males who have sometimes struggled to connect with audiences beyond their own demographic, the disruptive model of Netflix and Amazon offers exciting possibilities for groups historically underrepresented in the industry.

Nonetheless, the cinema as a shared experience and an art form requiring specific screening circumstances to be able to communicate at its highest level of expression, is a reality that online distribution threatens to do away with in its reduction of all acquisitions to the category of "content." Cinema is much more than content, though that is an argument I don't have the space to elaborate on here.

Ideally, the future of cinema would involve online streaming platforms offering a diversity of content aimed at more inclusive audiences, coupled with an effort to protect and preserve the cinematic art form from the market forces that threaten to overrun it. Though this seems reasonable, Netflix chief Ted Sarandos has made statements that seem to suggest the tech giant has an interest in controlling what all of us define as "cinema," both in America and in the global arena as well.

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