Streaming cinema: How COVID-19 accelerated the rise of digital film, and why geographers should care

By Alex Hastie, Coventry University

This post is republished from Alex Hastie’s personal blog, with permission. Read the original article here.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the country and much of the world in early 2020, the film industry was already being shaken up by big streaming platforms like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix. In 2019, film director Steven Spielberg protested against the presence of films distributed by such platforms at the Academy Awards. That same year, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma won three major awards and was nominated for Best Picture, hailing a victory for Netflix in its perceived disruption of Hollywood. Other films were also having commercial success through digital distribution such as Bird Box (Susanne Bier, 2018) starring Sandra Bullock, and The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019), both of which were distributed online by Netflix after a short theatrical release. The release of some films was postponed with the closure of cinemas, such as the latest in the James Bond franchise, No Time to Die (Cari Joji Fukunaga, 2021), whilst others premiered online. One such film was Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins, 2020) which, after being delayed, premiered on the platform DC FanDome, and later HBO Max in the US and Amazon Prime Video elsewhere. This caused some controversy, putting the future of traditional cinemas in doubt.

“File:’Roma’ filming locations in Mexico City – 3 – monochrome.jpg” by ProtoplasmaKid is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

As we begin to emerge from the worst of the pandemic in the UK, distributors and cinemas continue to make new films available online. For example, if you want to watch Oscar-winning Nomadland (Chloe Zhao, 2020), you can head to your local cinema and watch it in person, or you can stream it on Disney+ if you have a subscription. The Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, 2019) is also finally getting it’s time on the big screen, but it’s also available online to Amazon Prime Video subscribers. So, what does this mean for the future of film and cinema? As a film geographer, I am interested in what the consequences are for the spaces in which we watch films, who we watch films with, what devices we watch them on, and how the experience of watching films might change. I am particularly interested in both the opportunities and challenges these shifting cinematic landscapes present for what kinds of films we watch: do popular streaming platforms like Netflix provide more access to diverse film cultures? Or do they, and their paywalls and algorithms put up more barriers, reinforcing cultural tastes? These questions are at the heart of my recent research which used surveys and interviews to get a sense of if and how people’s film consumption behaviours had changed during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Findings from this project, which I am in the process of analysing, reveal that people use a wide range of streaming platforms to watch films from Amazon to BBC iPlayer and Netflix to MUBI. People have mixed feelings about watching films online, with some feeling more connected to the world through film at home, whilst others struggle to get through the first half an hour of a film due to home distractions. I will discuss these findings in more detail in geography journals in the near future.

To some, studying film in geography might seem a little strange: isn’t that what film studies is for? For me, film plays a powerful role in creating geography. What I mean by this is that film is a key vector for introducing us to the spaces and places around us, both near and far; it contributes to the way we perceive, and even behave towards, other people; it shapes the way we might view ourselves and our place in the world; and it can both reinforce and challenge these perceptions. This is nothing new. Jacqueline Burgess and John R Gold published a ground-breaking book in 1985 called Geography, The Media and Popular Culturein which they argued that place was in part produced by the forces of music, news, TV, and film. Geographers have since studied everything from geopolitical films (see Dodds, 2003) to film as a geographical research method (see Jacobs, 2016).

But it surprises me, given the precedent for such research in the discipline that geographers have yet to fully investigate the digital landscapes of film and cinema. So this project is also a call for a renewed interest in the geographies of film. There is much still to be understood about digital streaming platforms: from their impact on the global dominance of Hollywood to the growing power of Amazon and Disney, as well as the everyday intrusions film makes into people’s homes through smart TVs, mobile phones and laptops. Geographers can bring original spatial insights to these phenomena, by reappraising the great work already done in the subfield of ‘film geographies’ and by using the tools and theories of the ‘digital turn’ in the discipline. This is what I plan to do. And over the course of the next few months, alongside analysing research findings and preparing articles for publication, I will be writing about the films I’ve been watching on the streaming platforms I subscribe to, as a way of reflecting on the merits and pitfalls of streaming cinema.

About the author: Alex Hastie is a lecturer in human geography at Coventry University, with expertise in film/cinema, audiences, postcolonial and popular culture. Alex has researched and written about the relationship between postcolonial cinema, popular culture and film audiences. His PhD, Postcolonial Popcorn, examined contemporary Maghrebi-French film for the ways it uses Hollywood genre to tell unfamiliar stories in familiar ways. Alex is now pursuing new research into how people engage with diverse film cultures through online streaming platforms ranging from Netflix to MUBI.

Suggested further reading:

Ash, J., Kitchin, R. and Leszczynski, A., (2018). Digital turn, digital geographies? Progress in Human Geography, 42(1), pp.25-43.

Burgess, J., and Gold, J. R., (1985) Geography, the Media and Popular Culture. London: Routledge

Currah, A. (2003), Digital effects in the spatial economy of film: towards a research agenda. Area, 35: 64-73.

Dodds, K., (2003). Licensed to stereotype: Geopolitics, James Bond and the spectre of Balkanism. Geopolitics, 8(2), pp.125-156.

Jacobs, J., (2016). Filmic geographies: the rise of digital film as a research method and output. Area, 48(4), pp.452-454.

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