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Martin Scorsese Argues Streaming Algorithms Devalue Cinema into ‘Content’

In a new essay for Harper’s magazine, Martin Scorsese argues the art of cinema is being systematically devalued and demeaned by streaming services and their algorithms, “and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content.'”

“Content” became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode. It was linked, of course, not to the theatrical experience but to home viewing, on the streaming platforms that have come to overtake the moviegoing experience, just as Amazon overtook physical stores.

On the one hand, this has been good for filmmakers, myself included. On the other hand, it has created a situation in which everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field, which sounds democratic but isn’t. If further viewing is “suggested” by algorithms based on what you’ve already seen, and the suggestions are based only on subject matter or genre, then what does that do to the art of cinema…?

[A]t this point, we can’t take anything for granted. We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema. In the movie business, which is now the mass visual entertainment business, the emphasis is always on the word “business,” and value is always determined by the amount of money to be made from any given property — in that sense, everything from Sunrise to La Strada to 2001 is now pretty much wrung dry and ready for the “Art Film” swim lane on a streaming platform.

Is Scorsese right? Slashdot reader entertainme shared some reactions gathered by the BBC’s Entertainment reporter. Elinor Carmi, research associate at Liverpool University’s communication and media department sees a “battle between the old and new gatekeepers of art and culture.”

“At its core, curation has always been conducted behind the scenes”, with little clarity as to the rationale behind the choices made to produce and distribute art and culture, she says. Take the U.S.’s Motion Picture Association film rating system. The 2006 documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, explored how film ratings affect the distribution of films, and accusations that big studio films get more lenient ratings than independent companies… “[I]t would be a mistake to present the old gatekeepers in romantic colours compared to new technology companies. In both cases, we are talking about powerful institutions that define, control and manage the boundaries of what is art and culture,” Carmi says….

So is Scorsese right to suggest that streaming services reduce content to the “lowest common denominator”? Journalist and media lecturer Tufayel Ahmed suggests they are an easy target, and the reality is a little more complex. He says the focus on “pulling in the numbers” can mean some of the best shows don’t get the promotion and are therefore cancelled… “Some of the best stuff on streaming seems to get little buzz, while tons of marketing and publicity is thrown behind more generic fare that they know people will watch. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Scorsese himself directly benefited from this by relying on Netflix to fund his 2019 gangster film The Irishman after traditional studios baulked at the cost. “There’s an argument to be made about streaming services investing in publicity and marketing for these projects to create awareness,” says Ahmed.

But if responsibility in part lands on the shoulders of streaming services, the choices of the audience themselves cannot be forgotten. “Algorithms alone can’t be blamed for people consuming lowbrow content over series and movies that are deemed worthy, because people have flocked to easy viewing over acclaimed dramas on television, for example, for years.”

The BBC ultimately argues that perhaps “the streaming algorithms really aren’t to blame after all, but simply made in our image.” But in his essay Scorsese remembered how the brave pioneering decisions made in the 1960s by film distributors and exhibitors led to that moment’s “shared excitement over the possibilities of cinema” — and seems to want to preserve that special feeling:

Those of us who know the cinema and its history have to share our love and our knowledge with as many people as possible. And we have to make it crystal clear to the current legal owners of these films that they amount to much, much more than mere property to be exploited and then locked away. They are among the greatest treasures of our culture, and they must be treated accordingly.


Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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