Martin Scorsese: Streaming services need to find a way to curate content

Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film Honoring Martin Scorsese

Back in the fall of 2019, Martin Scorsese was promoting The Irishman and he was also actively seeking to fight with Disney and Warner Bros. He said some sh-t about superhero movies and how they’re “not cinema, they’re theme parks.” He said some sh-t about how kids today have no sense of history, that their historical knowledge is so fragmented. He said some sh-t about how Marvel movies have no mystery or genuine emotional danger. In short, he pissed off a lot of people and picked a lot of fights. I agreed with him on most of what he said, with the caveat that Marty does love to make a lot of films solely about Italian-American dudes and that’s problematic too. So what’s new? Marty has written an essay for Harper’s about Federico Fellini and “the lost magic of cinema.” In the essay, Marty is really mad about… curating. Or the wrong kind of curating. And streaming services.

…The art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, “content.”

As recently as fifteen years ago, the term “content” was heard only when people were discussing the cinema on a serious level, and it was contrasted with and measured against “form.” Then, gradually, it was used more and more by the people who took over media companies, most of whom knew nothing about the history of the art form, or even cared enough to think that they should. “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?

Curating isn’t undemocratic or “elitist,” a term that is now used so often that it’s become meaningless. It’s an act of generosity—you’re sharing what you love and what has inspired you. (The best streaming platforms, such as the Criterion Channel and MUBI and traditional outlets such as TCM, are based on curating—they’re actually curated.) Algorithms, by definition, are based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else.

[From Harper’s]

Marty’s point is that Netflix’s algorithms suck and there should be some way for streaming services to have curated collections of their content so that people can actually be encouraged to watch offbeat films which they’ve probably never heard of. I mean, he’s arguing for a lot of different things, but this is my interpretation of what he’s saying. And… I kind of agree with him? I think Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services could do a much better job with their algorithms and the way they showcase their own content. Half the time I don’t even know what to actively seek out on Netflix or what smaller films they have available.

2020 National Board Of Review Awards Gala

Photos courtesy of WENN.

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16 Responses to “Martin Scorsese: Streaming services need to find a way to curate content”

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  1. TIffany says:

    Marty,

    Netflix could only do so much with The Irishman.

    It was just not that good.

    Count your money you got from them and be quiet.

  2. Case says:

    That snippet of what he wrote is so confusing and convoluted, lol. I don’t 100% get what he’s saying. But I do agree that the algorithms should be much more sophisticated — Netflix thinks I’m a 99% match with stuff I’d never watch. And Netflix — oddly enough, home of The Irishman — is I think the worst streaming service when it comes to having quantity over quality. They’ll take anything. I look at HBO Max and I’m so impressed with how many classic films they have, older movies that are hard to find elsewhere, award-winning films, offbeat indies, etc. They have a brilliant selection. Netflix, in comparison, is kinda trashy.

    All that said — streaming services are where all the award-nominated films from this year live, and the film industry should be incredibly grateful they exist to keep their industry afloat. I love the theater and can’t wait until it’s safe to return. But there’s no question that streaming services helped the film and television industries a great deal during the pandemic, and made Oscar-type films that are usually inaccessible to average people much easier to watch. I love that.

  3. smee says:

    All I’m here to say is the Criterion Channel is the best deal in town if you like “cinema”.

    • Case says:

      I’ve been eyeing up Criterion Channel lately. I might have to cancel one of my other subscriptions and get it!

    • Leah says:

      It really is. I love Criterion and I recommend it to everyone who adores film beyond the mainstream.

  4. Brubs says:

    “Marty does love to make a lot of films solely about Italian-American dudes and that’s problematic too.”

    I mean about Italian-American dudes you have goodfellas (the main character wasn’t italian), mean streets, the irishman (again, the main character not italian) and maybe raging bull?

    That leaves: Taxi Driver, Alice doesn’t live here anymore, new york new york, the king of comedy, the last temptation of christ, after hours, the color of money, cape fear, the age of innocence, bringing out the dead, gangs of new york, the departed, the aviator, shutter island, hugo, the wolf of wall street and silence
    none of which are about italian-american dudes
    That’s a very common misconception, but it’s not true

  5. Sunday says:

    I sort of agree too. I don’t think streaming or home viewing is the problem, though – I’ve enjoyed being able to watch quality films like Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari, Sound of Metal etc from the comfort of my living room. But I think Netflix in particular’s commitment to quantity over quality means that they produce and host a ton of programming that feels like it was taken out of the oven before it was fully baked, and this flooding of the service with programs that have interesting concepts but that in practice are poorly realized with the exception of a rare few just cheapens the overall service. I’d much rather have less content in favor of an extra round or two of edits. Most of the time I intentionally skip the netflix originals when scrolling because, unless they’ve gotten good review buzz, at this point I know what to expect from a netflix production and most of the time it isn’t great. Their really good shows they cancel after 3 seasons anyway.

  6. Malcom says:

    It’s about money, Marty. Prestigious white dude director never had to think about the box office numbers or views bc he has been worshipped as an auteur anything he does is said YES to & given money. He’s never had the pressure.

    Netflix doesn’t care, Marty.

    He seems so out of touch

  7. Evenstar says:

    I think I agree with his larger point. Going through Netflix is itself such a chore. The genre sections usually have tons of overlap between them and all have the same 30 or so movies.

  8. Catwoman says:

    My complaint is can we just have one streaming service instead of 5367?

    • Deering24 says:

      Amen to that. I’ve resigned myself to never catching up with Peak TV because there’s no realistic way I can afford more than one streaming service. If that means I catch most of Games Of Thrones on Vimeo/Dailymotion/YouTube clips, so be it.

  9. Snuffles says:

    Marty is a movie buff and just wants the rest of the world to be too. That doesn’t mean the children are deprived if we haven’t seen that amazing little indie film he adores. Some people just have crappy taste.

    I have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and Disney +. I get recommendations all the time based on what I’ve already watched. I watch a K Drama, I’m recommended even more K Dramas. If I watch a romantic comedy, I get recommended a few dozen romantic comedies. I scroll, quite often see obscure titles but I rarely click.

    I don’t think curating content like he suggested is going to do much either- unless you’re a huge movie buff like Martin. It’s a saturated market. It’s just tough to break through.

  10. Leah says:

    It’s a case of which streaming services appeals to each person. I have Netflix but I know to expect mainstream, some tv and Netflix productions from them. They are kind of on the same level of HBO max which is for more popular, mainstream content, including DC movies. They also have the TCM hub which I appreciate. I also have Criterion because of the film snob that lives inside me and I expect much more diversity from them when it comes to content. I don’t expect that same diversity from Netflix and HBO Max. Marty shouldn’t either.

    I recently subscribed to Disney + and it’s exactly as advertised. Disney films, Marvel and NatGeo etc. It’s not trying to be art house or a hub for obscure silent movies.

  11. Shells_Bells says:

    I’m not a Marty fan at all, I’ve only “kind of” enjoyed most of his films, but I kind of agree with him here. Or at least with what I think he’s trying to say.
    I sometimes feel so overwhelmed with the choices that I don’t even browse the services. Instead, I search the web for top-ranked streaming shows/movies and then just look for those. The best thing we did to manage all the services was to get a Roku. All we have to do is put the movie/show we want in the Roku search field and it will search all the streaming apps that we’ve added. I highly recommend it.

  12. foile says:

    I think Scorcese is saying that there used to be a distinction between films purely for entertainment sakes (predictable plot, easy to follow, feel-good, etc.) and films that had something more to offer, whether through form or content, perhaps a little more akin to art, able to expand the viewers horizon or challenging them in some way or another (depending on the viewer of course).
    Netflix and Amazon make absolutely no distinction in their recommendations based on the content or quality of the films (at least according to the recommendations I am getting). There is something lost here, and I understand that Scorcese mourns this and wishes that even streaming giants would take on this cultural role. Because that space is increasingly emptying.

  13. Grant says:

    Sorry, but WandaVision has made me “feel” more than any white-male-mobster redux that Scorsese keeps putting out. Scorsese used to release movies that were compelling (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) but now it’s just the same mobster story over and over. Same script, different cast. Most of the Marvel movies (and certainly the MCU television series) are more creative and representative, and they are really revolutionizing cinema and storytelling in a way that makes Scorsese’s films seem reductive.