Martin Scorsese criticizes streaming platforms and the movie business in a new essay for Harper’s Magazine entitled Il Maestro. While the piece is an homage to director Federico Fellini, Scorsese also discusses how streaming and current movie industry practices have negatively impacted the art of cinema, which he says is being “systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content.’”
“As recently as 15 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,’” he writes. “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.”
Scorsese says that “content” is a “business term for all moving images: A David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode.”
Though he acknowledges that he and other filmmakers have benefitted from the opportunities streaming platforms present (his recent film The Irishman was funded and distributed by Netflix), he criticizes their use of algorithms. He posits that suggestions via algorithm limit the viewers’ exposure to different subject matter and genres, and that has negative implications on the art. Scorsese adds that algorithm calculations serve to treat the viewer solely as a “consumer, and nothing else,” and argues that curation is a better approach, citing curated streaming services, such as Criterion Channel and MUBI, as positive curated examples.
“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.
“Those of us who know the cinema and its history have to share our love and our knowledge with as many people as possible,” he continues. “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.”
In 2019, Scorsese wrote an op-ed for New York Times that argued that Marvel movies are not cinema. He ends his new essay reflecting on his definition of cinema.
“I suppose we also have to refine our notions of what cinema is and what it isn’t. Federico Fellini is a good place to start,” he concluded. “You can say a lot of things about Fellini’s movies, but here’s one thing that is incontestable: they are cinema. Fellini’s work goes a long way toward defining the art form.”