The Future of Movie Streaming Is an ‘Exhausting’ ‘Beautiful Nightmare’

Read Time18 Minutes, 56 Seconds

Each week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday afternoons. (The answer to the second question, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This month marks the beginning of a new era of the streaming age, as the launches of Apple TV+ and Disney+ seem to anticipate a future where there are as many credible streaming platforms as there currently are cable channels. Needless to say, the days of covering your bases between Netflix & FilmStruck already feel like ancient history.

For this week’s IndieWire Critics Survey, we asked our panel of critics to discuss their current streaming diets, and whether they feel as if the increasingly niche content market will be able to survive its current rate of growth. The feedback we received suggests that even industry professionals are struggling to keep up with the smorgasbord of stuff to watch, and that the platform fatigue will only grow more pronounced as it continues to trickle down towards the masses.

Steven Spielberg at the Steve Jobs Theater during an event to announce new products, in Cupertino, CalifApple Streaming TV, Cupertino, USA - 25 Mar 2019

Steven Spielberg at the Apple TV+ announcement

Tony Avelar/AP/Shutterstock

Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse

I haven’t followed the major streaming news as closely as many others, so most of this will be a largely personal reflection. I have a fairly simple relationship to the streaming services: I subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. I often watch movies on Netflix and Amazon, and TV on Hulu—though it’s not exclusive in all three, of course. I’m not sure exactly where this new and upcoming round of streaming services will go, though I can’t imagine that I’d be interested in taking any more monthly subscriptions on at this stage, if just for financial reasons. 

Part of what has made the major streaming services so popular is that, though titles frustratingly disappear on a whim, there is always a wide variety of stuff available—i.e. not just the releases of one network or studio. However, if all networks and studios begin their own services and we eventually get to a point where streaming services are essentially only offering their own in-house productions, then this all becomes far more regimented. I don’t know where things go from there, but I can’t imagine it’s good for anyone but those corporations.

Dilara Elbir (@elbirdilara), Much Ado About Cinema

The only streaming platform I subscribe to, or the only one I willingly pay for, is Criterion Channel. I have a Hulu subscription through Spotify that I almost never use and I use my partner’s Netflix. I also pay half of an Amazon student subscription that comes with Prime Video but I try to use it the least amount possible and plan to cancel my Amazon subscription completely because I don’t want to support Amazon. I subscribe to Criterion Channel not just for the wide range of films they have but also to support their effort to preserve films that are hard to find. There are months when I don’t even have time to watch anything on there, and as a graduate student and freelancer I have a limited income, but I still don’t consider cancelling it. To me as someone who not only works in film but values preservation of film, I feel that it is my duty to support platforms like Criterion Channel and make sure it doesn’t have the same destiny as FilmStruck (rest in peace legend!). It’s the least I can do. And I don’t plan on subscribing to Disney+ unless they rethink their stance on not allowing theaters to play films in their vault

Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School RejectsThe PlaylistPolygon 

Like many of my fellow incredibly wealthy film journalists (read: sarcasm), I have a patchwork quilt of streaming accounts. Some sign-ins were sewn by parents, others by friends, others by press reps, others by current roommate’s old roommate’s ex-boyfriend’s families, others by hands so lost in the lineage of sharing, they could be considered streaming ancestors. It’s messy, not neatly sewn. You know what I mean. One day a password will change and your Hulu account will disappear into the ether before you remember that pal who kindly offered his Hulu password to some good college friends in a group text as a gesture of kindness and long distance connection, and the red alarm in your head that screams “NO MORE IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY” stops blaring, and everything’s back to normal. And some services, believe it or not, I just bought on my own, like The Criterion Channel, which is the richest and most well-worn of my streaming subscriptions. Altogether—and in order of importance—I have subscription access to The Criterion Channel, MUBI, Kanopy, Shudder, HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu (low-tier, many commercials—what is this, cable?), and Prime. 

I don’t plan on purchasing or seeking out passwords for Apple TV+ or Disney+. I’d be open to Apple TV+ down the line if Apple made a name for themselves in film production, but those days seem far off and unlikely from where we’re standing now. As far as the future of streaming is concerned, it seems inevitable that we’ll find ourselves purchasing streaming bundles/packages soon in the same way we once bought cable packages. I have no idea how long that will take, but I guess it depends on where people draw the line with their own subscription count. 10? 15? 25? I can’t imagine paying for 10, much less 25, subscriptions regardless of how affordable. It just sounds like a logistics nightmare.

But I’m not lamenting the future of a packaged streaming subscription. I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be nice to surf some 50 streaming channels in one place the way we used to surf 50 TV channels, and while the development is circular in nature, it won’t be a return to old ways. We’ll have evolved in our media engagement. We won’t have to ride the wave of what one thing happens to be playing on whatever channel we choose. We won’t be restricted to 50 options. We’ll be able to pick within, an endless ocean of film and TV to explore ever at our fingertips—a beautiful nightmare for anyone considering the amount of time they waste scrolling through options already. Maybe we’ll get better about that?

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague VisagesScreen RantRogerEbert.com

I typically like to stream in threes. On Saturday or Sunday mornings, it’s fun to wake up early and watch three Criterion Channel films from one director before noon; there’s so much to discover and learn about. I try to focus on specific names or themes. For Noirvember, I’ll be seeking first-time watches at Criterion, but will also turn to Shudder every couple days for some extra flavor and inspiration, as their collections are phenomenal and rad. Hulu consistently adds solid titles to their indie section, so I’m always keeping an eye what’s new. They just added The Nightingale! To streamline a personal streaming schedule, I use the app JustWatch. Instawatcher is helpful as well.

As the streaming wars escalate, new voices in film criticism will emerge and the old pros will become even more valuable. It seems as though various sub-groups of Streaming Film Twitter will form, perhaps to differentiate themselves from those who are most interested in promoting mass consumption of cinema and just want to watch what they like, as opposed to truly investing time in being challenged and educated. For my site, Vague Visages, I imagine that I’ll have specific sections associated with my favorite streaming platforms; drop-down menus for Criterion Channel, Shudder, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Prime – maybe even Fandor (!), as my complimentary account is still active and plenty of quality films are still available to stream.

Deborah Krieger (@DebOnTheArts), BUST Magazine, Moviejawn

I currently subscribe to (deep breath): Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Kanopy! (Wait. That’s not that many.) Netflix has been where I watch “The Office,” “Friends,” “The West Wing,” “Mad Men,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Parks and Recreation,” “New Girl,” and all my favorite recent and older shows—some of which I only was able to watch because they were on Netflix–as well as keep up with “Riverdale” on a weekly basis while I was living outside of the United States. I appreciate how quickly it seems to get recent releases, and now, of course, I rely on it for “Derry Girls,” “The Society,” “Russian Doll” (my favorite program of 2019), “Sex Education,” and all the kinds of shows I wish existed when I was a teenager. I remember when “House of Cards” was first introduced, and I watched the first two seasons dutifully and in a binge. Now I’ll scroll through Netflix casually when I’m bored and realize that it miraculously has the first “Spy Kids” movie—a crucial part of my childhood—as well as other old and new movies I enjoy. 

Amazon Prime came accidentally, because I wanted to get my Amazon purchases quickly when I was in college, so I subscribed to the Prime Service. The streaming aspect was a side benefit. Now, of course, it has “The Americans,”which I was only able to watch all of through Prime, as well as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Good Omens,” and I do appreciate how you can usually rent a movie for cheap right away if it’s not available to stream—I did this with “Bride and Prejudice”a few years back. Kanopy is my favorite hidden gem! While it’s not going to have all the latest Marvels and DCs, I love that it has sections for independent, foreign, documentary, and old Hollywood films, as well as special focuses on A24 and other great distributors. I was able to watch “What We Do in the Shadows” on Halloween this year, and dazzle people with my insider knowledge of a legit streaming service that is free with a library card. It’s both legal and civic, kind of. I also plan on subscribing to Disney+ with my immediate family because I am very excited for “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier!”

Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield) The Movie Minute

Between those I pay for and the ones I’ve been given access to, I almost feel as if I am drowning in a burgeoning sea of streaming options. Not that I’m complaining. From the comments and requests I receive, thanks primarily to the broadcast parts of my syndicate, it has become more and more obvious my audience, a slice of the world that it is, is much more interested in what they can stream, preferring that to what they feel is the more expensive, inconvenient or less interesting option of heading to the local box office. Fight as I may, and I am constantly haranguing them about the bonuses of theater viewing, I, too, have begun to appreciate the joys of curling up on the couch with a binge that, at least in certain parts of the year, is better entertainment than what’s being shoveled out at the multiplex. Kick and scream, you purists, but when Scorsese can’t get a major studio to pay for “The Irishman” and Netflix will, when The Handmaid’s Tale is too much of a narrowcast for the big boys, but not for Hulu, and when popular artists Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon take their newest to the shiny Apple TV+, we’re playing in a whole new ball field. 

Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant

I have three streaming services, but the only one I actively sought out is Netflix. I use it to see their original films, or to catch movies I missed theatrically. I also have Amazon Prime because it comes with my Prime subscription, and Hulu, because I was given a complimentary subscription through a critic’s group of which I’m a member. I really only use Prime to watch older movies I want to re-see for some reason. Hulu’s got some decent original films that I enjoy checking out. Streaming serves a few purposes for me, but I’m not planning to sign up for a bunch of different services. It’s getting to the point where you’d have to shell out hundreds of dollars a month to get all the content you want, because the platforms all have different titles. That, to me, is going to be the thing that potentially makes streaming go the way of Blockbuster Video someday.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to NailFilm Festival Today

Too much media, too little time. I can barely muster the space in my schedule to watch all the movies I need to review, writing for two sites, running a podcast, hosting a bi-monthly TV show, and, oh yeah, working at my academic day job (the one that actually pays me). Don’t get me wrong, I love my sideline as a film critic, but I am so rarely able to watch things, including the many long-form series that my colleagues and friends recommend, that I am perfectly happy, for now, with the dual system of Amazon Prime and Netflix. I have considered adding HBO GO, since there’s a lot of content there that interests me, and was briefly on Hulu (the ads drove me crazy, however), but since much of what they both offer is available to me via end-of-year screeners and/or for rent from Amazon or iTunes (if I am really desperate), I’ll stick with the two main providers I have, at present. I just signed up for Apple TV+ for five minutes and then cancelled, after seeing the paucity of content there. Give me a holler when they have something worth watching.

Jennifer SalkeAmazon Prime Executive Session panel, TCA Summer Press Tour, Los Angeles, USA - 27 Jul 2019

Jennifer Salke
Amazon Prime Executive Session panel, TCA Summer Press Tour, Los Angeles, USA – 27 Jul 2019

Todd Williamson/JanuaryImages/Shutterstock

Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson25YL, and Medium.com  

I’ve been a “cord-cutter” for about a decade now, so I have long embraced the a la carte feasibility of streaming services over the bloated fat of carrying a costly cable television bill or lengthy contract. Nevertheless, I’m still a lowly underpaid school teacher when I’m not a DIY film critic. Frugality wins and FREE is my ideal price point.  That puts the streaming services of Hoopla and Kanopy at the top of my appreciation and usage lists.  It is absolutely extraordinary how much quality film content across innumerable eras and genres is available using the simple accessibility of a good, old fashioned public library card. The A24 catalog alone on Kanopy is worth every invisible penny.  

Beyond those two services, I am as happy to humblebrag as the next press member that having Netflix now pay for my Netflix is a wonderful perk. I was sure first in line when that wall came down this past winter. Lastly, as a middle-class married father of two, I bow to the Amazon machine as a Prime member enjoying the benefits of their shipping prices and convenience for their many goods where I will gladly partake in their included Prime Video offerings through a Fire Stick at home.  Looming on the horizon, we’ll see if my six-year-old daughter and five-year-old son clamor enough this month to add Disney+ to the rotation. I will probably be that gruff, walking Dad Joke that tells them to get a job and open that lemonade stand here in the unforgiving winter of Chicago before squeezing those next nickels out.

Danielle Solzman (@DanielleSATM)Solzy at the Movies/Freelance

At the moment, I currently have Netflix, Hulu, and Prime. The reason as to why is mostly because of work purposes. Because I’m a member of critics groups that vote on TV, they are practically a requirement. There are way too many streaming content providers out there, to the point where subscribing to everything is going to be as expensive as cable.

I don’t anticipate that my streaming habits will change much. I keep up with my favorite shows as much as possible while taking a few days to binge-watch everything else. While I have YouTube TV, I end up watching more episodes on Hulu because I can watch them quicker without the ads. I expect that I’ll subscribe to Disney+.

Oralia Torres (@oraleia)CinescopiaMalvestida 

I’m currently suscribed to Netflix, Mubi, and FilminLatino, and I also stream Prime Video, Clarovideo and Cinépolisklic with my partner. Out of those, three are not available in the US, just as Hulu, the Criterion Channel, the defunct FilmStruck and Shudder are not available internationally; FilminLatino specializes in Mexican movies from all eras, international art house cinema and short films (many of them for free), Clarovideo is Telmex (the main phone and internet provider in Mexico)’s streaming platform, with a lot of variety and old movies, and Cinépolisklic is the streaming platform for one of the biggest movie chain theaters in the country, which releases both movies that just came out on theaters, movies that did not had an official Mexican release and other curiosities and classics. With all that, I’m pretty much covered for streaming; it is overwhelming to have so many options, and I doubt my streaming habits will change anytime soon (unless, you know, Netflix rises their prices again and becomes too expensive to pay monthly; currently, the standard price is at $8.80 USD per month). 

Despite this “golden era” of streaming, there is so much room for improvement: movie regions are still a thing for some reason (“Mudbound” is unavailable in Netflix LATAM for some reason, just as many classic movies that I read are available in Netflix US; the Mubi catalogue changes from country to country, and Prime Video is a wild ride on its own), movies disappear from their catalogues without any further notice, and there are still many many movies (and series) unavailable. It’s exhausting, and it will not end movie and series piracy, which was the expectation when streaming providers started. Distribution issues are the main challenge for filmmakers and audiences, and having so many streaming platforms is a double-edge sword. 

Sarah Welch-Larson (@dodgyboffin), Bright Wall/Dark RoomThink Christian

I personally subscribe to the Criterion Channel and Hulu, while my husband subscribes to Netflix and HBO and has a Prime account. I’ve also been known to purchase movies on iTunes, my streaming “ownership” drug of choice. My husband and I split our viewership roughly equally amongst our five subscription accounts, although I’d like to spend my time educating myself about world cinema on Criterion more than I currently do. I’m frankly exhausted by the wealth of choices already available to me, and I’m hesitant to subscribe to any more platforms than I currently do. T

here’s no way to keep up with everything that’s already available to stream, let alone everything else on its way. As Matt Zoller Seitz has pointed out many times before, purchasing movies to stream online is just purchasing streaming rights, and having access to movies to stream now is no guarantee that they’ll be available to stream in the future. I already have a habit of picking up used DVDs from record stores, and I’m suspicious of all the other streaming services coming available in the future, so I predict I’ll keep hoarding physical media for movies I’d like to watch over and over, and visiting my local library when I’m just curious enough for one watch.

Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool

Between my wife and I, we’ve got the whole smorgasbord of streaming services, from Netflix to Hulu (no ads) to Shudder to The Criterion Channel to CBS All Access (look, I’ve gotta have my Star Trek, okay?), and like any good millennial we piggyback off my mother in law’s cable subscription to get our HBO fix. We even still hold on to our Youtube TV subscription, which effectively means we pay $40 a month to watch the occasional episode of Supermarket Showdown. (It’s a problem). And while we probably won’t subscribe to Apple TV+ (their opening slate looks… uninspiring, to say the least), we’ll probably sign up for Disney+ for access to The Vault and that sweet Mandalorian action.

Still, just writing that out is bound to exhaust one, and the fact that we likely pay as much now as we used to for a regular cable subscription makes the whole cord-cutting thing feel redundant. I feel like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part III”: just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. As streaming content grows ever more balkanized, and new networks struggle to make their way in the world with their very own services, I have to believe the bubble’s going to burst sooner rather than later. There’s no way that everyone in America is going to pay $100+ a month for a dozen streaming services; if nothing else, I just don’t think our attention spans, to say nothing of our phone’s Home screens, have the real estate. Traditionalists will hold onto Netflix until they finally fold after they pour too much money into streaming series no one watches; Hulu will go the way of the dodo as Disney+ siphons off most of its content. As for the rest, it’ll be a scramble for relevance as purse strings tighten and the never-ending avalanche of content grows too large to fully consume. 

As for our own habits, it may be time for a ‘streaming audit’ so we can prune some of the services we’re not using as much as we need to anymore. I, for one, can forego watching “Guy’s Grocery Games” long enough to trim $40 off our budget. As the streaming world demands more of our time, attention, and money, I think a lot of us will soon be doing the same. 

Question: What is the best movie currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “Parasite”

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