Martin Scorsese Rails At Streaming Algorithms, Asks For More Movie Curation

Director Martin Scorsese knows that the streaming age is here to stay, but asks us to remember that cinema is art, not content.


There's a quote from author Douglas Adams about how we adapt easily to new things in our younger years, but how "anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things." It's easy to look at tweets and essays from Hollywood's old guard as little more than old men screaming at clouds shaped Netflix and Disney+ logos when they talk about the way streaming services and comic book movies are changing filmmaking, but a new essay from Martin Scorsese has a lot more to say than the idea that new things are bad.

In a new essay in the March 2021 edition of Harper's Magazine, Scorsese looks at the lifetime and impact of Italian director Federico Fellini, which is interesting in its own right, but he bookends it with thoughts on the current state of cinema that both lament the passing of the old age but accept the reality of the current world.

"As recently as fifteen years ago, the term 'content' was heard only when people were discussing cinema on a serious level, and it was contrasted with and measured against 'form,'" Scorsese writes. "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."

"'Content' became a business term for all moving images," he continues, correctly assessing that it encompasses everything from cat videos to television episodes to superhero sequels. The term as its used today, Scorsese says, "was linked, of course, not to the theatrical experience, but to home viewing, and on the streaming platforms that have come to overtake the moviegoing experience."

Scorsese acknowledges that streaming platforms have been good for directors like him in their own way--Netflix produced Scorsese's The Irishman and Pretend It's a City, while Apple TV will get Killers of the Flower Moon--but says that streaming platforms present all content on a level playing field, which he says "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?" he asks.

Often when directors talk about modern moviemaking, they take aim at things like superhero movies (as Scorsese himself has previously done) as a cancer that needs to be excised from cinema, but Scorsese doesn't have anything bad to say about the movies themselves, the viewing experience (we're looking at you, Christopher Nolan), or even streaming as a delivery medium. Instead, Scorsese's pain point is the way streaming platforms are engineered. He differentiates services like Criterion Channel and MUBI because these services are curated rather than engineered.

Scorsese argues that curating movies isn't undemocratic or elitist, but human; it's someone putting a list together and sharing it, rather than a machine trying to assess what art you might like based on math.

"Algorithms, by definition, are based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else," he argues. This leads into his discussion of Fellini's work and the way it was discussed and shared.

Toward the end of the piece, Scorsese comes back around to how Fellini, and the age of cinema he was a part of, and the current age of streaming piece together. He acknowledges that it's only natural for people to focus on modern creations and that older artists would "eventually recede into the shadows with the passing of time," but suggests that curation of film shouldn't be left up to the people who stand to make money off of it.

"We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema," he writes. "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. 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."

All of this is, of course, reframed thanks to the pandemic. For the last year, American moviegoers have been unable to take movies in through theaters, removing the communal experience from moviewatching almost entirely, save for people diving into late-night Netflix watch parties and the like. The future of theaters is even more questionable, and we'll be that much more dependent on viewing algorithms, which are built for the profit of the service, not the engagement of the viewer.

Image credit: Getty Images/Jon Kopaloff/Stringer

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