I often hear people saying “Netflix revolution is determined by technology” like this was something new, a typically digital phenomenon. In some other cases I agree with such criticism, but in the case of video contents things are quite different. In this article I want to focus on contents' length and on their structure, comparing Netflix with cinema and literature. Most of all, according to my opinion, Netflix is creating a new form of romance. A capital innovation like Don Quijote in history of literature: Miguel de Cervantes created the modern romance. We will tell our nephews that we were here, in front of the TV or the PC monitor, watching Breaking Bad, True Detectives and Narcos reshape an entire world of narratives with new media and new experiences.
And now let's analyze what factors are part of this revolution:
Although Netflix is only the last entrant in the premium video content jungle (the first was HBO), it's the world's first digital native content platform.
Duration is another of the boundaries broken by Netflix. In the history of cinema, movies duration was tipically determined by some factors (and it's still the same):
Lenght of literary compositions has always been strongly dependant on technological constraints: amount of material support available, ability to obtain a writable surface, achievable extension of surface itself and, obviously, transportability (depending on weight and dimensions). Papyrus (in Egypt), waxed wooden boards (in the Roman empire) and paper books (in the modern Europe), for example, had different charateristics allowing different lenght limits to texts: short with waxed wooden boards, medium with papyrus and larger with paper books.
Although long books had always been written in different ages, no Marcel Proust's Recherche would have been possible without the Gutemberg revolution, correlated technological advances in printing and improved economics of distribution. All these factors allowed an increase both in the lenght of the books and in the "time to market".
Movable type also determined the raise of a wide range of new media. One of them was cultural or news magazines where multitudes of writers published their stories in sequential installments. Pickwick Tales or the novels about Sherlock Holmes inquiries saw the light as separate chapters on such magazines. So serials was born. Readers used to wait one week or one month to get the following chapter, exactly the same way we read, fund and wait the next chapter of a book in some crowdfunding platforms like Ulule or Mamacrowd.
Well, on one hand, cinema movies — with an estimated length between one and a half and three hours — are just like old serials installments. This is confirmed by the need to "split" the story between three or more movies to tell the entire story, like happened with The Lord of the Rings. Don't believe that this is only due to marketing reasons: a 9 hours blockbuster would be impossible to produce, distribute and watch. On the other side, we have thousands of adaptations of stories from books to movies, and in many cases screenwriters needed to reduce the tale length by cutting scenes, simplifying narratives and, in simple terms, giving up telling all the nuances and details contained in the original story.
Some days ago, a friend of mine told me that the Fifty Shades of... movie trilogy was simply a wrong choice: it would have to be a serial fiction, not a movie.
By the way: in Italian, the words for short film and full-length film are respectively cortometraggio and lungometraggio. Both contain the word metraggio, that's to say footage (foot and meter are measurement units and are strictly correlated to film's lenght). This is an etymological proof that everything, in the world of cinema, derives from its material properties.
Words from my friend about Fifty Shades of Grey made me understand that people don't want a "summary": they want the entire romance, chapter by chapter. I mean that people, while watching the It series — for example —, want to live the same experience they had (or might have had) reading King's original story. Story that's around 1.000 pages long, don't forget it!
So, what’s happening with Netflix? My hypothesis is they are deeply reshaping the world of movies (as well as its language, although they’re not the only ones in doing the latter): they are making the entire "old" movie industry leave the traditional product form to embrace the emerging one. We may call it the “New Romance” era, in which a new Dostoyevsky or Proust there will be, and stories will no longer be cut and compressed to make them fit into the narrow space of a film.
Traditional movies will probably become the new literary short novels, replacing short films (often of high quality, but almost always lacking visibility) while short videos seem to be yet the next entertainment business on mobile devices, according to Facebook strategies.
As far as we are concerned, we will go on reading Dickens and Céline; at the same time, we are yet experiencing a new kind of long stories, and I guess this is driving us to a new form of art, a new chapter in the history of humanity. Something that will last in time, at least as long as the bits exist, and that at the same time has a taste of ancient.
Oh, Netflix, thou art the new and the bygone!
(thanks to Andrea Klavsons for helping me write correctly that Shakespeare-styled title)