Martin Scorsese has been discussing why streaming platforms must treat classic films with greater respect.

Remember back in 2019 when Martin Scorsese, one of the most respected filmmakers in the business, had a few words to say on superhero films, asserting that whatever they were, they weren’t ‘cinema’?  The director’s comments ignited a fierce (and welcome) debate about what constitutes art, the problematic business model of Hollywood and whether Marvel films could be said to contain ‘revelation, mystery and emotional risk’ – key elements of true cinema, according to Scorsese.

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Now, he’s been chatting about another modern element of the movie business. This time, it is the streaming services who are taking flak, largely for the way they present all films as equal through interfaces and algorithms, whilst chasing dollars by worshipping at the altar of ‘content.’

Writing an essay for Harper’s Magazine, Scorsese states that “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’ could refer to ‘a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode’.”

It’s a fair point, and one that we’ve made here before. ‘Content’ has become corporate-speak for ‘commodity’, reducing a piece of art to something that is solely being valued by its economic worth rather than by it artistic value and integrity.

Scorsese goes on to develop this point of view, arguing that the lack of curation and context for this art is also hurting our appreciation of it, stating “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?”

There is certainly something to the idea that a film like 2001 could sit next to Home Alone: The Holiday Heist on a streaming platform and without context or curation. That those two pieces of ‘content’, one a trailblazing development of the artistic medium, the other an exercise in wringing the final few dollars out of a faded franchise, are somehow equal in artistic merit.

Scorsese finishes by reminding the streaming platforms of their responsibilities as rights holders, curators of such culturally important pieces of art, arguing that “everything has changed – the cinema and the importance it holds in our culture. Of course, it’s hardly surprising that artists such as Godard, Bergman, Kubrick, and Fellini, who once reigned over our great art form like gods, would eventually recede into the shadows with the passing of time … But at this point, we can’t take anything for granted. We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema”.

“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”.

There will accuse Scorsese of trying to have his cake and eat it following this sermon, especially when he’s becoming increasingly reliant on taking huge sums of cash from the very same streaming platforms that he is chiding to make movies like The Irishman or Killers Of The Flower Moon. But Scorsese does acknowledge that within his comments, and if one of the current godfathers of cinema can’t speak freely regarding his concerns for the future of the medium, who can?

What do you think? We’re very keen to know. Scorsese’s last comments on Marvel films created a rather polarised debate, but we feel like this time around, there could be a more nuanced discussion waiting to happen…

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