Cinema is being devalued by content: Martin Scorsese on algorithms-based suggestions in streaming

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In a new essay, legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese has argued that the art of cinema is “being systematically devalued” as film studios and streaming companies race to produce “content”.

In his tribute to the great Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, published in the March edition of Harper’s Magazine and titled Il Maestro, Scorsese acknowledged that streamers had helped his career as without Netflix there would be no The Irishman and without Apple there would be no Killers of the Flower Moon.

However, the filmmaker said that the art of cinema 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’,” Scorsese wrote.

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Ray Romano in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman that found home at Netflix in 2019. (Photo: Netflix)

“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,” he added.

The filmmaker further said that the word ‘content’ became a business term for all moving images.

“It was linked, of course, not to the theatrical experience but to home viewing, on the streaming platforms that have come to overtake the movie-going experience, just as Amazon overtook physical stores,” he said.

killers of the flower moon apple tv Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film Killers of the Flower Moon features his favourite leading men — Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. The film is an Apple original. (Photo: Martin Scorsese/Instagram)

The director, who is among one of the most influential American filmmakers with classics such as Good Fellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed and many others to his credit, said the packaging of everything as content 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?

“Curating isn’t undemocratic or ‘elitist’, a term that is now used so often that it’s become meaningless. It’s an act of generosity — you’re sharing what you love and what has inspired you… Algorithms, by definition, are based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else.”

Scorsese said cinephiles can’t depend on the movie business 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,” he said.

“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,” he added.

The director, who is reuniting with his favourite actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Rober DeNiro for his next Killers of the Flower Moon, said Fellini’s movies are “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. 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,” Scorsese said.

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