Netflix threatens to blunt auteurs’ ‘scalpel of boredom’
London — Streaming service Netflix has announced it has been testing new “player controls” that allow customers to vary the speed at which they watch its content on Android smartphones.
Users can choose speeds ranging from a stately 0.5x normal rate to a positively dizzying 1.5x. Keela Robison, Netflix vice-president, said this was a feature that had been “frequently requested by our members”.
These people presumably included the proprietor of Efficiency in Everything, an American website that applies the principles of “industrial engineering” to all facets of domestic life.
In 2016 the site published an article entitled “Watch a three-hour movie in two hours + you get more time”. Saving four minutes a day on a given task, whether it’s doing the laundry or watching a film, will save you 1,200 hours over the course of a lifetime, the author Michael Kirk enthused. Just think of it: “More drama, more laughs, more drama, more suspense — same time.” What’s not to like?
Kirk said he prefers to watch films and television programmes at 1.3x, but confessed to having watched “really long movies at 1.5x”. As if to reassure those who might balk at the thought of making the car chase in The French Connection, say, even more stomach-churning than it already is (think Popeye Doyle on speed), he suggested watching things at 1.1x.
Saving four minutes a day on a given task, whether it’s doing the laundry or watching a film, will save you 1,200 hours over the course of a lifetime.Jonathan Derbyshire
Even then, the gains are not negligible. Watching an hour-long episode of British Royal drama The Crown on Netflix at 1.1x, for example, would save you six minutes (as well as attenuating some of the series’ longueurs). Over the entire first season, you’d get back a whole hour — time you could use to shave off yet more minutes and hours of screen time, in a vicious or virtuous circle, depending on your point of view.
In 2016, when Kirk wrote his piece, to do this on Netflix you had to download a special plug-in. One assumes the time spent doing that would have had to be subtracted from the time gained over the course of a season. Now, however, the Android feature delivers the ability to speed up or slow down with much less hassle. (There are no plans, Netflix says, to roll out the function to other devices.)
As Robison acknowledged, not everyone regards this as a welcome innovation. There have, she admitted, been some “creator concerns”. That’s one way of describing the howls of anguish from aggrieved film makers that greeted the news.
Brad Bird, director of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, denounced the new function as “another spectacularly bad idea”. And Judd Apatow tweeted: “No @Netflix no. Don’t make me have to call every director and show creator on Earth to fight you on this. Save me the time. I will win, but it will take a ton of time. Don’t f**k with our timing.”
This was a useful reminder that f**king with a film’s timing can do as much damage as doctoring its images. If mainstream directors such as Messrs Apatow and Bird felt moved to take up arms against Netflix, imagine how the Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, regarded by many as the godfather of the slow film movement, would have reacted.
His 1979 film Stalker, loosely based on a Soviet-era science fiction novel, received a chilly response from the state committee for cinematography, which thought it dragged a bit. For Tarkovsky, this was a category error. “What a person normally goes to the cinema for is time,” he said. “Whether for time wasted, time lost, or time that is yet to be gained.”
The greatest directors, argues the American film maker and screenwriter Paul Schrader, know how to wield the “scalpel of boredom”. It’s an insight Robison and her colleagues at Netflix might care to reflect upon.
© The Financial Times Ltd 2019