Netflix: "There really isn't a case for different versions of a film"

Stephen Graves looks at why Netflix's decision to shun alternate cuts of films is bad news for everyone
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Extended Edition

Streaming video services have changed how we watch movies.

You can seamlessly switch between tablet, phone and smart TV, discover new movies picked by cunning algorithms and chuck out those shelves of DVDs and Blu-rays.

Except there's one teensy little problem for film buffs like me. Netflix, Lovefilm and the rest are a bit like the cheap DVD racks at your local supermarket, where you pay a small fee for a bare-bones copy of a film. No special features, no director's commentary and no director's cut version.

That's a conscious decision, according to Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt. "My guess is that there really isn't a case for different versions of a film," he tells Stuff at the company's demo of 4K streaming. "The studios should deliver the best version, and that's what we capture. Our job is to get the director's cut and not bother with all the rest of it; there are very, very few users who are going to care about watching the five different versions and geeking out on it. That's probably not an audience that it's cost-effective and worthwhile to chase."

Cut down

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope Special Edition
Blade Runner DVD set
I Am Legend

Accordingly, for Netflix titles like The Hobbit and Mimic, there's only one version available on the service – indeed, there's no indication that there are any other versions available elsewhere. While that's a fair point of view for a company to hold, it does seem a bit short-sighted.

There clearly *is* a market for alternate cuts of films, though; you need only look at all the Blu-ray box sets released at Christmas time for evidence of that. Or the many and varied petitions directed at George Lucas to get him to re-release the original cut of Star Wars instead of the CGI horrorshow that is the Special Edition.

Sure, some people just want to sit back and watch a film, but some want to see the director's "definitive vision" – which can change from week to week – and others just want to see their favourite title as it was first presented in the cinema.

The most unkindest cut of all

The Exorcist

Alternate cuts can completely change the meaning of a film – and the "best version" that a studio sends to Netflix might not be the only one. In Blade Runner, for example, the nature of one of the central characters completely changes between the studio's original cut and the director's cut.

And both are equally valid; you can't hide one away and say, "This is the only version of the film." Indeed, the theatrical cut of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit presented on Netflix certainly isn't the "best version" – the studio's own press release for the Extended Edition calls it "the must-see, definitive version for fans."

Aside from anything else, blithely denying that alternate versions of films exist is rewriting cinematic history. It's important to be aware that the version of a film you're seeing isn't necessarily the final, definitive cut. Films have been altered over the years, for reasons ranging from the good – the rediscovery of long-lost footage from Metropolis – to the bad – the various censorship battles faced by so-called "video nasties," a debate that's been reignited by the BBFC today.

Slipped discs

Apocalypse Now Redux
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Touch of Evil

The DVD and Blu-ray age was a golden era for additional material – making-of documentaries, commentaries from film-makers, and, yes, alternate cuts. That's the sort of thing that fires a viewer's curiosity and interest in the cinema, and could well be the spark that ignites the career of some future Steven Spielberg. 

There are isolated examples of streaming media picking up the baton – the BFI Player has a fine repository of interviews and behind-the-scenes material, and Netflix itself has added director's commentary tracks to its own House of Cards. But they're slim pickings compared to the wealth of material that's out there. Netflix may not be the company to showcase that material – fair enough, it isn't their business model – but if not them, then who will?

Hopefully the advent of streaming media won't mean the final cut for, well, final cuts.