Scott McDonald takes a look at the latest innovation in streaming
In July, visionary director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon) launched his new film streaming service, byNWR.com. In keeping with the style of Refn’s own work, the new platform aims to promote arthouse films. The Drive director describes it himself as “an unadulterated cultural expressway for the arts” and wants to inspire a new generation of filmmakers. Unlike the majority of film streaming services, the films on byNWR are completely free to view and some were restored by NWR himself (the idea for the platform actually came from his wanting to share the films he had restored). Although “free” and “trendy” guarantee exposure, what does byNWR.com have to offer in the ruthless saturated world of streaming services?
In recent years there has been a massive rise in the popularity of film streaming services, with Netflix and Amazon Prime being the frontrunners of this new consumption trend. However, other platforms have developed to offer alternatives to the more mainstream films that Netflix and its primary competitors have in their libraries. Mubi, for example, adds a film specially curated by an expert every day to its library; subscribers then have thirty days to watch the film before it is removed. This heavily encourages subscribers to watch many different films rather than rewatch their old favourites, a habit Netflix seems to encourage. The films chosen tend to be more avant-garde than what is typically found in the average cinema, and this has helped Mubi to develop a reputation as the go-to streaming service for cinephiles.
However, the films found on Mubi or Filmstruck run the risk of seeming too unusual and too experimental for those that are unaccustomed to arthouse films. Although David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn are the “coolest thing” for people in the know, they can easily alienate others with confusion and pretentiousness. The problem is arthouse and avant-garde films are viewed as niche curiosities in the cinemas; if distributors reproduce the same patterns online they will fail to attract subscribers.
Refn’s new platform has a solution to limit alienation of its audiences. Where byNWR.com really shines is not in the free access or innovative curatorial choices, but in the essays and articles that accompany them. These allow byNWR.com to act as an entry point to arthouse cinema by helping to contextualise the films on the website, and to give viewers an idea both of what the directors were trying to achieve and what influenced their work. What this will hopefully do is allow viewers to properly engage with the films and lead them to further explore the director’s body of work. Instead of watching the occasional arthouse film, those that use byNWR.com can develop a deeper interest in films away from the cultural mainstream and find a variety of new favourite filmmakers who simply do not have the same level of exposure as the industry favourites – though viewers may soon hold them in the same regard. The platform will be more than the “cultural expressway” which Refn wants it to be – it will be a gateway into a form of cinema many are unfamiliar with.
Though it might seem unreasonable to call any film streaming service essential, byNWR.com may be the most deserving of the label. Not only does it make a variety of hidden gems available to the public at no cost, but it could also help to increase the exposure and popularity of arthouse films industry-wide. Forgotten films could earn a new level of appreciation, and previously unknown artists will achieve fame. If byNWR.com lives up to its full potential, it will benefit all film streaming services like it, and perhaps usher in a new boom period for avant-garde films. Though it seems unlikely that platforms like byNWR.com or Mubi could achieve the level of popularity that Netflix enjoys, if they do then they could do what Netflix itself is doing – they could change the film industry. With a growing number of people lamenting the predictability and safety of many modern films, byNWR.com seems to have entered the fray at the perfect time. As a platform that can help us to re-evaluate films from the past and perhaps inspire us to make the bold films of the future, it seems that maybe we do need Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest offering.
byNWR.com is a free online streaming platform accessible through login. It is run by Bureau with the support of the Harvard Film Archive and Mubi.