Notes from Silicon Beach: Contextualizing Netflix’s 'Bandersnatch' as an Experiment in Interactive Cinema
By Nicholas DeMartino ● March 12, 2019 12:30
Netflix definitely knows how to attract attention to its products, whether by its massive $30 million Oscar campaign for Roma or the viral buzz for its interactive Black Mirror film, Bandersnatch, which dropped worldwide in late 2018.
Bandersnatch did generate lots of buzz, including reviews by yours truly that tackled the story and the experience of this newest edition of the Black Mirror dystopia. Most of us found mixed results: “When Bandersnatch’s first user choice was the protagonists’ breakfast cereal, I was positively morose,” I wrote, describing what would appear to be a trivial expression of the timeworn choose your own adventure game. “’Here we go again,’ I thought. Nevertheless, I persisted, and I’m glad I did. Overall, I’d give this one three out of five stars.”
Bandersnatch was certified “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 72 out of 100 points), and a somewhat restrained critical consensus, illustrated here: “While Bandersnatch marks an innovative step forward for interactive content, its meta-narrative can't quite sustain interest over multiple viewings – though it provides enough trademark Black Mirror tech horror to warrant at least one watch.”
Even critics that panned the show gave points to Netflix for undertaking this experiment. “The question on everyone’s mind is going to be if Bandersnatch is a fluke or the beginning of a new sub-genre of streaming filmmaking,” wrote Brian Tallerico on Roger Ebert.com. “I like the idea that Netflix is pushing the boundaries of what we should expect when we turn on their service. I also want to see a traditional season of Black Mirror more than I do another one of these.”
MORE THAN JUST HYPE
Whatever consumers (and critics) may say about their experience with this story and Netflix’s interactive story format, the noise around Bandersnatch created a new spotlight for the idea of interactive cinema. For many young people, the notion of merging game-like functions with live action stories was new, and kind of exciting.
For those who have been around this block a few times, myself included, the notion of interactive storytelling is more déjà vu. As I told Laurence Dodds, technology reporter for London’s Telegraph, who wanted to know why interactive TV never caught on, “You have a cycle of thwarted innovation over and over again in different places, where nobody really had a breakthrough and the project was assessed as a failure because it didn’t get the same audience as Jersey Shore.” See more of this discussion at “Netflix choose your own adventure shows could be the future of TV.”
I observed the rocky history of interactive media while running a program at the American Film Institute called the Digital Content Lab, from 1997-2010 and working with like-minded institutions around the world. Indeed, at the same time as our Digital Content Lab days, in Canada, CFC Media Lab ran its Interactive Art & Entertainment Program (IAEP), which also was mandated to develop and produce interactive storytelling projects and prototypes. While teams at the AFI were from the mainstream media business, mostly American television networks, teams at CFC Media Lab were comprised of diverse independent creators from filmmakers to artists. All told, these programs built hundreds of interactive projects on dozens of platforms, which is arguably the reason why very few of the projects that deployed were able to amass a sizeable audience – these technologies were not yet deployed at scale, and thus were not available to a large segment of the public.
In 2005, CFC Media Lab took a chance and decided to produce with the National Film Board (NFB) the first commercially accessible interactive feature film in Canada. Called Late Fragment, it starred Emmy-award winning actor, Tatiana Maslany, and was helmed by three directors, Daryl Cloran, Mateo Guez and Anita Doron (Doron was nominated for an Academy Award last year for her screenplay for The Breadwinner). Late Fragment launched at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with great fanfare in TIFF’s inaugural Future Projections program, and then it was commercially released on DVD by Mongrel Media. Yet like many interactive films of that vintage, audiences may not have been ready yet to completely embrace full interactivity as part of their lean-back experiences.
With Bandersnatch, Netflix has solved the problem of scale, with a platform that reaches nearly 140 million customers worldwide. As I told the Telegraph’s Dodds, “I'm in awe of what Netflix did with the platform… It is no small feat to deliver a coherent interactive story to 100 million people worldwide on a simultaneous platform. It worked seamlessly, I did not have any software glitches, when I made a choice it booted, and the story just rolled out without a pause and without any visible link, as if that was the story that was supposed to unspool. I found that pretty remarkable."
WHAT’S NEXT FOR INTERACTIVITY?
It’s worth speculating on whether the company’s investment in interactivity is part of its core platform, and if so, what that might mean for the future, something I explore during a podcast interview with two interactive TV pioneers, Tracy Swedlow and Colin Dixon, summed up here. “If I were Netflix, I’d take its very successful young adults content and bring interactivity to that experience. It’s the right audience.”
I also posited that Netflix’s next step “will probably be to try to get some of its other high-profile creators on board” – people like Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and Kenya Barris, who have signed lucrative deals with Netflix. As I argued, “If you get a Ryan Murphy to do an interactive show, that's a headline two years from now." Ultimately, Netflix wants to differentiate its offerings from the coming storm of on-demand services from Disney, Warner, Comcast, and more. Interactivity could be part of that strategy.
Perhaps Bandersnatch will boost renewed public interest in interactive storytelling, which in its many forms has been with us for more than 40 years – Wikipedia lists nearly 250 titles in its entry on “interactive movies” since 1967’s Kinoautomat, which premiered at the Montreal Expo as the world’s first interactive movie. Titles on the list ran on many different platforms, including game engines, CD-ROMs, websites, mobile devices and others. (The list is hardly comprehensive – it omits titles like CFC/NFB’s Late Fragment and ABC’s Push, Nevada among others).
Indeed, as I was writing this in mid-February, I received an invitation to the US premiere of an interactive documentary called The Angry River, reminding me that dozens of interactivists are still creating new forms of storytelling that bring the audience into the story on many types of platforms, including of course the more immersive affordances of game engines, VR and AR.
Interactivity could be another element in Netflix’s dominance over traditional pre-digital Hollywood business models. “Hollywood is now irrelevant,” former studio exec and current digital mogul Barry Diller told Kara Swisher. “These six movie companies essentially were able to extend their hegemony into everything else. It didn’t matter that they started it. When it got big enough, they got to buy it. For the first time, they ain’t buying anything. Meaning they’re not buying Netflix. They are not buying Amazon.”
GEARING UP FOR DIGITAL COMPETITION
Perhaps it isn’t Hollywood that worries Netflix so much as coming competition from digital behemoths that have the potential to disrupt any content platform that remains purely linear. Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft all have strategic commitments to games, interactivity video, AR/VR and other non-linear experiences.
One stealth competitor to watch is Epic Games, home of both the Unreal game engine and the phenomenally successive game platform, Fortnite, at least according to media analyst Matthew Ball, who recently caused a mini-uproar with his suggestion that “Fortnite is Netflix's most threatening competitor.”
“The opportunity in front of Epic is Olympic in size, writes Ball in “Fortnite Is the Future, but Probably Not for the Reasons You Think.” He argues, “Battle Royale might seem like a strange bus to the future, the largest platforms and industry changers of the digital era were rarely built to be either… [Epic founder Tim Sweeney] is keenly aware of the Metaverse opportunity, as well as a path forward with Fortnite. This will not be an accident.”
With its high engaged and monetized user base exceeding 200 million people, Fortnite could morph from a game to a social network into what most media companies are chasing – the Metaverse, a collective virtual shared space that’s created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and persistent virtual space, as first depicted in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash. This is why Facebook bought Oculus, triggering a VC land rush for a couple of years.
Viewed from this perspective, Bandersnatch and the technology behind it isn’t so much an innovation as a defensive move against competitors that may already be ahead in the race to define the next storytelling platform.
Nicholas DeMartino is a media and technology consultant based in Los Angeles. He is chair of the IDEABOOST Investment Advisor Group.