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Netflix, Online Distribution and Global Domination?

By Edward Harris. April 15, 2014

Can United States President Frank Underwood extend his domination of Washington DC to the farthest reaches of the globe?

Filming on the set of a Kenyan production "Me, My Wife and Her Guru." (Photo: courtesy of Alex Konstantaras)

Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of the murdering, manipulating US politician in the Netflix’s “House of Cards” may be fictional, but for many people the serialized drama is the real-life future of film: a high-production, Hollywood-style television hybrid, streamed online at home. But for other film buffs, particularly in less-developed parts of the globe, this kind of evolving production-distribution relationship may still be a distant dream.

In an Edinburgh, Scotland lecture, Mr. Spacey laid out his view of film’s future. It will be driven by a new kind of media confluence, typified by new modes of distribution such as Netflix, where the differences between “movies” and “television” fall away and a multi-episode 13-hour season of “House of Cards” can be posted online at once and consumed by audience members limited only by their own endurance.

“For kids growing up now, there’s no difference …. It’s all content, it’s just story,” said Mr. Spacey. “The audience has spoken: They want stories, they are dying for them. They’re rooting for us to give them the right thing.”


But what is the right strategy if the goal is the widest-possible global audience? In America, Netflix was launched in the late 1990s in California and gained popularity by mailing its signature red-enveloped rental DVDs to customers. This underscored a shift towards at-home, commercial-free viewing of films, while undermining the business models of bricks-and-mortar home-rental giants such as Blockbuster.

Netflix later made a move into online film streaming, creating a space where viewers could watch movies and television programs – allowing them to basically borrow filmed content for a monthly fee, rather than buying it and housing it on their own equipment.

Online distribution channels– such as YouTube, Vimeo as well as a host of smaller sites streaming localized content, such as Iroko TV – have quickly gathered favor with audiences. According to a study by Sandvine, a Canada-based communications technology company, Netflix and YouTube accounted for more than 50 percent of North American download traffic on fixed networks during the second half of 2013.

Netflix has expanded into South America and Europe, with 40 million subscribers viewing over 1 billion hours of filmed content per month.

“House of Cards”

The company now produces and airs its own in house productions, such as the enormously popular “House of Cards,” in which Underwood and his wife scheme to master the American political scene and (spoiler alert) capture the White House toward the end of Season 2. So, what will be Underwood’s ambition in Season 3: Global domination?

Not so fast. While Netflix and other streaming services have made inroads around the world, there are still plenty of barriers remaining between these products and people around the world, particularly in less-developed countries.

For many people, high-speed Internet access and credit cards for remote payment to streaming platforms are still distant dreams. In many locales, poorer people crowd into makeshift movie theaters playing DVDs, or purchase discs themselves that they watch on laptop computers, which may be powered by generators clattering noisily nearby.

Helping craft the creative environment

For them, the same infrastructural needs that can hinder participation in global commerce – and economic development – also pose hurdles for less-developed nations seeking to help craft the creative environment for the future of cinema and other filmed content.

For this reason, WIPO helps many of its 187 member states to more fully integrate their people into the global intellectual property (IP) environment – which is an important element in the nourishing soil where creative enterprises like film production to be supported by distribution entities take root.
We work with countries to update their IP rules, which can benefit producers, authors and performers as well as distributors and other stakeholders and their casts seeking to earn livings from film creation and to export to international platforms such as Netflix.

For example, the WIPO-sponsored Beijing Treaty, adopted in 2012 in the Chinese capital, would help audiovisual performers such as actors better control their rights in the modern-day Internet environment with its various distribution channels.

We also provide technical assistance to countries linking into global IP databases, while collaborating on scores of training centers around the world where ordinary people can access Internet-connected computers and other resources they need to advance work on their own creations.

African filmmakers

We also work with individuals around the world to advance their efforts in the creative and business sectors. In a typical engagement, WIPO organized in early April 2014 a multi-day training in Nairobi, Kenya, where filmmakers, distributors, financial institutions and government officials gathered to address how to better benefit from the international copyright system in a changing technical environment.

“The workshop identified new opportunities for film makers to capitalize on their creativity. There is strong consumer demand for locally produced, locally themed programming and the film industry is becoming a real investment prospect in Africa: Adherence to international copyright standards creates a conducive environment that supports investments in local content production, remuneration of talents, legitimate distribution channels and broader commercial opportunities,” said Carole Croella, a WIPO Senior Counsellor and the project manager for the Nairobi training.

Tom Mshindi, Chair, Kenya Copyright Board, Githu Muigai, Attorney General of Kenya, and WIPO Senior Counsellor Carole Croella at a movie industry-related training held in Nairobi in April. (Photo: courtesy of Rob Aft)

Kevin Spacey

For Mr. Spacey himself, new paid- for media distribution channels brimming with popular content that can be viewed but not copied serves a dual purpose: It’s also an antidote to rampant piracy on the Internet.
Piracy blossomed as films became available as files to be housed locally, rather than spectacles to be viewed in a controlled, public space. But easily accessible streaming services may be a way to create an easily accessible space that, crucially for Mr. Spacey, is also paid for.

“Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price and they will more likely pay for it rather than steal it,” Mr. Spacey said in a lecture at the 2013 Guardian International Edinburgh Television Festival, posted on YouTube. “Well, some will still steal it,” he said to audience laughter. “But I think we can take a bite out of piracy.”