Netflix owns the rights to 13th, and they still haven’t announced a DVD or Blu-Ray release date for the movie. Though they’re currently using the movie as a reason to buy a subscription to Netflix, they announced that educational settings (community groups, schools, libraries) can publicly stream the movie for free at their convenience. Supposedly, these groups don’t even need a subscription.
With a movie like 13th, one always has to wonder what was left on the cutting room floor. Ava Duvernay only used 100 minutes to cover an intense subject like the racial history of the prison-industrial complex from slavery through the modern era, and had dozens of interview subjects. She has talked about having to kill some of her various darlings, but one is always left to wonder what exactly she left out. Many documentaries have supplemental material get dropped onto the physical disc at a later date; “if you want to know more, here’s our special edition full of more interviews, more original footage, more detail, etc.” But, without a DVD to cover this, what happens?
Netflix just put out a 30 minute interview between Ava and Oprah discussing the process of putting together a documentary, and how she came to create 13th as it exists. From interviewing Angela Davis and Newt Gingrich to talking about her own learning process while making the film, this interview is quite a nice peek behind the scenes of a fast paced primer that puts together the whole puzzle in broad strokes. It’s an exceptional watch if you’re at all curious about how to make a documentary (13th took two years, and was Duvernay’s fourth doc).
But, for me, the bigger question is what does this mean for physical media? Netflix is growing like a giant, but if the internet goes tits up or if their company ever comes crashing down (you think this is impossible, but lemme point you toward Blockbuster Video), what happens to their movies? Do they just disappear? Will a movie as important as 13th be permanently unavailable? When Amazon Movies picked up The Neon Demon, it released the film on a physical disc. I own The Neon Demon on blu-ray. One can buy Cafe Society on Blu-Ray. But, I cannot own 13th or Beasts of No Nation or Sense 8 or Orange is the New Black. I cannot legally see these things without a subscription to Netflix.
But, it also cuts down on the number of extras a movie can have. Will Netflix allow Duvernay to dump 4 hours of bonus interviews onto their stream? Will they give people the room for director’s commentary tracks? Obviously, some of these are special things that have only existed for as long as movies came out on discs (though I do have a two-tape special edition of Halloween from Anchor Bay). But, these questions feel necessary to the conversation about physical vs digital, as well as the levels of privilege required to access digital media through streaming services (you can rent a DVD from the library, but you cannot rent a Netflix from there). And, I think that 13th is a great place to start that conversation.