Dirt: Shot chaser
The film still abides.
Drew Austin on why screenshots are the best entertainment marketing.
The iconic final moment of The Sopranos — an entirely black screen — foreshadowed a surprising aspect of television’s future: Due to copyright restrictions, that same black rectangle is what results when you attempt a screenshot of a movie or show on a streaming service.
Those haunting black rectangles are the destiny of our digital ephemera, despite our efforts to pretend otherwise. For all the countless hours we spend immersed in Netflix and HBO and Apple TV+, these thwarted attempts to preserve what we’re seeing for even the most fleeting posterity feel like reminders that none of it is in fact real — the content equivalent of a person who turns out to be a ghost when they don’t appear in photographs.
The inability to take screenshots on streaming platforms like Netflix is a result of Digital Rights Management (DRM) — the technology by which copyright holders manage access to digital content and limit its unauthorized distribution. Watermarks, licensing agreements, and encryption are all elements of DRM, restricting how many people can access that content, the duration of their access, and their ability to make whole or partial copies of it, including screenshots. Screenshots are typically blocked within streaming services’ own apps, and also in some browsers (currently, Safari restricts streaming service screenshots while Chrome and Firefox do not.)
Unsurprisingly, DRM emerged in the ‘90s alongside the internet and the digital piracy that accompanied it. But the connection between screenshots’ still images and the piracy of full-length movies and shows is tenuous at best. Maybe Netflix and their ilk see screenshots as a Napster-level threat, imagining would-be viewers carefully reverse-engineering entire films by assembling millions of individual frames like a massive puzzle (one Twitter account is currently progressing through every second of Goodfellas, but that’s hardly a replacement for watching the movie itself.) Maybe the companies are just being overly hostile. Or maybe they’re not thinking too hard about it at all. Anyone who really wants a screenshot, after all, can just log into Netflix on Chrome and get one there. The restriction may be a legal necessity, but its benefits seem negligible at best. More likely, it is counterproductive.
Movie and TV screenshots are not a loophole for stealing copyrighted material, but a separate medium altogether, the raw material for memes and other internet imagery that fill our social media feeds and increasingly constitute the texture of everyday experience. Accounts like @TheCinesthetic and the Criterion Collection post cinematic stills that stand on their own, enjoyable independently of the source films. A multitude of similar accounts, such as King of the Hill Screens (a personal favorite), give individual shows the same treatment. I haven’t watched a full Simpsons episode in years, yet I take in small bits of the show every day, via memes, reaction GIFs, YouTube excerpts, and countless niche Instagram accounts (The Simpsons may have been the original fractal show, enjoyable at every scale.)
Marshall McLuhan said that the content of any medium is always another medium. Screenshots are the disintegration of traditional visual media into a slurry that flows freely through the internet’s digital plumbing — content in its purest form. In a world dominated by analog media, the basic unit of culture was a discrete work: a film, a TV show, an album, or a book. Today, the destiny of all cultural products is to be disaggregated into ever-smaller modular units: Albums break down into individual tracks which themselves break down into shorter snippets that accompany TikToks and Instagram Reels, or stems suitable for further remixing. Photos of book excerpts become Instagram and Twitter fodder, shared on social media to convey the text’s message or merely to make the statement “I am reading this.” And visual media dissolves most easily of all, with the screenshot as its key enabler.
Screenshots of movies and TV are thus the best marketing channel that streaming platforms could possibly imagine. Memes are the primary path to virality — the ultimate earned media — and screenshots are the ideal meme ingredient. Even a bad movie can redeem itself through memes, if it’s bad enough in the right ways. Memes are increasingly how things become real and how we learn that they exist, and anything that resists this treatment risks dooming itself to obscurity. Netflix blocking screenshots is like Blockbuster clinging to physical video rentals.
Restricted or not, the images nonetheless circulate widely: Still frames and GIFs from shows like The Office and The Simpsons are practically a language of their own, as common on social media as popular emojis, and as fundamental to communication. For newly-released movies, Jameson Rich wrote in a 2021 New York Times piece, “this cycle has become something of a ritual.” After a given image begins spreading across social media, Rich writes, it quickly detaches from its original context and “comes to stand in for something unrelated — a funny feeling, a reaction, a new punchline.” Years later, he continues, “after the movie itself has been largely forgotten, you will still find images from it circulating, speaking a new dialect impossible to trace back to its language of origin.” Memes do not merely grab attention, in other words. They also bestow immortality.
Maybe this is why a blocked Netflix screenshot feels so jarring. Memes are no longer just fun, but something we depend upon to communicate. Anything that inhibits their creation debases our language. If cultural products like film and television are the raw material from which memes are made, then the streaming platforms that disseminate them are effectively public utilities, the infrastructure that distributes a natural resource like oil. Threatened by clueless legalism, we must demand our right to memes. — Drew Austin