While Neil Turitz has done a decent job analyzing all things Netflix for the Tracking Board, I felt it was time I expressed my own thoughts on the streaming network that’s become one of the top television networks, while at the same time trying to be a major film studio. So far, the streaming network has had more success as a television network with a number of Emmy winners and nominees. It still has ways to go before it can be considered a powerhouse movie producer, although that’s not from a lack of trying. So far, it’s still well behind fledgling distributors like A24 and STXfilms, as well as studio subsidiaries like Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, in terms of delivering quality films, although that’s changing, too.
A lot of things have been happening at Netflix in a year that’s only six weeks old, and it’s why there’s so much talk about there being a sea change in how movies are being produced, marketed and distributed using the Netflix model.
Last month, Netflix received a number of Oscar nominations for Dee Rees’ Mudbound, including the first woman cinematographer to get an Oscar nomination. The movie didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination, and it has a lot of competition in the categories in which it has been nominated. In general, Netflix has been doing better in the documentary realm with two Oscar nominees this year in said category.
In December, the studio had huge success with David Ayer and Will Smith’s police fantasy-adventure Bright when it opened over the holidays. Despite high ratings for the movie as gauged by Nielsen, Netflix is still being elusive about the number of viewers watching each of its movies, as it has been premiering a new feature film almost every single week, which is more than most other studio is able to handle.
Netflix’s biggest shocker to date came last Sunday when hours before the Super Bowl ad for Paramount’s God Particle, already known to be the next Cloverfield installment, it was announced that the movie with the new title of The Cloverfield Paradox would premiere on Netflix after the game. Mind you, this was announced Sunday afternoon and sure enough, the movie was on the network as the game ended and the negative reviews flooded Rotten Tomatoes just a few hours later. Drew McWeeny didn’t like the movie and Neil already addressed some of the questions about Netflix’s surprise release of the film.
Personally, I think there’s a lot more to discuss about Paramount dumping the latest Cloverfield movie to Netflix, and the questions that have arisen from this decision. At one point, The Cloverfield Paradox was thought to get an international release on Netflix with Paramount planning to still give the movie a North American theatrical release, but clearly, minds were changed to give the movie a global streaming premiere mere hours after its Super Bowl ad.
A few days later, Netflix bought the Universal sci-fi thriller Extinction, starring Michael Peña and Lizzy Caplan, a movie meant as a one-off but clearly not up to snuff to the point where Universal realized that selling it (for an unreported price) would be more profitable than trying to give the movie the marketing push needed for a successful theatrical release. Maybe lessons were learned from 2017’s The Great Wall or others that didn’t live up to expectations.
Meanwhile, Paramount is still releasing the equally troubled Alex Garland sci-fi film Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman (who returned to Saturday Night Live to promote the film), which had its international rights sold off to Netflix. If the movie doesn’t do well in its domestic release in a couple weeks, one wonders whether we’ll see challenging science fiction and dramas being greenlit by studios as much.
It’s interesting to note that Netflix didn’t buy any movies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, at least not yet, maybe because the execs knew they were going to buy a couple studio movies to stream on the network. At this point, Netflix is also producing so much of its own home-grown film productions, it doesn’t necessarily have to buy independent films that premiere at festivals like Sundance anymore.
This is a fairly major change from last year when Netflix debuted a number of independent films at Sundance, even winning the jury prize for Macon Blair’s I don’t feel at home in this world anymore, starring Melanie Lynsky. Although the film received critical raves, it didn’t exactly make commercial waves when it streamed on Netflix a month later. Another Netflix pick-up from the previous year’s Sundance was Paul Rudd’s The Fundamentals of Caring that was given the usual minimal theatrical release. Similarly, Jack Black’s recent movie The Polka King was streamed exclusively on Netflix after it was picked up at Sundance in 2017.
One has to wonder what the point is to buy these movies if they’re not going to get the sort of promotion given to The Cloverfield Paradox, although obviously, Netflix spent a lot more money to buy that from Paramount than it did either of those Sundance pick-ups.
If you’re a filmmaker, knowing your movie is going to be seen by more people via the streaming network must be a relief compared to hoping and praying your indie movie will get a limited release of some kind and still be able to take on much higher profile studio fare with bigger marketing budgets. If someone like IFC Films picked-up The Polka King or The Fundamentals of Caring, they might have been able to get it out to a small audience but not nearly as many people that would watch it on Netflix, just to make the most out of their subscription.
A filmmaker like Okja‘s Bong Joon-ho has seen his earlier critically-acclaimed films make a mark in U.S. theaters, so he clearly realized that making a movie with Netflix would change that. Duncan Jones’ Mute, the follow-up to his popular debut Moon, will be released solely on Netflix in a few weeks, but I know that myself as a film critic and movie lover, I’d much rather watch the movie in a theater on a full-size screen.
You do have to wonder how a producer like J.J. Abrams must feel when his long-time studio partner Paramount basically dumps his latest Cloverfield movie to a streaming-only release. Abrams hasn’t gone on record about the decision, but one has to expect that sometime in the next couple hears, he’ll be asked.
For the actors and otehrs involved in making The Cloverfield Paradox, there’s a better chance at more people seeing their movie but how do things change in terms of actors being paid for their work when a movie doesn’t get an expected theatrical release? Because Netflix isn’t reporting on Monday morning how many people have watched each of its movies, the company holds a lot of power in terms of how those who made the movie get paid. A studio like Paramount or Universal can’t deny payment based on a movie’s lack of success when its releases are reporting box office each week.
Because of this, I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing for studios to have a place like Netflix to dump product that doesn’t meet expectations from when a project is greenlit. Why would a studio like Paramount or Universal take many chances if they realize a film like Annihilation will fare better among Netflix subscribers who just want to stay home to watch it? Whether or not Netflix is hurting the theatrical experience with its M.O. is another argument entirely, but it’s certainly not helping matters by offering many options to keep people home watching movies/shows on their various devices.
Diehard science fiction fans might be thrilled by the continued amount of sci-fi projects being released theatrically from 2016’s Arrival to last year’s Blade Runner 2049. As the quality and profits of these movies decrease, so does the studios willing to finance them on top of the dwindling number of people willing to pay movie ticket prices let alone willing to leave their home to see them. That’s been changing as Netflix steps up as the primary purveyor of genre and science fiction to meet the growing demand with a regular stream of content for Netflix subscribers, and this is particularly the case with sci-fi and genre series like Stranger Things, The OA, the Wachowskis’ Sense8 and the recent debut of Altered Carbon vs. stand-alone films.
On top of this, Netflix has been establishing relationships with filmmakers like David Ayer, David Wain and Australian filmmaker David Michôd, who is making his second film for Netflix called The King following 2017’s War Machine starring Brad Pitt. Other filmmakers not named David have also been supporting Netflix’s game plan including Ava DuVernay, whose doc 13th was nominated for an Oscar following its opening night premiere at the New York Film Festival. (Her Super Bowl night tweets heralding The Cloverfield Paradox seems odd with her first theatrical release in more than two years being released by Disney next month.) Mike Flanagan is another low-budget genre filmmaker who has been dominant on Netflix with films like Hush, Gerard’s Game and even the horror film Before I Wake, which sat on the shelf for almost two years before Netflix grabbed it.
On top of that, you have Sony’s former comedy king Adam Sandler moving his entire movie-making platform to Netflix with a series of movies, few of which have been received very well, but he probably helped convince Noah Baumbach to release The Meyerowitz Stories through Netflix. Is it doing any better than Baumbach’s previous films through A24, Fox Searchlight and IFC Films? Only Netflix knows for sure.
What might be the next game changer for Netflix, even beyond greenlighting a sequel to Bright, is its decision to get into bed with Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker that any movie studio would want to get involved with. Scorsese’s The Irishman, a film he’s been wanting to make for over a decade that will reunite him with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, teaming them with Al Pacino, is the kind of movie that could drastically change Netflix’s status. Unfortunately, it’s not due out until sometime in 2019 — and who knows if it will get an Oscar-qualifying run by year’s end?–but seeing how poorly Scorsese’s last passion project Silence did when released by long-time partner Paramount, it’s no wonder he’s giving Netflix a try.
Until something changes, there’s always going to be questions about how Netflix will gauge success in terms of its streaming films as well as how that might affect the paychecks of those involved. Will Smith’s career certainly won’t be hurt by the number of people that watched his movie Bright on Netflix, because it’s on par with some of his bigger tentpole releases. Who knows if it would have been even half as successful if it was given a wide theatrical release against popular holiday releases like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Jumanji and The Greatest Showman?
You might also remember that last September, Netflix bought Mark Millar’s Millarworld with no details about what that meant for the comic properties already optioned elsewhere or how many television or film projects would be derived from those under the Netflix contract. Nothing has been announced as Netflix seems more focused on other projects, but it can’t keep spending money on properties that might pay off in the long-run but aren’t making money for the network.
Netflix also has to contend with the growing number of movie streaming networks including the one planned by Walt Disney Pictures, which could theoretically hurt Netflix by it not having access to so many popular franchises.
As hard as it tries, Netflix can’t keep trying to be everything to everybody, because that idea is somewhat foolhardy when going up against studios who are very focused on the types of films they’re releasing. People in all aspects of the industry have gotten used to measuring success via things like box office reporting and set guidelines on how creatives are paid for their work during production and in terms of royalties. Netflix has deliberately thrown a monkey wrench into works of a system that has mostly been working with no explanation on how any of these projects are proving profitable. At what point does The Cloverfield Paradox make back the $50 million Netflix spent for it, or is it just a matter of saying, “Hey, we released a J.J. Abrams movie. Take that Lucasfilm!”?
At some point, Netflix is going to have to start judging its success or failure on the same basis as other entertainment companies. Other studios know how much money needs to be spent to make money, and the Hollywood system, while flawed, has found a way to take advantage of the tools out there at their disposable. Netflix is still working on a similar model as a cable company (with the addition of offering entire seasons of a show for instant binging) while ignoring the millions of moviegoers going to movie theaters every weekend.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor