Hollywood turns to Netflix to rescue troubled projects.
Look no further than the February bombshell release of “The Cloverfield Paradox.” Announced through a surprise trailer that debuted on Super Bowl programming, the third film in the JJ Abrams science fiction franchise went directly and instantaneously to Netflix. And even though “Paradox” was lambasted by critics, charting just a 19 percent rotten rating on RottenTomatoes, the film managed to capture a significant 5 million viewers in its first week.
This move, in which a theatrical property of some note bypassed theaters for streaming, was a sign of things to come. And it’s likely that this will become a growing trend in 2019, as the window between the big screen and the small screen narrows. On Friday, Collider (http://collider.com/netflix-holmes-and-watson-sony/) revealed news that the holiday Sony bomb “Holmes & Watson” was peddled to Netflix, who said “no.”
Given the failure of the film in theaters, seems like not bailing Sony out was the right decision. But look for studios to turn to Netflix (and other streamers) with their troubled and broken pictures. Frankly, this is a good thing because we’ll get more content—stuff that populates the platform, but isn’t likely to qualify as good cinema. More on the effect Netflix has on media creation later.
“Roma” is the best film of 2018. Here’s why? WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
Writer, director, cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón gave us a near perfect combination of large and intimate story-telling. After delivering two highly-regarded, science fiction epics, the Oscar winning filmmaker wasn’t afraid to return to his roots and go small, focusing on the mundanities of life. But he also knew when to go big with his soapy material in a way that proved to be artful, tragic, and really spectacular. And given the nature of “Roma’s” release, both on the big screen and the small one, this was quite a feat.
The big “Roma” scenes—there are several. In one sequence, the film’s protagonist, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), travels to the desert to locate her boyfriend, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). He left her suddenly when she informed him that she was pregnant. As Cleo makes her way onto a vast, arid landscape, we see a large assortment of martial arts students standing in lines receiving instruction.
The angles are wide, and we can see for miles with a mountain in the background that has a large sign stretched out across it. The students train in unison, each armed with a wooden staff. As the masculine ballet unfolds, Cleo joins a crowd observing those training. When a celebrity teacher steps forth and gives them an odd lesson, Cleo performs the task perfectly. It’s a stunner. But, also, a subtle one, set against a large backdrop that contrasts with the claustrophobic confines of the family home where much of the story takes place.
Later, Cleo gets trapped in a political uprising after her water breaks. Desperate to get to the hospital, the frustrating car trip along the clogged and dangerous streets is excruciating. To be fair, we’ve seen this kind of thing before, but cliched, it isn’t. Cleo finally gets to the hospital, is admitted, but in a painful sequence, loses the baby. It’s one of the most emotionally gut-wrenching scenes of 2018.
“Roma” is likely to be nominated for best film, best foreign language film, best director, best screenplay, and best cinematography. A best actress nomination for first timer Aparicio is, also, possible. And the fact that Cuarón may find himself nominated for writing, directing, and cinematography will be a real feather in Netflix’ cap. It will affirm their controversial strategy of teasing out a film in theaters (an awards qualification run) followed by a quick streaming release. “Roma” is the one Netflix film that cannot be dismissed by the Academy, like they did with “Beasts of No Nation” back in 2016.
Don’t Underestimate the power of cheese: Holiday releases on Netflix are becoming something of an event
Kurt Russell as Santa. Yep, Netflix gave it to us as “The Christmas Chronicles.” Snake Plissken, well, the rough and tough actor who played Plissken, rides in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. This high concept film, one that seemed too good to be true, dropped just in time for Christmas and found an audience. People were talking about it. And such a movie proved to be perfect viewing while wrapping presents and sipping on egg nog.
But while Russell made for one ultra cool Claus for Christmas 2018, this was nothing new for the streaming giant, who has been filling the holiday space in previous years. In 2017, for example, Netflix found notorious success with the utterly cheesy “A Christmas Prince,” and fittingly followed it up this year with “A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding.”
Yes, in my household, watching these deviously bad movies has become a father-daughter holiday event. Therefore, as my daughter helped me wrap gifts (okay, she wrapped them all), I spent the afternoon watching this one and “The Princess Switch.” And Netflix is completely in on the joke, as in one scene in “Switch,” the characters sit down and watch television—a shot of “The Royal Wedding” and other originals appear on the television screen. Such self-aware winking might mean that the Netflix original universe, at least the holiday one, might end up being as interconnected as the MCU.
Bird Box and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch ended the year on a high note
As folks hunkered down over the holidays, Netflix smartly gave us non-festive counter-programming. The high-end “Bird Box” was a genuine smash hit, with the streamer releasing viewer numbers claiming that 45 million of us watched the Susanne Bier directed sci-fi/horror film starring Sandra Bullock in just 7 days. That’s a blockbuster folks!
And then, out of it seemed like nowhere, the year ended with a “Black Mirror” movie event. The choose-your-own-adventure narrative feature sub-titled “Bandersnatch” made major waves with the trailer garnering millions of views online immediately prior to the film’s December 28 availability. Almost impossible to completely review, the movie is an interactive viewing experience. The viewer is given choices that guide the narrative, and because we have the power to click in our hands, choices are easy enough to implement. Such a thing isn’t likely possible in theaters, although I’ll bet there are plans to try it.
And this highlights the impact that Netflix and other streamers are having on the films we will be seeing in theaters. It’s the theatrical market that has truly lost its mojo, as risk averse studios turn to recycling past properties or merely adapting comic books.
As a laboratory, Netflix makes so much content that experiments not possible in theaters take place.
Okay, so back in 1985, the movie “Clue” was released in theaters with different cuts of the film with different endings. That, as far as I know, was a one-off experiment. But given the advances in technology, Netflix has taken such an idea to another level. With it’s subscriber base consistently in place, a risk like “Bandersnatch” doesn’t seem so risky.
And the resources that Netflix have been given let them take risks in really innovative and pricey ways. Lavish shows like “Altered Carbon” had the production value of a major Hollywood offering, and it ran for 10 episodes, with season two on its way in 2019.
Netflix invests in the very thing that its subscribers want: options. Content, content, content, hours and hours of it. Binge there and go nowhere else. It’s an expensive strategy that, if it continues, might eventually resemble some kind of pyramid scheme. But the risky spending will have to end at some point, and when it does, hopefully, the grand Netflix content creation experiment will have yielded properties, genres, and innovations that usher in a new creative media era. Maybe that has happened already, and the ripple effects are being felt by major players like Disney.
In 2019, Disney+ joins the party, but are they too late?
As Disney takes its ball and goes home in 2019, removing its content from Netflix and creating its own streaming service known as Disney+, prognosticators are predicting Netflix’ decline. But I say, not so fast, Netflix has been there before. Anyone remember Blockbuster Video? Sure, we do, even if we’re not pushing 50 years old. Netflix isn’t just a content warehouse in the cloud anymore, it’s a bonafide studio that is smart enough to put its money where its mouth is. Disney with its fantastic and popular content will still be playing catch up in this space.
One wonders whether a show like “Star Wars” spinoff “The Mandalorian” will be enough to make viewers buy into Disney+. After all, the model is often to subscribe to a non-Netflix service just long enough to watch that one special series and then drop it when you’ve binged the last episode. Think about the Showtime and even the Starz models.
Disney can’t experiment like Netflix.
If “The Mandalorian” turns out to be the next “American Gods,” Disney might find themselves in trouble. And even if it becomes “Game of Thrones,” I suspect that Disney+ subscribers might not hang around permanently for mere access to the Disney back catalogue. Disney, who has been there before, doesn’t want their service to be the next Showtime or Starz apps, and they won’t even be content with achieving HBO levels.
With its big swing at Netflix, a lot more is riding on Disney+ than anyone can imagine. A failure or even a so-so success won’t be enough. Every single piece of original Disney+ programming has to be a hit, every single episode has to be a knock out. There’s no margin for error. Netflix shows can fail, and lord knows many have, but Disney’s new series can’t. And the Star Wars haters, who rudely met “The Last Jedi” with social media tirades, are ready to pounce.
Netflix is broad, Disney much more narrow.
Despite Disney’s monopoly of both the Marvel and Star Wars universes, what does the brand mean to most of us? It is all about the family, and material that works, often blandly, for everyone. Exhibit “A” is 2018’s misfire “Solo: A Star Wars Story” with its safe narrative that refused to get dark with Han’s backstory. And this is where Netflix fills the gap with their idiosyncratic experiments both for the Disney market and a slightly more, dare I say, mature viewership.
It’s unlikely that a show like “Altered Carbon” will ever see the light of day on Disney+. And “Roma?” Forget it. Disney+ will always carry the family moniker. And while that market is plentiful, it won’t be enough to make Netflix the Blockbuster Video of the streaming world.
As 2019 dawns, look for more content to populate streaming platforms, and Netflix will lead the way, giving us shows that work and many that don’t. But by investing in such content, and innovating with movie events like “Bandersnatch,” Netflix is the creative force in an industry that has played it safe for far too long. And finally, ask yourself: what original programming beyond a sequel or spin-off can Disney promise in the coming year?