Netflix’s Growing Pains: The Downside of Originality
With the release of the undeniably disappointing Mute, Netflix has added another film to its growing list of bad original films. Whether Netflix has a hand in producing them or is simply the distributor, the streaming service has already gained a dubious reputation of being the modern version of “straight-to-video” quality films– a home for the films that weren’t good enough for anyone else.
I can’t really tell if that reputation is earned. I mean, just recently Mudbound received Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. At the same time, Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, admits he doesn’t care much about critical response because critics “speak to specific audiences who care about quality, or how objectively good or bad a movie is – not the masses who are critical for determining whether a film makes money.” If the people in charge aren’t worried about quality, their films will reflect that.
When I think back on all of the Netflix original films I’ve watched, most sit comfortably at somewhere between unremarkable and just plain terrible. There were a few great ones like Beasts of No Nation and I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, but these are vastly outnumbered by the bad ones like Death Note, The Cloverfield Paradox, Bright, all of Adam Sandler’s Netflix exclusive comedy films, and now Mute; all were considerable letdowns (except for the Sandler films– we knew those would be bad). Even with that, I’m not ready to deliver a final judgment on Netflix’s ability in film production. From where I sit, the company has some major issues that are holding back its potential as a top tier film studio.
First and foremost, Netflix is trying to be the “cool parent” of the film industry compared to traditional Hollywood studios’ “big bad” role. It’s taking a Blumhouse approach to its original films, positioning themselves as the place true auteur filmmakers can go to to produce a film that stays faithful to their original idea. The people in charge don’t want to get in the way, but sometimes they should. Whatever else, studios want to make big money by getting big audiences, and as a result that’s what drives their decision-making. Auteurs just want to express themselves because that’s what drives their decisions, critics and studio heads be damned. They’ve had success with this method when they backed film directors with proven track records, but they choose to treat every filmmaker and every project equally. Sadly, not every passion project will be a success. In fact, there’s a huge chance that it won’t be. Sometimes, studios need to give notes or restrictions to filmmakers so that they don’t become self-indulgent and make a film that only they can enjoy.
Mute is a perfect example of this. It was a passion project from Duncan Jones that was a needlessly over-complicated film with a painfully simple plot due to being reworked for 16 years. According to Jones, all Netflix cared about was that he could make a film; if he could make it, they would distribute it. They weren’t looking to fill a niche, or capitalize on talent or trends. They “will make absolutely anything.”
Second, Netflix is still the underdog of the film industry. It’s surviving on the scraps of Hollywood, and the unwanted projects are the ones that they thrive on. Usually by the time Netflix gets a film, it’s near or fully completed, and all they do is distribute it through their platform. At that point, the cost of fixing a film may outweigh its potential value. There’s not much chance of getting the best material if they stay with their current practice of going after what other’s don’t seem to be interested in.
The Cloverfield Paradox is one of their most recent secondhand failures. It had a cool marketing strategy–airing its first ad during the Super Bowl hours before its surprise release–that was more exciting than the film itself. The film, which was originally unconnected to the Cloverfield franchise, was passed from Paramount to Netflix just so that Paramount wouldn’t have to lose money on a theatrical release with added marketing costs. Basically, Paramount sold Netflix a film they knew wasn’t great; one they knew would underperform because Netflix will pay for anything. J.J. Abrams wanted a chance to fix The Cloverfield Paradox, which was adapted from an unrelated script that had been floating around for over a decade, but didn’t have a chance to because Netflix acquired the distribution rights.
The final problem is that Netflix is Netflix. Adam Wingard, the director of Death Note said that Netflix is willing to make films that typically get put on the back burner for other studios simply because they don’t have to market them for theaters. There’s no risk involved in watching a Netflix film, so even if it’s bad, the only thing lost is time. Essentially, people are much more willing to watch a bad film on Netflix than pay to see what could be a bad film in theaters (one reason critics think Bright got so many viewers). As a result, Netflix is more willing to go all in on its filmmakers. Its the kind of support that only Netflix can provide because they value viewing numbers rather than ticket or DVD sales.
Netflix definitely wants to attract talent, but they’ve made a name for themselves as the ones to go to when all else fails. For example, giving Adam Sandler an exclusive multi-film deal just after Sony finally got sick of him. Netflix may want the best talent, but the best talent can still either get studio work and theatrical releases, or turn to television. Both of those options have more prestige than a Netflix release because of Netflix’s aforementioned problems. They do have a growing reputation as the company that will give filmmakers complete freedom, and that will probably continue to entice filmmakers for now. However, there’s a risk they’ll end up being known as the final option for floundering careers if they don’t start going after in demand talent, instead of letting themselves be a last resort.
Netflix, for its part, is at least trying to fix this problem and position itself for more cinematic wins. Matt Reeves (Cloverfield and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) recently announced a “first-look” deal with Netflix; his first feature for the company will be a sci-fi thriller called Life Sentence. Unlike most of the other big talent that Netflix has courted, Reeves is still in demand and his recent output has been well-received. Signing Reeves may be a sign that the streaming giant is trying a “quality over quantity” approach for the first time. Although, they also greenlit a sequel to Bright, so maybe not.
I think the problem with saying that Netflix is now the place for bad films to get made is that it ignores that every single other studio also makes and releases bad films; whether to theaters or straight-to-video. That’s just part of the industry. The only thing that makes that situation worse for Netflix is that it’s fighting an expectation that, at the end of the day, a streaming original is inferior to a traditional theaterical run film. They have had good films (several in fact), but those films never became sensations. The idea of a must-see production on a streaming platform is mostly reserved for series, not films. The closest thing to an exception was probably Beasts of No Nation because there was slight Oscar buzz for that film. When it didn’t get the nomination, I think most people accepted that it was because it was a Netflix film. They could be good, but who cares? They weren’t going to win anything big. Even with Mudbound‘s nominations, it doesn’t seem like people are ready to let go of that way of thinking. With that mindset, it’s easier to put the focus on their bad films.
With plans for all the original content planned for a 2018 release, including over 80 new films, Netflix will probably prove this year whether or not it deserves to stand with the Universals (good studios with some bad films), or the Asylums (bad studios with worse films).