That old bandit Netflix is back, trying to steal our indie movies from cinematic distribution again.
It’s definitely worth prefacing this post with a little heads-up that we here at Walloh don’t hate Netflix – if anything, quite the contrary. Even though we’re huge lovers of cinemas themselves, sticky floors and rusty seats included, we recognise that as far as streaming giants go, they’ve done a lot of good for film and TV over the last few years, and we support that. But it’s also worth knowing about how they’ve basically dealt a huge amount of indie movies with something of a poisoned chalice.
So let’s start by clarifying. The banner name given to a lot of Netflix’s own content, ‘Netflix Originals’, can be a bit misleading, since it essentially just means anything new that Netflix has exclusive rights to show. In there are movies that they’ve personally funded and helped produce (e.g. Okja), movies which they’ve bought from studios for distribution in certain regions only (e.g. The Circle, The Foreigner, Before I Wake), and independent movies which they’ve picked up at festivals as a distribution partner (The Discovery, Mudbound). Netflix’s simple labelling skills don’t really show their audience which of these is which (which to be honest, does sort of make sense) but for argument sake, the only part of that little trifecta we’re interested in here is the third category.
In dire need of more new content and exclusive premieres for their streaming service, Netflix showed up at Sundance a few years back with more cash than pretty much anyone else in the room. Its biggest competitor, Amazon Studios, did something similar, but considering they’re keeping the cinematic release door very much open for their content, we’ll leave them alone for the time being. Netflix spent millions and millions and millions last year, lapping up some of the most exciting indie movies of the year. And what did they do with them? Well, erm, I think they’re on the website somewhere, let me check…
With the exception of an odd deal with Curzon over here in the UK that saw Netflix Originals Bright and The Meyerowitz Stories getting a limited theatrical run, none of the movies they picked up at Sundance ever saw the light of a cinema screen after the festival. The Grand Jury Prize winner, Macon Blair’s incredibly dark and unique comedy/thriller I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, popped up on the streaming service quite literally a month after winning the award, and then promptly disappeared from all conversation. The same can be said of Charlie McDowell’s piercingly powerful The Discovery, and even more recently Ana Lily Amirpour’s 5-star Venice favourite The Bad Batch. All bowed out with little-to-no fanfare, and it’s been nigh-on impossible to drum up even the tiniest amount of buzz about any of them ever since.
Take things back a few years or so though, and Grand Jury Prize winner Whiplash was carving up Oscar nominations left right and centre and managed to still be at the very forefront of the conversation months, even years after its premiere. If Damien Chazelle’s total firecracker of a thriller (which, we should add, definitely benefits from the big screen, big sound experience) had been bought out by Netflix straight out of Sundance, would it still have seen such continued success? Would Chazelle still have been thrust straight into La La Land and won himself a whole barrel-load of Oscars as a result?
There’s definitely the question of quality here too, and you could argue that Whiplash is simply a superior film to any of the Netflix Originals we’ve mentioned so far. And you might very well be right, but the distribution problem is still a major issue. It’s always been frustrating having to wait around for movies you’re really excited to see, but that wait – usually the distributor finding the right release date, drumming up enough marketing support etc. – is a lot more important than you’d think. The same way a bar of chocolate tastes so much better if you’ve had to wait for it, as opposed to if you’d literally just finished eating another one. It’s the hype, the buzz, the anticipation that builds around a film on the lead-up to it being unleashed. Journalists, presenters, even your own friends, trying to sound important by saying they’ve seen something you haven’t been able to see. It’s the sort of thing that can manipulate audiences and turn what would have otherwise been a mediocre or forgettable release, into an awards favourite and an Oscar contender.
Part of the issue Netflix is having is that they don’t have that wait time. They buy a film at Sundance, and then, well, it’s theirs, it becomes part of their vast collection, essentially losing its identity. So much of their marketing model is based on word-of-mouth and any posters or trailers we do see, end up being about Netflix’s collective back-catalogue rather than individual releases. They want you to subscribe so you can have access to all of them; they don’t care about one or two, it’s about the whole – the endless reams of movies that will mean you stay subscribed forever.
The other side to the argument though, is the one we here at Walloh, personally hold a little bit closer to our hearts – the cinematic experience. Physically leaving your house, buying a ticket, and sitting in a dark, (mostly) silent room for several hours with nothing but the film for company, is an experience you’re going to remember. Well, at least an experience you’re more likely to remember than that time you sat on your couch/in bed and threw another movie on your TV/laptop screen that you watched with one eye whilst texting/doing the washing. Watching movies on Netflix is way more convenient, but because of that, we’re a lot less invested in what we’re watching. Something like The Discovery was made to steal your whole attention, and to be talked about afterwards. One of the reasons it never showed up in any of the Best of 2017 conversations was because the way it was distributed (straight to Netflix a few months after Sundance) didn’t really allow for any of that.
Netflix is buying up some of the most exciting – and potentially game-changing – indie movies around, and then putting them somewhere quietly out of the spotlight. Dees Rees’s epic period drama Mudbound was famously met with offers from all-sides when it premiered at Sundance back in January, and the filmmakers in question decided to go with Netflix as a distributor in order to ensure their budget got back to them. To be fair, the film was nominated for a few Golden Globes (Best Supporting Actress, Best Song – neither of which it won), but if, say, they had angled for A24 as a partner instead, the famed prestige backer behind the likes of Moonlight, Room and The Disaster Artist, would we be looking at it as a major Best Picture contender instead? Netflix has over 100 million subscribers from all over the world; which is a crazy huge audience for these movies. Yet so many of them are being washed over like they’re nothing special, because they’re sitting side-by-side with the most recent Adam Sandler and a terrible French film from years ago, with no way of telling any of them apart.
With Sundance 2018 just around the corner, it’ll be well worth keeping an eye on Netflix’s cheque book. And it almost goes without saying but if you’re for whatever reason given the very rare opportunity to see a Netflix Original on the big screen, please take it. Cinemas aren’t just places we buy overpriced food and wait forever in to see movies – they’re part of what gives each and every film it’s own individual life.
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