Netflix and Shill

Quick, which one of these is your favorite?

The Polka King6 BalloonsAmateurLove Per Square FootGame Over, Man!The OutsiderCome SundayMuteIrreplaceable YouHappy AnniversaryRoxanne RoxanneDudeFirst BlushSeeing AllredThe Open HouseI Am Not an Easy ManBenjiA Futile and Stupid GestureStep SistersTake Your PillsBlockbusterFirst MatchWhen We First MetMercury 13The Cloverfield ParadoxKodachrome.

Those are the 25 original films released by Netflix in 2018. How many have you seen? How many do you recognize? Can you spot the one I made up?

The streaming service has ramped up its film division in recent years, with a tripartite strategy focused on everything the rest of the movie business is not doing, and then doing that thing at scale. It began in 2016 with green-lighting, funding, and releasing midlevel, prestige-seeking, movie-star-toplined dramas like War MachineThe Meyerowitz Storiesand Mudbound and would-be blockbusters like Will Smith’s woeful Bright; simultaneously, Netflix began aggressively scooping up or premiering scads of films at festivals like Sundance. This created headlines, goodwill, and new opportunity for frustrated filmmakers. To the creators stifled by the rise of Hollywood’s all-or-nothing focus on franchise films, Netflix felt like a salve on an open wound. Concurrently, the company began developing its own slate of low-budget comedies, dramas, and documentaries in-house, teaming up with nimble production companies and lesser-known talent that would have had difficulty getting a major studio movie off the ground.

The third strand of Netflix’s movie strategy has been in saving the distressed assets of struggling major studios in an effort to capitalize on an industry in flux. On Super Bowl Sunday, Netflix was applauded for its thunderclap promo campaign announcing the acquisition and imminent postgame drop of The Cloverfield Paradox—the one title I suspect most immediately identified from the above list—from Paramount. The movie was a fiasco, but no matter—attention spans were captured. Shortly thereafter, Netflix touted a deal for the international distribution rights to Paramount’s dazzling but “not commercial” Annihilation and the worldwide rights to Universal’s thought-to-be-troubled Extinction, a sci-fi thriller starring Lizzy Caplan and Michael Peña. The thinking here is simple: The studios receive an injection of cash and get to save face on difficult projects, while Netflix picks up a shiny new product to plunge into its algorithmic stew. It’s a hostile takeover masquerading as a low-interest loan.

Through the first 16 weeks of 2018, the number of films released by Netflix—25—is nearly half the number of films the service premiered all of last year. It’s also the exact number of films released by the six major studios this year so far.

2018 Releases by Major Studios Through 16 Weeks

StudioNo. of Films
Warner Bros.8
StudioNo. of Films

Netflix has at least 32 more lined up this year that we know about. Some of those titles are far less anonymous than the batch that have come thus far. This slate includes Paul Greengrass’s NorwayHell or High Water director David Mackenzie’s follow-up, Outlaw King; and Alfonso Cuarón’s eagerly awaited Roma, the Mexican master’s first film since 2013’s Gravity. In just five days, Netflix will release Yeon Sang-ho’s Psychokinesis, his latest after 2016’s hugely successful, hugely fun Korean zombie thriller Train to Busan(currently available to stream on Netflix). Noah Baumbach has another film with the company coming in the fall. Susanne Bier is teaming with Sandra Bullock for a thriller called Bird Box this winter. These titles are part of a coordinated strategy, too.

The push that began in 2016, before the company’s first Oscar win for The White Helmets, a short doc about a brave Syrian rescue crew, is metastasizing. In March, one of its longform docs, the doping saga Icarus, won an Oscar. Mudbound received four nominations, but no wins. So the ambitions are expanding. By the end of this year, Netflix will be the single biggest original movie producer in America, far outpacing Disney, Warner Bros., and the rest in terms of sheer quantity. Maybe one will even compete for Best Picture next year. But does it matter if no one has ever heard of most of these movies?

In the past year, Netflix’s public-facing persona around its film division has been pugnacious and charmingly preening. Earlier this month, the company pulled its films from the Cannes Film Festival after a tiff at the 2017 fest spun up into a scuffle over the concept of artistic equality. The officials at Cannes set new rules preventing films without theatrical distribution in France from competing for the festival’s prizes. Netflix balked and removed all of its films, including the long-awaited premiere of Orson Welles’s thought-to-be-lost final film, The Other Side of the Wind. This decision made a lot of noise.

“We want our films to be on fair ground with every other filmmaker,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, toldVariety. “There’s a risk in us going in this way and having our films and filmmakers treated disrespectfully at the festival. They’ve set the tone. I don’t think it would be good for us to be there.”

The arcane rules around when a film is allowed to appear on home platforms in France made this a specific, localized issue, but Sarandos and Netflix were able to transform it into a mount upon which it could martyr itself, with a frisson of melodramatic grandeur. “[T]he festival has chosen to celebrate distribution rather than the art of cinema,” Sarandos said. “We are 100% about the art of cinema. And by the way, every other festival in the world is too.”

This is high-level trolling, and sort of admirable on Sarandos’s part. There’s more. This week, the Los Angeles Times reportedthat Netflix is now pursuing the purchase of the L.A.-based Landmark Theatres, a chain of movie houses owned by Mark Cuban, to bolster its ability to qualify for awards. It’s a kind of self-owned means of distribution, like Carnegie Steel buying every car on the transcontinental railroad. A Best Picture Oscar is the best branding in the world for a content company, an old-school validation for a new-school “disruptor.”

But this isn’t all Netflix wants. It needs other kinds of films, like the lunkheaded Bright, or Okja, Bong Joon-ho’s madcap porcine eco-fable from 2017, to draw attention internationally and among the film press. It also needs a relationship with figures like Adam Sandler to boost interest and grow the subscriber base, something it was able to accomplish in the first quarter of this year, adding nearly 7.41 million more users. Noisemakers raise stock prices, a boon for a business that from a distance can look like a ponzi scheme when you consider the reported $20 billion in debt that the company is carrying and its $8 billion 2018 content budget. But Netflix is growing at a rate that seems unfathomable to analysts. Its market capitalization was valued north of $140 billion this week. Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw recently noted that “Netflix sales are growing at the fastest pace in history thanks to subscriber growth and higher prices.” While Netflix’s CFO said, “We’ve outperformed the business in a way we didn’t predict.” To grow, it needs to keep adding, ballooning the value proposition. Here’s a new free thing! makes you feel great about subscribing to anything.

That’s swell for the business, but it doesn’t quite square the torrent of meh that dots the service. Wedged between the prestige plays and the “for the fans” popcorn movies sits all this middle-ground mulch. This week, there are three new films added to the service: the teen sex dramedy Dude; the midlife crisis dramedy Kodachrome with Ed Harris and Jason Sudeikis; and Mercury 13, a sincere, zippy documentary about a secret all-female space race mission. It has been noted that there is a dark irony in Kodachrome, which was produced independently but debuted wide on Netflix, never running in theaters. “Despite a credit noting that the movie was shot (to little effect) on 35-millimeter Kodak film,” Ben Kenigsberg wrote in a review in The New York Times, “‘Kodachrome’ will mostly be seen on the streaming platform, whose current business model hastens the destruction of physical media.”

Kodachrome is emblematic of the morass of Netflix movie offerings. Neither comedy nor drama, neither special nor terrible, neither quotable nor truly forgettable, it is the embodiment of so much we consume in 2018; it’s just sort of … there. In theory, this makes for a convenient experience and a low-stakes bet. There’s no $17 ticket, no $6 popcorn, no parking structure, no babysitter, no emotional gamble, no accessibility issues at all. Ostensibly, this approach works incredibly well for TV series, where the chance to binge leads to satisfying, controlled consumption patterns for subscribers and extended periods on the service. It’s mutually beneficial. Movies are different. They’re immersive, designed as a single-serving experience. But the vast number of films I listed above are the very definition of “Lemme see what’s happening on my phone” movies: second screens for second screens. Is that a diminution of their quality or a comment on the limited power of Netflix? Both and neither.

Netflix’s pursuit—to be everything, the machine and the mind, the farmer and the chef—is difficult to conceive. We’ve never seen an ambition quite this large, with quite this much power to appear before 125 million people instantaneously. For me, it can feel like a personal affront to something I care about, even if I appreciate the inherent convenience doubling as artistic beneficence. Bong Joon-ho’s chance to make bizarre corporate satire with a $50 million budget is a blessing, as is Adam Sandler’s opportunity to follow his fart-joke bliss right to the bottom of the emotional abyss. But there are consequences. Every week, I talk to filmmakers, many of whom have projects that premiere on the service, who are deeply ambivalent about the company. Last year one director told me he was devastated when his film was sold to Netflix. Just this week, the director Jay Chandrasekhar openly defied the company’s desire to take the movie world out of theaters. Some have the chance to show the world their movie in a way that could never otherwise happen. Dee Rees’s Mudboundmight not have happened at a studio. The White Helmets, a short documentary, would not have had 1/100th of its audience if the company did not exist. But then there’s all the other stuff.

Movies are sacred. It feels haughty, even delusional to say that. But their power is unique among cultural experiences. Not just the sanctity of an iconic, life-changing film, like Singin’ in the Rainor Raging Bull. But the idea of how a film finds us, in what way and where. Netflix’s chicken coop structure—with content in close quarters pecking itself to death—feels devaluing for a movie like Okja. In that environment, it is made equal to Kodachromeand The Cloverfield Paradox. You could say the same for Blockbuster Video or a visit to the multiplex in decades past. But the elimination of those same barriers to entry—the price and research and planning that went into the choice—that Netflix celebrates are the very things that could make them special. They’ve also removed themselves from the mythologizing that movies need. In some cases, that’s tracking box-office reports; in others it’s the conversation over dinner with friends after a Friday-night screening. The dialogue I observed about The Cloverfield Paradox was the positive retweets Netflix surfaced in support of a movie most people understood to be lousy.

So what to do? Nothing. Netflix is a cruiseliner; once you’ve boarded, you can feel safe in knowing that it is as unsinkable as it is inescapable. Sure, I’ll try it is the maxim by which the service operates. Most movies, as a matter of course, don’t work and are soon ignored.

It’s one of the tenets of the business, too, which dispatches with problem children quickly and painlessly. Netflix’s structure, however, surfaces them routinely with a new power. If Paramount wants to disappear Annihilation, all it needs to do is reduce the number of screens it appears on to zero. In Europe, however, you can find Annihilation at the top of several of Netflix’s recommendation buckets.

It’s neither banished nor properly celebrated. It’s just around, started by millions of people shortly before they drift off to sleep. Some might have even finished it. Only Netflix knows for sure. A year ago, in a column, I asked, “How will we know when we have our first streaming masterpiece?” I think we can answer my question with another question: Who cares?

All Rights Reserved for Sean Fennessey

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